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It may seem like a dream job. And maybe in another era it was. You stepped up to the plate, took your best cuts against the opposing pitcher and retreated to the clubhouse, where you kicked back until your next turn. You were probably one of your team's highest-profile players and certainly one of the most richly compensated. Once upon a time in the American League, when middle-of-the-order mashers with forearms the size of fire hydrants were the kings of the game, being a designated hitter was glamorous. But now? It may be the Worst Job in Baseball.
Here's the truth about the DH: Today's ballplayers hate the gig. "I hear all the time about how much guys can't stand it," says Mariners DH Jack Cust. "It's not that DHs don't make what they used to. It's harder than people think it is. Guys would rather have the day off than have to do it."
The worst part is the waiting. Each player has his own way of killing time between at bats. Cleveland's Travis Hafner hangs out in the clubhouse video room, where he does his homework on pitchers. Minnesota's Jim Thome takes swings in the indoor batting cages. Cust runs on a treadmill with one eye on a TV screen with the game on, though he admits he is often as checked out from the action as the BlackBerry-addicted bankers in the stands. "Reporters after the game will be like, 'So, what'd you think of that hit?' I'll nod and say, 'What a great hit,' and have no idea what they're talking about," says Cust.
Adam Dunn has yet to develop a routine. In December, after 10 seasons in the National League, Dunn signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the White Sox, but (to hear him tell it) he might as well have been signing his own death sentence. "Let's be honest," he says, "being a DH these days—it's like having one foot out the door. You're one step from the retirement home." For years scouts who watched the 6'6", 285-pound Dunn's lineman-sized body lumber around the field said he was destined to become a DH. The 31-year-old spent his career running from his destiny—it almost seemed as if he stayed in the National League as a poor-fielding first baseman and an even worse outfielder just to prove that he wasn't Greg Luzinski.
Dunn's day of reckoning finally came this winter. He was coming off another monster season at the plate (his seventh straight with at least 38 home runs), but the Nationals offered only a lowball deal in their halfhearted effort to re-sign him. Four other teams wanted him. They were all from the American League, and they were all repeating what have become the most dreaded words in baseball: We want you to DH.
When the curtain lifted on a new baseball season last week and he stepped to the plate for the first time as Chicago's number 3 hitter—he banged a home run in his second at bat, drove in five runs in his first two games and was the general menace he is being paid to be—Dunn officially became the latest member of baseball's dying fraternity. Like the milkman and the mom-and-pop bookseller, the everyday designated hitter is an endangered species. "You're seeing a movement away from the traditional DH, that premium hitter who you could pencil in for 30 home runs and 100 RBIs a year," says Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.
"There just aren't too many Jim Thomes anymore," says Twins closer Joe Nathan. Thome, Minnesota's 40-year-old slugger, was one of just three players—Boston's David Ortiz and Baltimore's Luke Scott are the others—who had an on-base plus slugging percentage over .900 at the position last year (minimum of 300 plate appearances). In 2010 the American League averages for DHs in on-base percentage (.332) and slugging percentage (.426) dipped to their lowest levels since at least 1993, and batting average (.252) its lowest since 1990.
The falling value of the DH was reflected in the winter's free-agent market, as—with the notable exception of Dunn—one-dimensional sluggers such as Thome (who reupped with the Twins for one year at $3 million), Manny Ramirez (one year, $2 million with the Rays) and Hideki Matsui (one year, $4.25 million with the A's) settled for cut-rate deals. Vladimir Guerrero, who agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles less than a week before spring training, hit 29 home runs and drove in 115 runs last season—and Texas still declined to pick up his $9 million option. "It's ridiculous," says Cust. "Vlad puts up big numbers and helps Texas get to the World Series, and he has one offer from Baltimore. You look at Adam Dunn, there's no one with his pop anymore. And it was still a struggle for him to get a multiyear deal."
Between 2007 and '09 only five players in the AL hit more home runs than Cust did during those years for Oakland, and yet when the '09 season was over, the A's dumped him onto waivers, where, Cust says, "any team could have picked me up at that point, and no one did." Cust ended up re-signing with Oakland for one year and this past off-season, after the A's neglected to make him an offer, signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with Seattle in December. "I get that it's a changing game," he says. "But wouldn't you think with home runs down, getting guys with pop would be even more important?"
With a bat in one hand and a slight hitch in his step, Harold Baines shuffles around the Camelback Ranch baseball fields in Glendale, Ariz. The early spring sun is shining brightly on the South Side's famous Quiet Man, now the White Sox' first base coach. Baines is 52, still trim and fit, still looking like he could step into the batter's box and rip the ball to the opposite field. "I'm thankful the DH was around when I was playing," says the six-time All-Star, who retired in 2001 after logging more at bats at DH (5,806) than any player in history. "I had knee problems my ninth and 10th seasons. I couldn't play defense, but I could still hit, and without the DH, I would have been out of baseball. Instead, I played another 12 seasons."