It seems that we're finally getting to enjoy the return of some vital emotional pillars. The promise of springtime. Grandparents hugging grandchildren. And, of course, the chance to hear bat hit ball, in person.
There are well-meaning people who believe, based on some combination of lesser logic and blunt-force trauma, that baseball is better with a designated hitter.
But 2021 may well be a false spring for us, after all. The designated hitter rule, ruining the game of baseball since 1973, seems about to take over the National League. The American League deployed the practice — which allows the pitcher to avoid hitting by substituting a player in his place in the batting order — to help increase offense, given the traditionally weak hitting abilities of pitchers. The National League, recognizing it had the superior brand of baseball, continued playing by the correct rules.
Now both the players and MLB appear to largely favor a universal DH. Only the negotiating stance of the league — withholding the DH from the NL unless the players union agrees to an expanded playoff format in 2021, essentially trying to trade a rule favored by both sides for a massive giveaway to the owners — is keeping the DH out of the NL for the 2021 season ahead of looming collective bargaining talks. When those are resolved, pitchers batting will almost certainly be a thing of the past.
Let it be understood: There are well-meaning people who believe, based on some combination of lesser logic and blunt-force trauma, that baseball is better with a designated hitter. For the players, it means 15 more regular jobs, in theory — many teams use it as a parking space to rest regulars. For the owners, it means less risk that their high-priced pitchers will get hurt. And there are some fans who prefer offense at any cost to the quiet of their own thoughts, which is an issue they should probably deal with in some other way.
But it is also important to understand just how much baseball will be losing should it decide to dispense with the traditional National League version of the game. When the 2021 season opens Thursday, it offers everyone a chance to recognize the error of the DH ways.
A game with a designated hitter is a lesser game. Perhaps this is simply the bias I bring to baseball as I learned the game from my father, but for me the joy of going to a ballgame wasn't simply measuring the parabolic arc on a Darryl Strawberry home run. It was the promise — truly, a likelihood — that you'd see a play you'd never seen before on the field.
Baseball at its most evocative is a complicated, messy thing. The foremost memory of my childhood is, at its heart, a series of unlikely events. On Oct. 25, 1986, the Mets were trailing 5-3 in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the World Series, in which they faced elimination. The Mets eked out three hits, followed by a wild pitch. And then, a routine ground ball went under the glove of Bill Buckner, a man who made 13,901 putouts at first base. The error gave the Mets a walk-off win, and the team went on to win the next game to take the series. It is the uncommon event we remember.
Telling me a pitcher isn't likely to get a hit doesn't mean a rule requiring the pitcher to hit is a bug of a National League game. It is a feature. After all, baseball isn't supposed to be a home run contest. Baseball is always a game of chance, of promoting a wild, dominating pitcher from the minor leagues in the hope that his strikeouts will overcome his walks, of deploying a slow-footed left fielder in the hope that he'll produce more with his bat than he'll give back with his glove. It serves as a real-time roll of the dice seen in the excellence of professionals and their limitations, and it gives us all the more reverence for those who can do it all without compromise, from Willie Mays to Mike Trout.
Incidentally, Trout's teammate Shohei Ohtani appears set to prove that it is indeed possible to excel both on the mound and at the plate, provided a player capable of doing both is given the chance to hone his craft. Ohtani did so in Japan, while here the specialization of pitchers has been hastened by widespread use of the DH rule at various levels of the development pipeline. Ohtani may be the figure who leads a generation of pitchers to take regular batting practice, but we need not have a league filled with Ohtanis to make the designated hitter a rule to banish.
Even pitchers who struggle at the plate help make the game exciting when it's their turn to bat. We've seen a dramatic decrease in the bunt, an at-bat in which the batter punches the ball with his bat, dropping it down on the infield to sacrifice himself in exchange for moving up the runners already on base. While statistical studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of this play in producing runs in most instances, it remains a useful option for pitchers, who otherwise could get out without even advancing other runners.
And the bunt leads to action — infielders' moving to different spots and runners' racing down the baselines, exactly the kind of baseball dance that's been lost on many fronts as players' power games explode. Exactly why are we so eager to eliminate a maneuver that requires everyone in the ballpark to think creatively along with the managers and can lead to something unexpected and delightful? All so that we can increase the number of plate appearances that look like all the other plate appearances?
In fact, MLB itself is working hard to increase the chances of a ball's being in play the way a bunt often does. It's even trying out experimental rules in the minor leagues as a pilot test to achieve this goal. Why take away a long-standing rule that's already helping?
An at-bat isn't simply an at-bat, after all. Its possibilities radiate outward to what the manager might do because of it in the next inning, how it will affect tomorrow's bullpen, how a player coming through in a key moment in April could improve his confidence in June and July, whether a team can find the necessary extra wins to play deep into October and whether the glory of the postseason can unleash the kind of joyful family memories that we so often reach for when life is darkest, as it was in 2020. (The National League actually used a designated hitter for the season last year.)
And every single time the batting order moves inexorably toward that No. 9 spot, each at-bat carries with it added tension, more potential problems and solutions, a perpetual weighing of costs and benefits that all of us in the stadium can engage in together.
At least, for one more year.
CORRECTION (April 1, 2021, 12:00 p.m. EST): A previous version of this article misstated how many hits the Mets got in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series before Bill Buckner's infamous error. It was three hits, not two.