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It's The Nationals' Pastime
Jim Kaplan
April 04, 1983
With its tougher style of play and deeper talent, the National League has left the American in its dust
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April 04, 1983

It's The Nationals' Pastime

With its tougher style of play and deeper talent, the National League has left the American in its dust

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Now celebrating its 10th birthday in the American League, the DH has affected interleague play in many ways, but not in the ways it was expected to. It hasn't crippled the Americans in All-Star Games and the World Series when pitchers have had to hit. Pitchers rarely bat in All-Star Games anyway. In the six DH-era Series where pitchers hit, NL pitchers went 9 for 81 and AL pitchers 9 for 92. On the other hand, the American League hasn't benefited from the four Series in which both leagues used the DH. Twice the American League DH hit better, twice the Nationals' DH hit better, and three times the National League team won.

The DH is a liability in several ways. Because pitchers don't bat in the American League, managers have tended to leave them in games when they are losing. As a result, there has been less thinking, less strategy, less managing. That can lead to big problems in games without a DH. In the 1981 All-Star Game, American League Manager Jim Frey, then of Kansas City, was forced—because he hadn't juggled his personnel properly—to allow Pitcher Dave Stieb to bat in the ninth inning while trailing 5-4. Stieb struck out on three pitches. American League managers have also failed to pick the right staffs: Only one pitcher from Whitey Herzog's excellent K.C. teams of 1975-79 made the squad. Yankee Manager Bob Lemon probably panicked in the 1981 Series when he replaced starter Tommy John in the fourth inning of a 1-1 game; the Dodgers proceeded to blast John's successors and wrapped up the world championship.

By all odds, American League teams should have had superior starters in the Series and All-Star Games during the DH era. According to league partisans Phil Seghi, the Cleveland general manager, and Eddie Lopat, the old White Sox and Yankee junkballer, the DH gives starters the chance to stay in games and experience late-inning pressure. But it also makes them susceptible to injury and overwork. That they are throwing to stronger, pitcherless batting orders and using more arm-threatening breaking balls only exacerbates the situation. Tony Kubek, the Yankee shortstop turned broadcaster (page 94), calls the overwork problem "DH burnout."

It's relievers who need work, and they get it in the DH-less National League. Since 1973, it has averaged 32.3 saves per team, the American League 28.3.

But what can be done about other shortcomings related to the DH? In their passion for big innings, American Leaguers have neglected the sacrifice bunt—even though a grass infield is better suited to it than an artificial one. There are Boston fans who swear the Red Sox lost the 1975 Series to Cincinnati because Rick Burleson twice failed to sacrifice in the eighth and Cesar Geronimo pushed Ken Griffey into scoring position in the ninth inning of the final game.

"National League teams seem to be more aggressive," says former Oriole and Dodger Mark Belanger. "They manufacture runs by putting people in motion, going from first to third, sacrificing and stealing. The majority of American League teams sit back and wait for big innings, possibly because the DH puts an extra bat in the lineup." That's acceptable in the league's bandboxes, but what about during the postseason? "I think one-run ball games make the difference then," says new Oriole Manager Joe Altobelli. Which league is better at scraping up lone runs? You guessed it.

"The National League has been dog-eat-doggish for years," says Cub General Manager Dallas Green. "You haven't had many dynasties over here. You do have dynasties there, and I think the DH has as much to do with it as anything. It destroys intensity." Think of the All-Star and Series games won by late-inning pinch hitters; the DH cuts that noble art in half.

9) SPEED KILLS

The National League was the running league long before artificial turf became so prevalent. Maury Wills played on grass and Lou Brock was the scourge of pitchers and catchers well before the new, carpeted Busch Stadium was built. Let's not forget the Cardinals' Enos Slaughter dashing home from first base to win the 1946 Series. All the modern Cards seem to run. Willie McGee stole second with St. Louis a game down and three runs behind in the Series' second game. Chutzpah? Or percentages? Substitute Catcher Glenn Brummer stole home on his own to win a big game for the Cardinals during the season. In the third game of the Series George Hendrick was asked—in a conversation picked up by a field mike—if Brewer First Baseman Cecil Cooper had touched the bag when Hendrick was called safe on a close play. Cooper may have gotten a foot on first, but Hendrick had already beaten the throw. "It was my blazing speed," he said. If there's a prototype for an American League All-Star win, it was the 1971 game, when Jackson homered off the light tower in Detroit. If there's a standard National League victory, it was in 1968, when Mays led off the game with a single, went to second on an errant pickoff throw, third on a wild pitch and scored the game's lone run on a double-play grounder.

To become competitive, the American League must discard the DH, work harder on fundamentals and learn to run. Instead, its supporters are complaining and rationalizing. "I think you'll find the National League edge in the All-Star Game began when the fans took over the voting," says Minnesota Farm Director George Brophy. But George, fans only elect starters. "Their talent is spread over 12 clubs, while ours is spread over 14 from expansion," says Brewer General Manager Harry Dalton. Not any more, Harry: All 26 major league teams draft from the same player pool.

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