It is early August, and baseball has a problem. The divisional races seem all but wrapped up, and there are no more All-Star Games, Memorable Moments or big trades to anticipate. What the sport needs now to stir up its fans is a good debate.
Conveniently enough, one may begin next week. At baseball's summer meetings in Phoenix, American League officials will propose that their designated hitter rule be used for this year's World Series. Adopted as a three-year experiment in 1973, the DH has worked so well, the AL executives will argue, that at the end of last season it was given permanent approval and inserted into the rulebook as an option available to both leagues. The National League, which does not use the DH, will oppose it just as vigorously. That will leave the decision on the overburdened desk of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Kuhn is mum on the subject, but American Leaguers confidently predict that he will approve the DH—at least for the two or three midweek Series games to be played in the park of the American League champion. "I don't see what else he can do," says AL president Lee MacPhail. "It's used in the American League, the minors, the colleges—just about everywhere but the National League."
If the DH is approved for the Series, it should become a subject for debate right through the playoffs, mainly because the rule may benefit its opponents rather than its proponents.
It has been an irony of the last three Series that the absence of the DH has helped the American League more than the National. Pitcher Ken Holtzman, then of Oakland, was kept from hitting during the 1973 and 1974 seasons by the DH rule. Holtzman came to bat in the Series both those years and contributed dramatically to two of his own victories. He had a .571 average with a homer, three doubles and four runs scored. Last fall another pitcher, Luis Tiant of Boston, singled and scored the game-winning run in the Series opener.
Conversely, the presence of the DH could help the National League more than the American in the 1976 Series. If Cincinnati represents the NL, Manager Sparky Anderson could turn to such tested hitters as Dan Driessen (.296) or Bob Bailey (.281), who otherwise would probably be riding the bench. If Philadelphia is the National League representative, Danny Ozark would have even more options. He could use Bobby Tolan (.255) or Jay Johnstone (.318), both of whom have hit well as part-time players. Or Ozark could bring Greg Luzinski (.309) in from left field, where he is weak defensively, or give First Baseman Dick Allen (.289) some rest for his weary knees.
Statistically, either National League club would match up well with the current American League first-place teams—except when Kansas City has Hal McRae (.349) as its DH. The Royals' other designated hitter is Jamie Quirk (.259), and New York uses Carlos May (.251), Lou Piniella (.263) and, rarely, Thurman Munson (.325).
On the other hand, American League DHs will be more accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the job. "My fear is that our players won't be able to adjust to being DHs," says Ozark. "It's a lot easier to come to bat when you've been in the field, been involved in the game situation. If you're the DH you have to know when to start getting prepared for your time at bat. I talked to Henry Aaron, and he said that it takes him 12 or 13 minutes to get ready, but that each hitter is different. I might wind up using Ollie Brown. At least he's used to pinch-hitting."
The DH would present another sticky problem for a National League manager: when would be the right time to remove his pitcher during a close game? The traditional moment is when a pitcher's turn at bat comes late in the game. If a pitcher does not bat, Anderson or Ozark will face a tough and unfamiliar decision. All in all, then, because of the National League's inexperience, the use of designated hitters would probably work to the American League team's advantage. And since Kansas City or New York would seem to be the underdog against either Philadelphia or Cincinnati, the DH might produce a closer Series.