When winter comes the average baseball manager pads into his cave and pulls the shades. An astute wife could collect his life insurance. Maybe twice. But not this winter, not in the American League. Last week, at a time when basketball and hockey normally would shut baseball out, the managers were wide awake and shuffling through the first awkward steps of a fascinating new dance, the designated-pinch-hitter polka.
In the brief space of time since baseball came out for semi-revolution, opinions have erupted everywhere about the DPH rule, which has been sponsored by the hit-and gate-poor American League but shunned by the National. And a vast number of experts have done what they usually do so expertly—widened their knowledge by narrowing their vision. They predict a great humiliation for the grand old game. Stony traditionalists are cackling, "If the rule had been in effect 55 years ago Babe Ruth would have been just another good left-handed pitcher. He would never have got to bat." There are those who assert baseball's hallowed statistics will become meaningless. Wits are abroad: Will the man who hits for Gaylord Perry be called a designated spitter? Will a player who jumps his club be replaced by a designated quitter?
Fact of the matter is, the American League stands an excellent chance of making the game more exciting and drawing more fans to the ball parks, and anyway deserves its day in court. Meanwhile, managers are too hard pressed to argue about baseball's loss of purity: they are combing their rosters for possible DPHs—and expending no little thought on how, exactly, they should be used.
There are some pretty fair bat swingers to noodle around with. Of the six American Leaguers with lifetime averages of .300 after five years of experience, at least five (Rico Carty, Tony Oliva, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson and Matty Alou) seem certain to see some DPH service, as do the league's top home run hitters of past seasons—Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Dick Allen and Bill Melton.
New leaseholds on playing life will abound—one of the most wondrous being that accorded to Old Fair Catch Rico Carty. Mark him down as DPH-in-chief for Whitey Herzog's Texas Rangers. If nothing else is accomplished, the rule will enable the fans to name at least this Ranger. Ted Williams has said that the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a pitched baseball. Well, not for Rico Carty. Hitting the thing is no problem; catching it is what hurts. So the self-proclaimed "Beeg Boy" of the Atlanta Braves for nine seasons may be the perfect DPH. In 1970 his average was .366, highest in the big leagues since 1957 when Williams hit .388.
Carty once ran a batting streak to 31, but since 1968 he has also had streaks of another kind: tuberculosis, a crushed knee, three shoulder separations, a broken jaw, a beating administered by three Atlanta policemen, a restaurant destroyed by fire and, not least, omission from the All-Star ballot in that .366 year. (The fans, of course, knew what Rico was worth; he became the only write-in candidate to earn a starting spot, drawing 552,382 votes.) But when Rico goes to the outfield Little League coaches all over the land pale at the example he provides the young. Once he manages to knock a ball down he turns it into steak tartare with his magical hands. "It is almost worth feeding him a couple of hits a game just to keep him in the outfield," says California's Bill Grabarkewitz.
Herzog plans to hit Carty variously in the three-, four- or five-spot in the batting order. "That way I can play him every day," says Whitey. "Sure, it may be a bit of a problem keeping him in shape, but if necessary I'll run 10 laps a day with him myself."
When the new rule was passed, a lot of the trades made prior to its adoption suddenly 'took on a different meaning. Carty was traded to Texas for Jim Panther, a pitcher with a lifetime record of 5-10, a low yield for the Braves since the market value for Carty would be high if the DPH rule had been in effect when the deal was made. The Oakland A's had released Orlando Cepeda, getting nothing in return, and Cepeda was snatched by Boston soon after DPH day. Charlie Finley may have a Boston curse; a few seasons back he got so mad at Ken Harrelson that he set him adrift, and the Hawk had a spectacular, if brief, career with the Red Sox.
But the A's cupboard is not bare. World Series hero Gene Tenace could find himself in the DPH position, and if Reggie Jackson has not completely recovered from his leg injury he could be brought back slowly as a DPH. (Manager Dick Williams, an accomplished juggler, is also faced with a parole problem left over from last year. Bert Campaneris, the A's leadoff man, is suspended for the first seven days of the new season because of the bat-throwing incident in the playoff against Detroit.)
In Cleveland, Alex Johnson, the 1970 A.L. batting champion, is emerging as a hot DPH prospect as the Indians try to build a new young outfield. Dick Allen of the White Sox, last year's home run and RBI champ, can now be used in the second games of doubleheaders—a product of the DPH rule that will be given close study all over the league. Chicago has 10 doubleheaders on the schedule; rain undoubtedly will create others. That means Allen might accumulate as many as 40 additional at bats. At first Manager Chuck Tanner did not like the DPH rule, but he is beginning to see some merit in it. "I want a player like Dick Allen on the field as much as he can be there," Tanner says. "He has leadership ability that we need, and the rule gives you the chance of not losing the bat of one of your regulars, even though you are giving him a breather. We will not put one man in the DPH spot and keep him there all year. I plan to maneuver around with it. Some players hit better cold than others."
The New York Yankees are beginning to see another dimension in Matty Alou, whose lifetime average is .310. They got him from the A's after the Series. Matty could hit anywhere in Ralph Houk's batting order. Felipe Alou, John Callison, Thurman Munson, Ron Swoboda and Ron Blomberg may also be in and out of the Yankee lineup. New York had an excellent hitting roster before the rule was passed and it looks even better now. As for Detroit, it has a veritable thicket of potential DPH men. Consider Kaline, Frank Howard, Norm Cash and Gates Brown for openers.
Since the day the DPH came into being, Minnesota's Frank Quilici, the youngest (33) manager in the majors, has been fantasizing lineups. "I keep a pad and pencil handy at all times," he says. "I was a utility player throughout my big-league career; I know going to bat only once every two or three weeks is no cinch. Now utility players can be used more often. No question, the rule is going to keep a manager on his toes. It is going to be a more stimulating job, because investigation of other teams will have to be done in greater detail. Some people may be apprehensive about the DPH, but everything has to have a beginning."
Minnesota made as many trades at the winter baseball meetings in Hawaii as any other team, but the question about the 1973 Twins continues to be the condition of their three-time batting champion, Oliva. Does he have DPH written all over him? Quilici isn't so sure. "Oliva works out three hours a day, seven days a week trying to get his knee back in shape. If Tony is not ready to play every day in right field, I'll surely use him as a designated hitter at times. But once a player's legs go they don't only go on defense or the base path. They go in hitting, too. I'd really prefer to have both Oliva and Killebrew in the regular lineup.
"I went in to see Calvin Griffith the other day, and he asked me how much thinking I had given to our designated hitter. I put 15 different lineups on his desk. Mr. Griffith laughed. If he only knew how many I'd worked out before I showed him those."
While Quilici and his peers are plotting, the pitchers are giving heavy, often troubled, thought to the strange new bat-less world that lies ahead. The anti-DPH pitchers naturally tend to be those who hit best. Clyde Wright of the California Angels (.217) says defiantly, "I'm taking a bat to spring training. Hitting is a challenge. They'll have to tell me I can't hit." Wright may be less adamant when someone like Frank Robinson, a renowned clutch hitter, turns up to win Clyde's game. Says Jim Palmer, the brilliant Oriole righthander who had seven game-winning hits for himself last season, "Sitting in the dugout, not going to bat, will make me feel like I'm not part of the game." Palmer also says, "On the positive side, I'll be able to pitch longer. I won't go out for a pinch hitter when I might be trailing by one run in the late innings. It will give me a chance to catch up. And there are times in Baltimore, with its humid weather, when hitting and running the bases takes something out of you."
Rollie Fingers, the spectacular reliever who also hit .316 for Oakland, agrees that "half the fun of pitching is being able to hit." Catfish Hunter of the A's is annoyed, too. "It means I'll have to face another good hitter, and what's good about that? But maybe he won't feel he's in the game. The pressure will be on him real strong. If he goes 0 for 4, he's a failure. If, some days, a fine fielder doesn't get a hit he can still feel he's done a job. As for me, I want to bat. I want to be in the whole game."
The most important factual document pertaining to the DPH is kept in a desk drawer in the office of Carl Steinfeldt, the 32-year-old general manager of the Rochester Red Wings of the International League, which experimented with a DPH rule during the 1969 season. On the last three days of the season 5,000 questionnaires were given out to spectators at Rochester. The fans were asked to return them at their own expense, and 3,322 were completed. The verdict was 59% in favor of the DPH, 31% against and 10% on the fence. By Presidential election standards, that is landslide popularity.
Tiger Scout Jack Tighe, one of the most respected men in baseball, managed the Toledo team in the International League in 1969. He says, "I am amazed at many of the objections people have raised about the rule. It doesn't take that much strategy out of the game. When a pitcher comes to bat nowadays, the fans go out to the hot-dog stands. The rule we had in the International League was stiff; no exceptions were made to give any manager a tactical advantage."
That International League season of 1969 provided some interesting statistics, which may or may not be useful guides to the road ahead; the minors aren't the majors. But, as compared with the previous year, the number of shutouts dropped from 103 to 67, complete games rose from 311 to 362, home runs increased by 16, sacrifice hits decreased by 50 and intentional walks by 51. Run production was up 7%.
From the fans' point of view, the suddenness with which the American League adopted the DPH rule has been one of its drawbacks. There was virtually no preliminary public debate and no precedent for such an abrupt and radical move. Joe Cronin, the league president, has been besieged with questions since the original announcement on Jan. 11. From the first the public was told that the DPH could not play a defensive position, but now that part of the rule is undergoing reexamination—and conceivably could be changed. One cited reason for such a change is the case of the second-string catcher. He would never be used by a manager as a DPH because, if the starting catcher were hurt—as often happens—there would be nobody left to catch.
"Look," says Jim Campbell, the Detroit general manager, who was against adopting the DPH in only one league, "we voted to accept this rule with the understanding that the designated hitter will not be used on defense. Are we now going to have to go out and explain a different kind of rule to the public? One of the finest things about baseball is that everyone knows our rules. The worst thing we can do if we want to get this one off is to further confuse the fans. If a team is worried about the second-string catcher, then it can carry a third-string catcher."
Obviously, the American League did not spend enough time or legwork researching the DPH rule before it loosed it on the public. When it does come forward with its refined rule it had better be a lucid one.
There may be tremors of doubt on the part of the National League, but its present firm position against the DPH seems likely to stand. The Little League, Babe Ruth League and American Legion have so far also said nay. But several top colleges have adopted the DPH for the 1973 season. Eddie Stanky, formerly manager of the Cardinals and White Sox and now baseball coach at the University of South Alabama, likes the innovation. "We use it in about 80% of our games," Eddie says. "The fans love it. The pitcher who can hit is becoming extinct."
In the next few weeks—the Lord and Marvin Miller willing—1,000 baseball players will be going to spring training, 500 in one direction and 500 in another. The best "talk" game in the land has its liveliest morsel for debate in many a year. The game most susceptible to subtle strategic manipulation has a toothsome and obscure new gambit to explore and exploit. The prosecution is already delivering its loud summation to the jury. But the defense will soon get its turn at bat.