Hockey sweaters and all, the Mets make a weekend trip north of the border to take on the Toronto Blue Jays. And while it’s all smiles for the players after today’s comeback win over Cincinnati, for a good portion of the team’s fans, a yearly struggle is about to begin: the struggle to live with “Selig’s Folly,” better known as Interleague Play.
Since the commissioner abolished the invisible wall separating the National and American Leagues in 1997, those few weeks in the midsummer schedule have become a hotbed for debate. Call me what you will, but I consider myself on the “purist” side of the argument. I do not like Interleague Play because I feel it hurts the historical aura of the World Series. I also think it throws the teams of each league off their rhythm by forcing them to play under different rules. But I, like everyone else in my camp, will have to accept this so-called abomination to the game, as next year it will become much more prevalent than in just a handful of matchups in June.
With the Houston Astros’ move to the AL West set for 2013, each league will have an odd number of teams, 15, meaning every day a team from the National League must play a team from the American League. Bud Selig has won: Interleague Play is here to stay. But in order to fully justify it, in order to make it fair, Selig must expand another “recent” baseball innovation that has been just as controversial since it was first introduced in 1973.
While a purist on most other issues (including support for playoff reduction over expansion), I believe it is time for the National League to accept the use of the designated hitter. I like the strategy involved in having the pitcher hit: the sac bunts, the pinch-hitter question in the late innings; but in order to make year-round Interleague Play fair to both sides, a uniform set of rules must be adopted. The justification for favoring the American League’s rules is such: while the AL has recently dominated the NL on the field of play, the Junior Circuit is automatically at a disadvantage in every single Interleague game. On the road, the AL team must sit one of its everyday hitters; at home, its NL opponent gets to replace the weakest bat as well as the weakest glove in its lineup. In the middle of June, this is seen as a quirky consequence of a nifty novelty. But can you imagine these shenanigans at the end of September, in the middle of a pennant race? Can you imagine, for example, the Red Sox fighting for their playoff lives on the last day of the season without David Ortiz in the lineup because the game is being played in Philadelphia? Can you imagine the uproar it would cause if Boston missed that final playoff spot for the sole reason that they played their final series under a different set of rules than the 14 other teams in the American League?
The other side to the uniform rules argument involves going in the opposite direction: abolishing the DH and making AL pitchers hit again. I understand the historical and strategic justification for going back to pre-’73 protocol, but I do not see it happening, nor do I think it should happen. For one thing, the Player’s Union would be up in arms over seeing at least 30 of its members lose their jobs, but more significantly, it would go against the grain of what the rest of baseball has been doing for the past 40 years. With the notable exceptions of the National League and Japanese Central League, just about every other baseball league in the world uses the designated hitter. And that is not just at the highest professional level: the minors do it; college baseball does it; even high school baseball uses the DH. No wonder pitchers nowadays look overmatched at the plate: at every stage of their development from puberty on, they did not have to swing a bat. These guys are going up against the best pitching in the world with the hitting skills of a Pony Leaguer. Someone read me that last sentence and tell me it does not sound at all comical.
As objectionable as the yearly NL-AL series are to some, the travesty of seeing playoff spots being decided with alternating rules and substandard hitting is much greater than the travesty of seeing the National League abandon a tradition that just about everyone else has moved on from already. In the interest of fairness to both leagues, the designated hitter should be uniformly adopted across Major League Baseball. As hard as it is for me and other purists to accept the notion of Interleague Play, that will be the spoonful of sugar that will help this particular medicine (courtesy of Selig Pharmaceuticals) go down.