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Saturday, October 25, 2014

How the Designated Hitter in Baseball Fits the Cultural Fabric of America

Winston Churchill once purportedly said, “Never stand up when you can sit.” Presumably, Winnie wasn’t much of a fan of physical activity. However, he might have been enamored with the concept of a designated hitter had he been alive to see its inclusion in the game of baseball. Then, again, the only political leader that ever swung a big stick was Teddy Roosevelt, so who knows?

Imagine getting to work at the usual time of nine in the morning — the exception being fishmongers and sports writers — then sitting at your desk at for the next six to seven hours, waiting and watching. Most of your day would be filled with idle chatter, occasional trips to the bathroom, and frequent bouts of impulsive eating (in other words, a normal day). Then, just when you thought it would be safe to nod off, your boss hollers at you to get your rear in gear and be productive for a 3-minute span and actually do some work. The preceding has been a far-flung, daily life metaphor for Major League Baseball Rule 6.10. The designated hitter, also known in some circles as the designated sitter, or the human bat rack.

First, a brief, distorted history about the designated hitter. The rules of baseball were drawn up by the game’s first legislator Alexander Cartwright, known as “the father of baseball,” using nothing but gumption, elbow grease, and mustache wax; and later having a big mess to clean up. In the game’s early days, the father’s illegitimate children tried tinkering with these rules by attempting to reinvent the third wheel, going so far as to float the idea of a 10th player in the lineup who would only hit. The idea seemingly came about after numerous instances of drinking repeated shots of whiskey (the drink of the time) and watching pitchers get claustrophobia standing in the batter’s box. People were either too busy doing the Charleston, focused on World War II, or distracted by Amos ‘n’ Andy to give three strikes about actually implementing a specialized hitting position in the game, because the ideas went nowhere. Then, once they got that whole moon landing out of the way, the designated hitter finally took one incentive-laden step for baseball and a languid leap for sedentary kind, at least in the American League.

In 1973, Ron Blomberg became the first player in the history of the game to say “Fielding? Feh!” and became the game’s first designated hitter. Appropriately enough, he walked in his first ever plate appearance. Legions of lethargic athletes have very slowly followed in his footsteps ever since, creating a niche market and popularizing the bumper sticker, “Designated hitters do it 3 to 4 times a night.”

The DH is somewhat of an enigma in baseball. The designated hitter does not take the field. He won’t be charged with any errors. He probably doesn’t know what cut-off man to hit on a relay, or maybe even what a cut-off man is altogether (someone who’s been circumcised?). The sound of one hand clapping? That probably approximates the enthusiasm harbored for the designated hit-man. Designated hitter quite possibly may be the only position in all of sports where one can get a cramp from being in the seated position to long and may feel a tingling, not from the excitement of competition, but from a lack of mobility. If you are a star in the National League and the manger gives you a night off, you sit. In the American League, you DH. Since sitting has been an integral part of this nation’s pastime, it’s only appropriate that such a position exists in the AMERICAN League.

It certainly isn’t the easiest of positions. (Please see: catcher in beer league softball where protective netting behind home plate is used.) If field players make a mistake, they can simply atone for the blunder by making a game-saving catch or coming up with a momentous at-bat. The DH won’t make any miscue in the field, but, considering the best hitters in the game can barely hit well enough to merit an average approximating a Congressman’s approval rating, his performance will more than likely be anticlimactic. There has to be some measure of pressure involved in being the team DH. Down by a run, runners in scoring position. If no timely hit follows, one would think the reaction would be, “How did you not get a hit? That’s all you’re paid to do … hit. You’re the designated hitter.”

The designated hitter is reserved for one of two individuals. First, there are those who are less mobile in the field than the foul pole, or the fair pole, or the giant yellow phallus in the left and right field corners, but are somehow very capable with the bat (an ability to do either leads to a career selling drill bits, widgets, or becoming starting left fielder of the Dodgers, ranked in order of desirability). Few people remember Edgar Martinez for his slick glove-work as a third baseman than his 2200-plus hits. Frank Thomas acquired his famous moniker “The Big Hurt” possibly due to his play in the field, which led to his place as a designated hitter for the White Sox, but more likely due to his penchant for swinging a piece of rebar in the on-deck circle and his 521 home runs that resulted. Designated hitter is also baseball’s answer to Florida, a retirement ticket representing a final stop for players who are closer to their Social Security check and early bird specials than they are to a 30-30 season.

The designated hitter has been a much debated topic since its Major League inclusion back in 1973. Some say bring the position into the National League to replace legions of pitchers whose at-bats are exercises in flailing, wailing, and failing. Others wish the designated hitter removed from the game of baseball, perhaps disenchanted that the only skill involved in playing the position is how to efficiently remove the hull from a sunflower seed and how much Bazooka it takes to successfully stick a paper cup to the top of a rookie’s hat.

But the DH is part of the sport’s identity, and certainly a position rooted in antiquity, long before the likes of Paul Molitor, David Ortiz, Harold Baines, and Chili Davis. Perhaps having to play a field position was the reason why Samson was so pissed. But, even pop culture has adapted the DH. You ever see Bamm-Bamm Rubble without his bat? And, I don’t remember Tony Soprano ever playing defense, do you?



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