American ... or National?

The NL is baseball as it ought to be: a competitively balanced game in which strategical nuances pack as much wallop as big swings.

The Debate

April 03, 2005|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

After decades of debate and millions of dollars worth of marketing research, baseball commissioner Bud Selig looked at the contrast between the National League and the American League a couple of years ago and declared that it was good.

"Vive la difference," he said, and then began plotting to pry baseball out of the only major league city in North America with a significant French-speaking population.

The people -- and by "people" I mean baseball fans who have enough time and manual dexterity to fill in those little bubbles on survey forms -- had spoken, and they appeared to be OK with the fact that the two leagues play by different rules.

Fans in National League cities seemed to favor the NL style of baseball, and fans who lived in American League cities leaned toward the AL brand of ball, a revelation so, well, non-counterintuitive that many statisticians and market researchers had to resist the urge to chuckle while they lit their cigars with MLB hundred dollar bills.

OK, so most baseball fans suffer from the baseball equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome, with each city's captive audience identifying with its team, but that doesn't mean that you have to buy into the notion that one league is as good as the other.

Now that the Montreal Expos have become the Washington Nationals, fans in the Baltimore-Washington area, like those in other two-team markets, will get the opportunity to see both leagues up close and decide for themselves.

My vote already is in.

I'm going with the senior circuit.

You know why they call it the senior circuit, don't you? It's because the National League was around about 25 years before the American League, which cropped up about a century ago so that someone could invent the World Series.

The NL was there first and, therefore, it is required to be the grandfatherly, hidebound protector of baseball tradition. The junior circuit is that obnoxious new kid who always wants to change the rules and really doesn't care about anything other than the here and now.

That's why somebody back in the 1970s got the AL owners together and said, "Hey, it's kind of unreasonable to expect every major league player to be able to bat AND play in the field, so let's let one guy just sit on the bench until his turn to hit comes up. That way, pitchers won't have to hit and managers won't have to think and everybody will be happy."

Selig was only the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers then and he didn't speak a word of French yet, but he went along with the program until he became commissioner. Then he switched his team to the National League, which ought to tell you something.

The National League plays real baseball.

The American League is a study in unintended consequences.

Sure, the DH made the game more offensive, but too much offense is like too much ice cream. Eventually, it starts to give you a sugar high and you end up with Jose Canseco on the best-seller list.

Wouldn't you like to see Sidney Ponson with a bat in his hand once in a while? Don't answer that if the only thing you've got to fight back with is a gavel.

The American League is all about big swings and inflated ERAs, but after a while (and by "after a while" we're talking after about four hours or so) all the games start to look the same.

The National League still has the game within the game. The soft spot at the end of the batting order forces managers to actually make difficult decisions throughout the late innings. To pinch hit or not to pinch hit?

Longtime Orioles fans who are brave enough to visit RFK Stadium will see Nats manager Frank Robinson using every player on his roster to outflank the opposition. They might even see him pull a "double switch" and move a hitter into the pitcher's spot in the lineup when he removes a pitcher late in the game.

It's a highly complicated maneuver that requires a manager to actually look at the lineup card to find out who's coming up in the next inning, something that no American League skipper would ever dream of ... because the AL game has been so simplified by the DH that the opportunity comes up only during interleague play.

Joe Torre might be the most respected manager in baseball, but if he Xeroxed the lineup and put a wax figure of himself in the corner of the Yankees' dugout, no one would be any the wiser. In the AL, you only have to manage if you want to.

The NL has Tony La Russa, who can pull a double switch, defend Mark McGwire, run a pet-rescue foundation and co-author a book on managerial strategy without ever taking his gum out of his mouth.

The National League also has something called competitive balance. There has been a different NL team in the World Series each of the past seven years. The American League has the Yankees and Red Sox, who have a combined payroll of about $330 million and are scheduled to play each other on national television something like 43 times this year.

There are a lot of good reasons to prefer the senior circuit, including some very favorable geographics -- which would have gotten even better if MLB had taken my advice and put the Expos in Las Vegas.

Kansas City is a nice town, but if you're going to watch a sub-.500 team, wouldn't you rather be in San Diego, munching on a lobster burrito from Rubio's with a beautiful blonde on your arm?

Hmmm. Can't decide between a Midwest trip to K.C., Cleveland and Detroit and an NL West Coast swing through San Diego, L.A. and San Francisco? Sure, we've got Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, but nobody really goes there.

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