Jul. 12—Have you watched any Major League Baseball this season? Have you noticed anything different?
Or, more likely, do you fail to notice a difference at all? The summer game rolls on, adapting to changing times and rhythms. It's a rock on which the winds of change mostly blow over.
OK, I'll spare you any more baseball-inspired pretension. Why does baseball inspire loquacious tomes? Oops, there I go again. I'm not here to write poetry, nor am I qualified even if I wanted to.
I'm here to make a point. We're a half-season into the universal adaptation of the designated hitter.
At long last, the National League came into the modern age. Pitchers have laid their bats to the ground. They don't need to whiff with them anymore.
You, no doubt, detect sarcasm in my tone. I've spent much of my life preaching the gospel that the designated hitter was not a change to be feared, but one to embrace.
I have also spent much of my adult life in National League fan hotbeds after having grown up as an American League fan.
So I was constantly boxed into a baseball argument* corner by NL fans who were not shy in proclaiming to this unwashed grew-up-with-the-AL fan that the designated hitter was a scourge on the souls of Abner Doubleday, Alexander Cartwright, Mudville, Babe Ruth, peanuts and Cracker Jack, Don Drysdale, Roy Hobbs and all other baseball legends real, fictional and never were (Doubleday).
* Baseball arguments, as in, the best kind of arguments. We should have a lot more of those rather than dividing ourselves over more impactful things.
To be in favor of the DH was, in many circles, akin to be a traitor. No red-blooded, traditional baseball-loving American likes the DH! Pitchers bat! It's tradition! (Even though it was once "tradition" to throw underhand, for batters to request a high or low pitch, to throw a spitball, that ground-rule doubles were home runs and on and on. Baseball has always evolved.)
This despite the fact that every level of baseball besides the National League had adopted it for decades. This despite the fact that the very basic idea of watching a competent hitter over an incompetent one is basically an unimpeachable fact. If the DH debate taught us anything? It was that facts were ignored in arguments long before the days of organized disinformation.
I digress. Baseball finally wised up this year and adopted the universal rule. It hasn't had a transformational effect on NL offense. The league is hitting .243 for the same reasons the AL is hitting .241.
Both leagues have coalesced into an unhealthy obsession with launch angle and risk-averse strategy to go along with the strategically sound, but game-damaging shifts. See! I can do old man rants with the best of them. However, just imagine what the NL total might be if there was a .150-hitting drag in the nine-spot every game?
What has struck me about the DH in the NL is just how anonymous it is. The game itself has changed very little with the adoption of the DH.
But wait! What about all of that strategy that was supposedly disappearing from the game due to the nefarious presence of the DH? Have you missed the decline in strategy? Have you tied yourself in knots about the counter-measures taken to get around a black hole in the lineup? What about the demise of double switches? No! Not the double switches!
For many years, "strategy" was one of the first clubs out of the bag of NL fans and baseball purists in decrying the DH. One was led to believe that figuring out what to do about the nine-spot in the order was akin to eight-level chess. That NL managers had to be Mensa's to figure out how to handle the pitcher spot in the batting order later on in games.
Listen, I watched my team play 23 years of no-DH NL baseball after 20 of DH AL baseball. If both leagues had the pitchers bat, as they did before 1973, great. It's not that it was that terrible. Working the entirety of your 25-man roster is admittedly a nice spice of life type of thing. The one and only thing that I miss about pitchers batting.
But, figuring out what to do with pitchers was not, and never has been, "strategy". It was always forced obligation, both in the lineup itself and how pitchers were used. Being forced to make a change isn't strategy any more than paying your taxes is. The manner in how you go about the obligation might change year-to-year, but it's still a requirement, not some grand intelligent design.
Instead of yours truly crowing on how the DH was not the end of baseball as we knew it, let's celebrate one of it's happier features. One near and dear to the hearts of many fans in our own backyard.
The DH extends the careers of beloved players — and there are few players more beloved than Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals.
As I am a dyed-in-the-wool Milwaukee man, one has to be pretty special to wear Cardinals colors and still be able to rise above my own fan-boy enmity towards that franchise for a deserved tribute. I joke, of course. Objectively, Pujols is an all-timer. Very likely the best everyday player of the 2000s and very early 2010s.
Pujols is a franchise legend to the point where he deservedly ought to be mentioned in the breath as Stan Musial. From both an individual and a team standpoint? There might not be a greater Cardinal. If you put a statue of Pujols up near Ballpark Village tomorrow? It would be wholly justified.
And? St. Louis fans get to pay proper tribute to the man. He gets to hear the cheers of those who saw him at his best one last time. He should be getting feted by St. Louis fans, not playing out his career in a city that was a footnote at the end of his career, as it has been for some other former NL'ers finishing up.
The love that Pujols deserves from his most faithful would have been quite a bit more problematic if not for the universal DH rule.
AL teams have long had a distinct advantage over NL teams in their ability to keep their team legends around. Detroit's Miguel Cabrera never had to consider where his career would wrap up. He will wear Tigers' colors to the bitter end. No ambiguity.
Are Cardinals fans seeing Pujols at his best? No, not with a .215 average, five home runs and 19 RBI. (Pujols still rocks left-handed pitchers at a .302 clip it must be said.) However, Pujols is 42, and if you're still playing Major League Baseball within a decade of my own age? The cap is tipped in this corner.
My point isn't about production anyway. It's about appreciation. I'm sincerely happy St. Louis fans get to give Pujols one last standing ovation when they see him play. He richly deserves it and Cardinals fans deserve to demonstrate their pride.
Without the DH? It likely wouldn't be possible. So thank the DH, don't regret it. It gives quite a bit more than it takes away.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter at @TribStarTodd.