When winter comes the average baseball manager pads into his cave and pulls the shades. An astute wife could collect his life insurance. Maybe twice. But not this winter, not in the American League. Last week, at a time when basketball and hockey normally would shut baseball out, the managers were wide awake and shuffling through the first awkward steps of a fascinating new dance, the designated-pinch-hitter polka.
In the brief space of time since baseball came out for semi-revolution, opinions have erupted everywhere about the DPH rule, which has been sponsored by the hit-and gate-poor American League but shunned by the National. And a vast number of experts have done what they usually do so expertly—widened their knowledge by narrowing their vision. They predict a great humiliation for the grand old game. Stony traditionalists are cackling, "If the rule had been in effect 55 years ago Babe Ruth would have been just another good left-handed pitcher. He would never have got to bat." There are those who assert baseball's hallowed statistics will become meaningless. Wits are abroad: Will the man who hits for Gaylord Perry be called a designated spitter? Will a player who jumps his club be replaced by a designated quitter?
Fact of the matter is, the American League stands an excellent chance of making the game more exciting and drawing more fans to the ball parks, and anyway deserves its day in court. Meanwhile, managers are too hard pressed to argue about baseball's loss of purity: they are combing their rosters for possible DPHs—and expending no little thought on how, exactly, they should be used.
There are some pretty fair bat swingers to noodle around with. Of the six American Leaguers with lifetime averages of .300 after five years of experience, at least five ( Rico Carty, Tony Oliva, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson and Matty Alou) seem certain to see some DPH service, as do the league's top home run hitters of past seasons—Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Dick Allen and Bill Melton.
New leaseholds on playing life will abound—one of the most wondrous being that accorded to Old Fair Catch Rico Carty. Mark him down as DPH-in-chief for Whitey Herzog's Texas Rangers. If nothing else is accomplished, the rule will enable the fans to name at least this Ranger. Ted Williams has said that the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a pitched baseball. Well, not for Rico Carty. Hitting the thing is no problem; catching it is what hurts. So the self-proclaimed "Beeg Boy" of the Atlanta Braves for nine seasons may be the perfect DPH. In 1970 his average was .366, highest in the big leagues since 1957 when Williams hit .388.
Carty once ran a batting streak to 31, but since 1968 he has also had streaks of another kind: tuberculosis, a crushed knee, three shoulder separations, a broken jaw, a beating administered by three Atlanta policemen, a restaurant destroyed by fire and, not least, omission from the All-Star ballot in that .366 year. (The fans, of course, knew what Rico was worth; he became the only write-in candidate to earn a starting spot, drawing 552,382 votes.) But when Rico goes to the outfield Little League coaches all over the land pale at the example he provides the young. Once he manages to knock a ball down he turns it into steak tartare with his magical hands. "It is almost worth feeding him a couple of hits a game just to keep him in the outfield," says California's Bill Grabarkewitz.
Herzog plans to hit Carty variously in the three-, four- or five-spot in the batting order. "That way I can play him every day," says Whitey. "Sure, it may be a bit of a problem keeping him in shape, but if necessary I'll run 10 laps a day with him myself."
When the new rule was passed, a lot of the trades made prior to its adoption suddenly 'took on a different meaning. Carty was traded to Texas for Jim Panther, a pitcher with a lifetime record of 5-10, a low yield for the Braves since the market value for Carty would be high if the DPH rule had been in effect when the deal was made. The Oakland A's had released Orlando Cepeda, getting nothing in return, and Cepeda was snatched by Boston soon after DPH day. Charlie Finley may have a Boston curse; a few seasons back he got so mad at Ken Harrelson that he set him adrift, and the Hawk had a spectacular, if brief, career with the Red Sox.
But the A's cupboard is not bare. World Series hero Gene Tenace could find himself in the DPH position, and if Reggie Jackson has not completely recovered from his leg injury he could be brought back slowly as a DPH. ( Manager Dick Williams, an accomplished juggler, is also faced with a parole problem left over from last year. Bert Campaneris, the A's leadoff man, is suspended for the first seven days of the new season because of the bat-throwing incident in the playoff against Detroit.)
In Cleveland, Alex Johnson, the 1970 A.L. batting champion, is emerging as a hot DPH prospect as the Indians try to build a new young outfield. Dick Allen of the White Sox, last year's home run and RBI champ, can now be used in the second games of doubleheaders—a product of the DPH rule that will be given close study all over the league. Chicago has 10 doubleheaders on the schedule; rain undoubtedly will create others. That means Allen might accumulate as many as 40 additional at bats. At first Manager Chuck Tanner did not like the DPH rule, but he is beginning to see some merit in it. "I want a player like Dick Allen on the field as much as he can be there," Tanner says. "He has leadership ability that we need, and the rule gives you the chance of not losing the bat of one of your regulars, even though you are giving him a breather. We will not put one man in the DPH spot and keep him there all year. I plan to maneuver around with it. Some players hit better cold than others."