The chatter around the Cold Stove League today is that Major League Baseball is likely to allow a universal designated hitter for whatever shortened season we get in 2020 as well as 2021 and, inevitably, forever after. For years, I’ve been expecting this change to come, all the while fervently hoping it wouldn’t. Metaphorically speaking, for those of us on Team Traditionalist, it’s the bottom of the ninth, two out, we’re down by 7 runs, the bench is depleted, and our relief pitcher is coming to bat.
Therein lies the charm: against all odds, the pitcher could squeak out a hit and spark a rally leading to an incredible comeback victory.
But baseball teaches us — as per the fractured syntax of Yogi Berra — that “it ain’t over til it’s over.”
I’ve listened to, watched and attended countless ball games over the years in which pitchers helped themselves and their teammates by delivering key hits. The greatest practitioner in my recent fandom is Madison Bumgarner, who recently left the San Francisco Giants for a team with terrible uniforms. MadBum can hit and do so with power, as Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers knows all too well. On some of Bum’s non-pitching days, manager Bruce Bochy would summon him to pinch-hit, a great compliment to him (if not to the player whose place he took).
My perspective on pitchers hitting was formed as a kid in the 60s, where I watched guys like Earl Wilson, who over the course of his 11-year career hit 34 home runs for the Red Sox and Tigers, plus another for the Padres in the final half of his last season in 1970.
Most pitchers on the mound knew they’d get a bit of breather when the pitcher’s spot at the bottom of the lineup came, but they couldn’t duck Wilson or Bob Gibson of the Cardinals. He was nearly as intimidating with a bat in his hand as he was throwing hard from the mount.
I grew up nearly exclusively as an American League fan, and I don’t remember having much of a reaction to the AL bringing in the DH in 1973 other than it was a novelty. A decade later living in Omaha, I slowly shifted to watching more National League games, drawn in by the Cubs broadcasts on the WGN TV cable “superstation.” In 1984, the year I really got hooked, Rick Sutcliffe hit .250 while compiling a 16-1 record for the Cubbies after coming over from Cleveland — where he didn’t bat for more than two full seasons!
As warm and fuzzy as my nostalgia is for pitchers at the plate, I know those days are numbered. Too many factors are at play, not the least of which are that a universal DH allows more players to make major-league salaries and gives more opportunities for veterans with bad legs or bad gloves to keep competing. Inter-league play has blurred the lines between the leagues, and statistics-driven strategy has but heavy emphasis on bullpens and pitchers whose only charge is to get one guy out.
I’ll still enjoy playing Strat-O-Matic with teams from the past in games in which the pitchers hit and occasionally, thrillingly get a crucial knock.
As for the real game? Deep in my heart, Yogi, I know.