The old adage still stands: if you want your kid to play major-league baseball, make him throw left-handed.
And as the last 40 years of American League baseball have shown, if you want your kid to have an extended career, make sure he can hit.
When his knees started to go in the late 1980s, Harold Baines knew he’d be out of baseball if not for the designated hitter.
As it turned out, Baines stayed in the game until he was 42 years old.
“I got lucky,” Baines said. “My career lasted 12 more years because of the DH. I couldn’t play in the field anymore. I could pinch-hit, yeah, but I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to keep playing just as a pinch-hitter.”
Adopted by the AL in 1973, the designated hitter is still scorned by baseball purists, especially those rooted in the National League. While there has been plenty of talk about the NL adopting the DH at some point, nothing has changed over the last 40 years.
“That’s just the way it is,” said Baines, who played outfield from 1980-86 before switching to designated hitter from 1987-2001. “It’s different, and people like things that are different. You probably have more low-scoring games in the National League, so that’s different.”
Pitchers hit in the NL, and that forces managers to employ more strategy. You’ll see pinch-hitters and double switches in nearly every Senior Circuit game. In the American League, managers are more apt to sit back and wait for the home run.
The debate has been raging for 40 years, to DH or not DH?
This season, there will be an interleague game every day of the season, which is another new oddity to the game.
In American League stadiums, the DH is still in play. But when AL teams play in NL stadiums, the pitchers hit and the DH sits. Odd, again.
Will the National League ever add the designated hitter?
“You can’t say they ever will,” Baines said. “I don’t think the American League will ever get rid of it because you’re going to lose a lot of your stars if they have injuries and their careers are cut short.”
Many aging players like Baines have extended their careers thanks to the DH. His former White Sox teammate, Frank Thomas, became a regular designated hitter in 1998 following arm, ankle and foot injuries, extending his career by 11 years.
Truth be told, Thomas also benefited from the DH rule because he was a lousy first baseman.
But many other players prefer grabbing their gloves and playing defense.
Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are back with the Sox this season, and manager Robin Ventura has indicated the duo will continue splitting time between first base and designated hitter.
You’ll hear no on-the-record grumbling from either player, but given their druthers Konerko and Dunn both prefer playing first base.
Sitting in the dugout and waiting to hit 3-5 times a game sounds like a pretty easy to way to make big money, but don’t be fooled.
“It can be hard to DH, but if I didn’t hit I went home,” said Baines, who is starting his first season as the White Sox’ assistant hitting coach. “You just have to pay attention to hitting. You’re eliminating the defensive side of it, so you just concentrate on hitting. That doesn’t mean it’s easier, but it was easier for me when I didn’t have to worry about catching flyballs.
“I could study pitchers. And before all of this computer stuff, you would sit in the dugout and watch the pitchers, how they tried to get you out.”
Last season, Dunn batted .198 in 93 starts as DH and .212 in 51 starts at first base. Konerko started 38 games as DH and batted .259 compared to the .312 average he posted in 105 starts at first base.
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