David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
David Ortiz, the Tyrannosaurus Rex of designated hitters, lumbers toward the end, toward retirement this year, with no apologies. At some point in the future, maybe sooner than anyone will publicly admit for now, the designated hitter could be adopted by the National League, and the idea of pitchers with a bat in their hands will become extinct.
But when that day does arrive, we still may never see another like Ortiz, whose longevity, and prolific run production, is not likely to be duplicated in the modern game. As baseball evolves, the strategy of devoting a roster spot to a full-time DH, as well as the high cost, is not economical. The lack of flexibility in carrying a strictly one-dimensional player, no matter how skilled offensively, can feel suffocating these days to a general manager.
And yet Ortiz has excelled in that role for the Red Sox since 2003, gradually shedding his first baseman’s glove until he rarely wore it for more than a handful of games each season. The purist might consider Ortiz half a player for that reason, the same logic that has so far kept Edgar Martinez out of Cooperstown.
During his time in Boston, however, no two-way player has meant more to the Red Sox than Ortiz. And he can’t understand why some people would prefer to see pitchers at the plate rather than a hitter like himself.
“Nowadays, I don’t care what people say,” Ortiz said in Fort Myers, Florida, days before the start of his final season. “I have three world championships on my back for what I do. That’s why we’re all here — to win championships. And in this game, nothing comes easy.
“Everything take a lot of preparation. If I don’t hit, I’m nothing in this game. And what’s the toughest part about the game? Hitting.”
Seeing Ortiz on this victory lap further brings to the mind the debate involving the universal DH. The topic was raised again over the winter at the MLB owners meetings in Miami, where commissioner Rob Manfred suggested it could be discussed in the upcoming negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires in December.
Just this past week, however, Manfred cautioned against installing the DH in the National League just yet. Speaking Tuesday before the Royals’ ring ceremony at Kauffman Stadium, Manfred said the lone remaining difference between the two leagues basically is good for the game.
“The leagues are important competitive devices for us,” Manfred said. “It’s how we play up to become the World Series champion. Now that our business is unified, and we don’t have league presidents and all that, the principal distinguishing feature is DH or no DH. And I think that’s kind of important for us.
“I also believe that the debate surrounding the DH generates a tremendous amount of conversation about baseball and I’m a huge believer that when people are talking about our game, it general is a plus for us. So I’m a status quo guy on the DH. I understand why in the category of neatness counts that some people would prefer to have one rule. I guess I’m just not that neat a thinker. I’m perfectly comfortable with where we are.”
Manfred certainly won over a large segment of his audience with those assurances. But there are good reasons to consider the alternative, especially if generating offense continues to be an issue for the game. For Ortiz, who has 505 home runs and 1,644 RBIs mostly hitting for a pitcher, the argument is a no-brainer. Deeper lineups, without the nearly automatic out, elevates the level of play overall, in his mind.
“It’s more challenging,” Ortiz said. “What’s the challenge in watching a pitcher swing the bat? So you can laugh?”
He’s got a point there. The Mets’ Bartolo Colon has provided plenty of comic relief, but also a few unexpected thrills on those occasions when he finally does make contact. Having pitchers hit does create more in-game matchup decisions, of course. But Manfred’s desire of playing by two sets of rules causes unfair complications during the World Series after the two league champs spent the previous six months assembling rosters under different criteria.
The expansion of interleague play also would seem to make more sense, from a competitive standpoint, if teams operated under the same guidelines over the entire season. Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson, who has built winning rosters in both leagues, agrees with the commissioner when it comes to the DH. But Alderson can envision a scenario where the DH ultimately is adopted by the NL.
“Will it change? It could change,” Alderson said. “But I don’t think it’s going to be because we want consistency. If it changes, it will be some trade off in a collective bargaining negotiation for something else, and that’s going to depend on whether one side or the other has a particular interest in making the change.”
The Players Association certainly has motivation for doing so. There is potential financial gain, as the top six DHs from last season earned an average of $12.9 million — a figure greatly inflated, however, by Alex Rodriguez’s $22-million salary. At the start of spring training, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira talked about extending their careers by becoming DHs, and those types of players would greatly benefit if the market consisted of all 30 teams rather than just 15.
Protecting pitchers — the sport’s most expensive commodity — would be a worthwhile cause as well. Why keep exposing the NL’s elite arms to a danger their AL colleagues face on a more limited basis? Just last season, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright suffered a torn Achilles tendon by simply running out of the batter’s box on an infield pop-up.
Now think of a team like the Mets, who have a deep stable of young arms, yet could lose any one of them for doing something that’s only a tiny fraction of what they’re actually paid for. Even so, Alderson doesn’t choose to view it that way. He adheres to the more militant NL stance.
“Look, it’s part of the game,” Alderson said. “A guy can hurt himself on the mound, he can hurt himself doing a variety of things. I think sometimes we may go a little too far in trying to protect people from themselves. I’m not sure that’s in our best interests.
“They’re athletes. I like seeing our pitchers hit. In fact, right now, we’ve got a nice little, I think, slight competitive advantage over most because of the way our guys do hit, and that’s a function of their athleticism as much as anything else.”
Alderson’s right. The Mets’ pitching staff drove in 28 runs last season — the best total in the majors — and their .163 batting average ranked third behind the Nationals (.168) and Giants (.167) among teams with a minimum of 300 plate appearances. For these teams, having pitchers bat is no laughing matter. But if not for the DH, a rule added to the American League in 1973, would there have been a Big Papi? And with this increasing age of player versatility, and roster flexibility, will there be another?
“I didn’t plan to be a DH,” Ortiz said. “I came up playing a position. You just earn the right to do that later on. I’ve been the heart and soul of this lineup for the past 14 seasons, and you’ve seen the results. And to the people just thinking about the negative side of it, I think they should focus on the good, which is winning championships and putting up monster numbers.”