Pitchers who rake —a dying, underappreciated art

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.

Likely? Hardly.

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).

Wilson’s Topps card from ’68, when he hit 7 homers

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.

It’s over.

4 thoughts on “Pitchers who rake —a dying, underappreciated art

  1. The other day I got an email from a baseball friend who informed me that Tony Cloninger, a pitcher, once hit two grandslams in the SAME game! I never knew about that before. A definite argument to not have the universal DH. I like the two leagues being different.

  2. Wow — I actually remember that, which your note pulled deep from childhood memory banks. Thanks for the prompt! I also think it’s good to have two leagues different. The AL and NL umpires used to have different styles: AL umps stood straight behind the catcher while the NL umps went over one of the shoulders (I might have that backward but I’m pretty sure). I always thought the World Series mattered more when there wasn’t interleague play. I guess you can’t stop progress. Thanks for reading!

  3. I agree with you about pre-interleague WS mattering more. It was like two foreign countries. The first series I really watched was the 79 Bucs Orioles. I grew up in Milwaukee when it was an AL city and the Pirates, well, they struck me as so different. I only knew about them from This Week in Baseball. I wish they’d get rid of interleague play.

  4. I grew up in Cleveland and was AL all the way. I can remember the Braves moving to Atlanta, but weirdly don’t remember them leaving or having been in Milwaukee. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the Brewers being in the NL. I remember hearing the argument that moving the team to the NL would lead to a great rivalry with the Cubs. But Cubs fans will always reserve most of their hate for the Cards, and the Brewers gave up an intense rivalry with the Twins.

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