October 2, 2013

ZAKOUR | Taking a Swing at Designated Hitters

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As a sports fan, you form strong, mostly irrational opinions about people you’ll never meet. You can form deep-seated, personal opinions about guys you will never talk to in your life. Ask a baseball fan about Alex Rodriguez and you’ll see what I mean.

But no one inspires more mixed emotions in me than David Ortiz. I look at David Ortiz and see a moral dilemma.

I’m a die-hard Mets fan and a National League man through and through. I find National League baseball more exciting. I routinely call the designated hitter an abomination. I hate the DH as much as someone like me can hate something like that. It bothers me. It saps strategy from the game and allows one dimensional players to exist for longer than they should, like hulking power-hitting weeds. Only football players should be allowed to play one facet of the game, and even a quarterback has to at least pretend to try to tackle after throwing a pick. Do designated hitters even need to own gloves?

Despite my outrage, no harm has come from the DH. Big name players hang around later and slightly more runs are scored in the American League, which is okay. Paul Molitor, firmly entrenched in the Hall of Fame, has played 1,188 games as a DH. The DH gives some personality to each league. Inter-league play is more notable in baseball than in the NFL. Playing the AL West is different from playing the NL West.

Personally, I like David Ortiz and his impeccably groomed facial hair. I’ve never had a problem with anything he has done. And I hate what he stands for. I look at David Ortiz and see an intrapersonal struggle of (baseball) good and (baseball) evil. He is my real life (baseball) Tony Soprano, where I cannot marry the good feelings I have about him to how he goes about bringing them.

Ortiz is responsible for one of the great scenes of the year in baseball. When the Red Sox were playing the O’s one Saturday night, David Ortiz disagreed with a call from the home plate umpire that eventually led to him being called out on strikes. Ortiz walked back to the dugout and laid into the phone with his bat, shattering it in the process. Dustin Pedroia, risking his life in the process, calmed him down. I enjoyed this immensely. I like seeing a player’s emotions boil over, to see he cares as much as he should. And if I was the commissioner of baseball, David Ortiz would never see the field.

David Ortiz is a complicated guy. Dominican born and raised, he was drafted by the Mariners as David Arias, came up with the Twins, and calls Boston “our f**king” city. Ortiz is known to connect with both Latin American born and American players equally. Every teammate seems to love him. He is as associated with the championship Red Sox teams as anyone, and he’s a fan favorite in Boston, despite his name appearing on the Mitchell Report. Do I really want to take all this away? Isn’t this fun? Isn’t David Ortiz a shining example of the unifying quality of sports?

But then I think “screw that,” Ortiz owes his success to a group of AL executives just as much as his dedication to his trade. Baseball is a game of nine versus nine, not nine and half versus nine and half. When I see ‘DH’ listed as a position, I scoff. It’s not a position. It’s a skill. And skills are important, as are pinch hitters, runners and players that come in just for their defense. But it should be a trade-off. When a NL team signs a plodding slugger like Prince Fielder or Adam Dunn, they do so knowing they’ll have to put up with subpar defense to go with their stellar production. And when their offense drops from stellar to good, their playing time drops (both Fielder and Dunn are with American League teams currently). A run saved is just as good as a run scored.

So what, though? Is it a matter of principle or a matter of being stubborn? Preservation or resistance to change? This is just a silly stance from someone who likes seeing pitchers flail away at baseballs and double switches. I know the toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube. The designated hitter has been around since 1973 when Ron Bloomberg walked in the first plate appearance ever for a DH. The DH isn’t going away. The MLB players association, considered one of the strongest unions in the all of the US, wouldn’t let it happen even if MLB wanted it gone. The MLB PA wouldn’t sit idly by and let 15 or so guys lose their jobs. And hell, most AL teams don’t even have their DH spot figured out. They will use it spell regular players, but do not have an ‘everyday’ DH. It’s a position to fill, just like the others.

So I guess nothing changes. I like David Ortiz. I hate the DH. But I will begrudgingly accept its presence and maybe even think about Oritz one day being admitted into the Hall. Sometimes you have to be flexible. But I’ll still take the National League’s smug unchanging sense of superiority over the American League’s flashy designated hitters. And the senior circuit is in no hurry to add the DH. I’m okay with the status quo. Baseball has bigger fish to fry.