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Game Changers: The designated hitter

Game Changers: The designated hitter

When the Yankees opened the 1973 Baseball season on a clear, cold April day in Boston, Ron Blomberg -- facing legendary pitcher Luis Tiant in the first inning -- drew a bases-loaded walk that could have been just another stat in what became a 15-5 Red Sox victory.

Instead, it was a walk that changed the game of Baseball.

When Blomberg came to the plate as the No. 6 hitter in the Yankees' lineup, he did so as the first designated hitter in Major League Baseball history. Fast forward 37 years, and fans, players and media are still talking about the unique role that the DH plays in the game of Baseball.

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Miracle Whip

It all started on April 6, 1973, and Blomberg was among those who didn't see decades of the DH coming.

"We looked at the DH as a glorified pinch-hitter, and I never thought it was going to stay in the game of Baseball," Blomberg said recently. "I never thought it was going to be around for almost 38 years now."

Indeed, that April day created ripple effects in the sport that linger today. The very existence of the DH remains questionable in the minds of some, yet it has made and extended careers, adding what it was supposed to add to the American League -- another bat to the lineup, and therefore more offense. Its impact can't be denied: Hideki Matsui became the first DH to win World Series MVP honors as the Yankees beat the Phillies last fall, and Hall of Famers such as Paul Molitor, Reggie Jackson, Eddie Murray and Jim Rice are among those with hundreds of games at DH.

But the position remains a hot topic for debate. During recent voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Edgar Martinez did not get the support some believe he deserved, getting 36.2 percent of the vote, a lukewarm reception for one of the first candidates who was a designated hitter for almost the entirety of his career. And in January, when Commissioner Bud Selig convened a special 14-person committee to consider ways of improving on-field issues in the game, there were rumblings that the designated hitter rule would come up as an issue for discussion.

It's a position about which everyone seems to have an opinion.

And it all started with a little walk in Fenway Park.

Today, Blomberg continues to be amazed at how the DH rule has changed the nature of the sport, and he fervently supports what he helped kick off almost 40 years ago.

"The DH is great," Blomberg said. "If you look at the DH realistically, the American League wins more World Series, they win more Interleague games, they win more All-Star Games. Why? They're used to run production. So, I love it."

Of course, not everyone loves it. Some, like Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who has managed -- and won the World Series -- in both leagues, have mixed feelings about how this rule has changed the game.

"I think it's a significant difference," said La Russa, who is on the Commissioner's committee looking at on-field issues in the game. "It's significant enough to where there are a number of guys that I talk to that feel like it would be appropriate to make it one set of rules. Whichever way you go, I've said I like the National League style because I think you get a chance to see the entire game. There's a lot of stuff that goes on, little things besides the big things.

"But the point I'm making is that if [getting rid of it entirely] was not possible -- and I don't know if it is or not, people say it's tough to dump the DH with the union and stuff like that -- I'd rather have the pitcher hit, but I would have the DH in both leagues. Just because it's a significant enough difference that it doesn't make enough sense to have that kind of a difference between the two leagues."

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The original idea of the DH is said to date back to 1906, when Philadelphia A's manager Connie Mack proposed the rule because he felt pitchers were not strong enough hitters to carry their weight in the game. Wildly unpopular at the time, the idea was dropped until the 1920s when John Heydler, then president of the National League, almost convinced NL teams to sign on to the idea as a way to speed up play in the game. That also did not work out, and the idea languished until the late 1960's.

Both AL and NL teams agreed to utilize a designated pinch-hitter (DPH) in 1969 during Spring Training, but there was no strong backing for implementing the rule, so it was dropped and the idea ignored until 1973. That's when A's owner Charlie Finley, who previously had suggested introducing orange baseballs and a designated runner into the game, advocated on behalf of the DH rule to help boost AL attendance, which was lagging behind the NL. AL owners voted on the rule and passed it by an 8-4 margin on Jan. 11, 1973.


"I'd rather have the pitcher hit, but I would have the DH in both leagues. Just because it's a significant enough difference that it doesn't make enough sense to have that kind of a difference between the two leagues."
-- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa

Since Blomberg took that first walk as a DH, the position itself has remained largely the same, except for changes in how it has been utilized in the World Series. First, it didn't apply, then it did every other year, and now it applies to games played in AL stadiums, just as it does for Interleague Play.

It has extended careers of hitters, some of whom are Hall of Famers, and it has created a generation of players who at one point or another in their careers never had to worry about using a glove.

"There are certain players that show a good bat throughout their developmental years in the Minor Leagues, and they try to find them a position but nothing seems to work or fit. Or their athleticism makes them more of a liability, so they find their way into a DH role, and one of the benefits is that they do minimize wear and tear and perhaps do play longer," said Molitor, who reluctantly switched to primarily serving as DH at age 34, but won four Silver Sluggers and a World Series title there. "That's one scenario, and then you have players like Jim Thome, who played quite a few years defensively at third base and first base, but soon he got a chance to add at-bats to his career by the availability of the DH role in the American League."

Indeed, many powerful and successful designated hitters have graced the game since Blomberg's historic at-bat in 1973. Among current players, David Ortiz of the Red Sox had three of the best seasons on record as a designated hitter from 2004-06 and stands as the all-time DH home run leader. Martinez, an icon in Seattle, has made equal contributions to the position, and when the award honoring outstanding designated hitters was renamed after Martinez in 2004, he became one of only five players in the history of the sport to have a Major League Baseball award named in his honor. Martinez joined Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the only players with 300 home runs, 500 doubles, a career batting average higher than .300, a career on-base percentage higher than .400 and a career slugging percentage higher than .500.

Frank Thomas' retirement in February meant another great DH -- one who might be too big to keep out of Cooperstown -- will be on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2014. Of Thomas' 8,199 at-bats, 4,937 came as a DH. He ranks 18th all-time with 521 homers, 22nd with 1,704 RBIs and ninth with 1,667 walks.

As a DH for the Brewers and Blue Jays, Molitor finished in the top 10 in batting 11 times. An incredibly strong World Series performer, Molitor left the sport in 1998 with more than 3,300 hits, 230 homers, and 500 steals.

"Personally, I benefited tremendously from it," Molitor said. "I do think the extra bat in the American League provides a little more offense, but not necessarily the strategy of the National League. I understand both arguments. It's hard for me to imagine it going away after however many decades it's been. I think sports enjoys some controversy and the fact that we have it in one league and not the other keeps the DH a subject year in and year out.

"The frustrating part for me is its effect on postseason play, when pitchers who haven't hit except for Interleague Play are forced into situations where other pitchers have had multiple at-bats throughout the year. Just a team, too, that maybe their success was based on the DH's performance, you have that taken away in the most important games of the year. That's one of the negatives of having a split rule like that. But I think the controversy surrounding it, the fact that it's kept in the discussions year after year, maybe it's a good thing."

***

The discussion continues, and for many the debate is internal, because they can see both sides of the DH coin.

Proponents of the rule believe it has extended the career of players who would otherwise not have an opportunity to play because they are weak in the field or are plagued with injuries. And their presence in lineups can't be denied, nor can their power numbers, year after year.

But La Russa asks the legitimate question: Does that balance out with the loss of strategy?


"I understand both arguments. It's hard for me to imagine it going away after however many decades it's been. I think sports enjoys some controversy and the fact that we have it in one league and not the other keeps the DH a subject year in and year out."
-- Hall of Famer and former DH Paul Molitor

"There are some hitters who go to bat and don't have to play the defensive side of the game, and it extends your career. There's no doubt that's true," LaRussa said. "Is that a good enough reason? Giving some of these great hitters, or really good hitters, extra at-bats late in their career, when they can't play the defensive side, that's a point for the DH. But does it make up the number of points where the DH is not in the game and you get a chance to see more of the total game? The offensive and defensive strategy, I think that argument wins, for me. That's my opinion."

But as a manager who has seen the DH rule from both sides and who loves every aspect of the game, La Russa does not see a reason why there should be such a drastic rule difference between leagues.

"I wish we would go to one set of rules, whichever one it is," La Russa said.

Change in the sport of Baseball does not come quickly, though. Reflecting upon the obvious strengths of Ortiz, Martinez, Molitor and Harold Baines, who had most of his 2,866 hits from the DH spot, leads one to wonder whether or not these strong hitters could have reached their true potential had it not been for their position as a designated hitter. Yet purists of the sport argue that the rule should be abolished because the current era already is dominated by hitters and it is ultimately an unnecessary rule that twists the harmony of the game.

Even if the current designated hitter rule were to be altered in any way, it is likely that the passionate debate around it will continue. The 14-person committee consisting of four managers, four former and present general managers, four owner representatives, Baseball consultant Frank Robinson and columnist George Will that was recently convened by Commissioner Selig to review on-field issues will most surely have an endless number of topics to consider. There is still no assurance that the DH rule is going to be changed or affected in any way.

Regardless of how the rule progresses in the near future, Blomberg's contribution to the sport is not likely to be forgotten any time soon, a fact of which he is well aware.

"The DH is always going to be by my grave. Nobody can ever take that away. It's going to be that little asterisk -- 'The first DH in Major League history,'" he said.

At least for the near future, it looks like the man without a glove will continue to step up to bat.

Anna Floch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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