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Many baseball fans who are uneasy about the designated hitter rule are watching the American League's experiment with interest, subconsciously assuming that the league is functioning as a laboratory where the rule can be tested and, if found wanting, safely discarded. But it is becoming evident that the DH is spilling out of such controlled confines. For example, the Boston Park League, which is starting its 42nd sandlot season (it is said to be the oldest such league in the country), has adopted the rule. "We polled the team managers and received an overwhelming endorsement of the proposed change," said Bob Cusick, the league director. "Every manager appears to have in mind several men who have slowed down, yet have lost none of their power."
This changing of the game at its roots may be irreversible, and whether that is good or bad is moot. A learned student of baseball, Earnshaw Cook, who wrote the book Percentage Baseball, argues convincingly that baseball officials cannot possibly know what effect the designated hitter will have on the game and criticizes them for adopting the rule precipitously without really exploring the situation.
Baseball conservatives, who hate to see the game changed, can probably live with the DH, but they fear that the traditional fabric of the game will soon be decorated with more gaudy ribbons of change. Indeed, Charles Maher, the urbane columnist of the Los Angeles Times, says flatly that baseball should ape football and adopt the platoon system. Maher may well be writing with his sharp tongue curled into his amused cheek, but he quotes Ted Williams' remark that the DH is "the forerunner of other things. More specialists. More substitutions." Maher says platooning would improve the quality of both hitting and fielding, arguing, "Who wants to watch Frank Howard play left field? Who wants to watch Dal Maxvill bat?"
Ominous. If the day of the designated hitter is here, and here to stay, is the era of the complete athlete, the whole man, on the way out?
The deadline has passed for Bill Walton to declare himself a hardship case and sign with the pros, which means that UCLA's 6'11" center was stating the simple truth when he said he would be back with the team for his senior year. He upset newspaper and radio-TV people when he refused to stand still for interviews after UCLA's victory over Memphis State in the NCAA finals, but before that game he had made his position clear to Curry Kirkpatrick (SI, April 2).
Walton apparently sees himself as a college student first, a basketball player second. He is at home in class and in student activities and, in fact, is a bit of a campus radical. He took a prominent part in an antiwar rally last year and was busted as a result. Before the Memphis State game he said, "I'm staying in school, it's as simple as that. I've always planned on going to school for four years, and what I want to do now is associate with young people who share my views. I did think of leaving about midseason when the teams we were playing started stalling. More teams have played us with less basketball this year, and it hasn't been as much fun.
"But there was never really a choice. Everybody who knows me assumed I wouldn't leave. I haven't even told my parents. They know me well enough to know what the answer would be.