Friday, October 07, 2005

Reap The Whirlwind

I love baseball. While the rest of the athletic world is filled with explosive violence, baseball stands aloof as a respite of intellectual challenge. It’s a chess game played with bat and ball. There is strategy and drama. There’s surreptitious communication. There’s feint and parry. There’s the ballet-like skill of the 6-4-3 double play. Occasionally there’s madness like Billy Martin’s tantrums or Mark Fydrich conversing with the ball between pitches. There’s time to enjoy the blue sky, the green grass and discuss the merits of putting the mustard on a hot dog before or after the onions. There’s cold beer.

Steroids are the danger and the lack of leadership by Bud Selig and Don Fehr in combating the problem is a conspiracy, but the real crack in the integrity of the game is the designated hitter. There, I’ve said it. I hadn’t thought about such a weighty problem for a year or two, preferring to dwell on more solvable crises like the war on terror, the decline of morality and the inability of science to cure the common cold. But, today I read an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that focused on the American League MVP debate. (I know, today is Friday and WSJ readers will point out that the piece ran on Wednesday.)

Frankly, I don’t care for the American League. I grew up on the north side of Chicago, so I was a Cubs fan. I got to a few White Sox games, since my college was right next door to Comiskey, but the real deal was on Addison in the “Friendly Confines.” (Damn those lights!) Over the years, I’ve usually lived in a National League city and for the last twenty I’ve felt as comfortable rooting for the cellar-dwelling Rockies as I ever did for the Cubbies.

But, Allen Barra writes in the Journal about the argument over whether Alex Rodriguez or David Ortiz should be the MVP. It’s classic conflict, Yankees versus Red Sox. It’s a hot discussion because of the emphasis that the rivalry attracted last year as “the Curse” was shattered. It’s topical because of the ongoing play-offs with both the Yanks and the Bosox in the running for the AL pennant. And, it got my attention because all of this week I’ve been on a baseball marathon, exposed to three games a day of playoffs.

Barra wants to know, as do I, why a hulking, overweight gorilla should even be in the running for the MVP nomination against an athlete. It’s the designated hitter at its ugliest—I’m speaking here of the concept/rule, not of Mr. Ortiz’ physiognomy. The Ortiz supporters tout his hitting prowess and his incredible RBI stats. He rouses his bulk from the bench every three innings or so and then clubs the ball somewhere they ain’t. Result is runs scored and quite often team wins.

A-Rod, on the other hand, plays shortstop. He hits about as often as Papi. His on-base percentage is similar. But, he also runs bases and often advances by stealing them. Since he plays defense he is forced to think on the run, make choices and execute remarkable athletic feats. He seldom hits into double plays since he is fast enough to challenge the fielders, unlike Mr. Ortiz who blots out the sun in his passage, but takes nearly as long as that sun to transit the horizon.

The American League, and unfortunately all of the lower echelons of baseball, adopted the DH ostensibly to increase offense and scoring thereby making the game more interesting to the fans. Statistically that hasn’t panned out as we routinely see higher scores and better batting in the other major league.

Do designated hitters contribute to the steroid problem? It’s hard to know for sure, but since the majority of them appear to be pretty bulky types it isn’t a great reach to accept that conclusion. What is possible to know for sure is that the DH has changed baseball and not for the better. If we find Papi to be the most valuable player in the American League, what does that say for the hundreds of thousands of kids growing up in America today aspiring to be good baseball players? Should they try to learn the nuances of a complex and intellectual game? Should they hone skills in throwing, fielding, running and positioning? Should they seek to develop hand/eye coordination and the judgment to know when to make that break for second on a pitcher’s give-away move to the plate? Or should they simply bulk up, put on fifty extra pounds and lift a lot of weights? Yeah, aspire to be David Ortiz, that’s the ticket.

I hope that A-Rod gets the nod and Ortiz gets realistically over-looked in the MVP choosing. But either way, I sincerely wish for something I know won’t happen—a re-examination of the DH rule.