Sunday, June 26, 2011

10 Ninths of a Team Becomes Nine Tenths

The Red Sox organization got off to a record early start for its annual bitching about interleague play in 2011. Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo spent about a half-inning talking about how they wished baseball would get rid of interleague games during an early May broadcast before such games had actually begun.

Now that the Sox are on their annual road trip to National League cities, expect that bitching to move up to gale force whining, especially since the team dropped the first two games on the trip to the Pirates. No DH! Our pitchers have stand close to other pitchers' pitches! That'll be a sackcloth sweatshirt Terry Francona is wearing this week.

The record shows that Boston has more than held its own playing by National League rules in the past decade, which is what you'd expect considered how good a team the Sox have been in that time. Won't stop the whining, though. Francona, an astonishingly reasonable man for a big league manager most days, is haunted by the notion one of his invaluable starting pitchers, or worse, his late-inning relievers, will hurt themselves attempting to perform exotic athletic feats like swinging a bat or sliding (not that they're allowed to do the latter).

And, of course, playing without a DH forces the Sox to either bench David Ortiz or put Adrian Gonzalez in the outfield where (and this is a real night sweat fear) he could get hurt somehow. It's not nice to mock the anxieties of others, so we won't point out that first baseman Albert Pujols got put on the DL for an injury he suffered fielding his position.

Boston fans, more than any other American League fans, have been conditioned by their team to hate National League rules, too. Me, I prefer them. Not for some theoretical athletic ideal, but because in the 21st century anything that makes baseball games go faster is perforce a good idea. It baffles me when fans think otherwise. Tennis fans always root for tennis matches to go longer, but in tennis, the longer the match the more dramatic it is. The same sure cannot be said for baseball games.

It's worth remembering that the DH, just like interleague play, is a gimmick adapted by the American League to sell tickets, the league's reaction to the terrible drop in attendance it suffered in the late '60s when the Yankee dynasty hit the skids. Baseball's attitude towards problems is very much akin to that of Republican congressmen. The latter feel there's no dilemma tax cuts can't solve. Baseball feels the same about home runs.

Critics of National League rules point out accurately that no other level of baseball uses them. There are good reasons for that, but they have nothing to do with the quality of the game as an artistic endeavor.

Youth and high school leagues, where pitchers often bat because they're the best athletes, use the DH to get more kids into the games, one of their self-defined missions. Colleges and the minors use the DH because of their roles as big league prep schools. Major league teams don't like the idea of young pitchers having to throw. You can imagine how they feel about them batting and base running.

No American League team has so loved or benefited from the DH as have the Sox. They were the first team to sign a pure DH, Orlando Cepeda, when the rule was instituted (BTW, there were some pretty studly 1973 DHs -- Frank Robinson and Tony Oliva, to name two). The franchise has always had a sweet tooth for big slow lugs who could hit the ball to Cambridge. The DH allowed the Sox to gorge on those types. Credit to Boston for immediately grasping that the DH allows a team to field a lineup with TWO first basemen.

So now the Sox spend a week down to one first baseman. This is a pretty weak excuse for an excuse if you ask me. Is the absence of David Ortiz an explanation of why other guys have been unable to get the ball out of the infield if they see a teammate standing on second base? It is a fundamental tenet of sabermetrics that it isn't.

Adaptability to circumstance is one of the marks of a superior team in any sport, or so Bill Belichick believes, anyway. Whining at circumstance is tedious to listen to from anyone, let alone the unstoppable dynamo the 2011 Sox are supposed to be and on occasion have been.

As long as sluggers make more money than utility infielders, the Players' Association will make sure the DH is with us. As long as baseball remains stubbornly infatuated with past practices, the National League won't adapt it. And as long as attendance figures show that most fans adore interleague play, it's not going away, either. I suggest we all get over it.

If I've had to deal with 3 1/2 hour ball games as a matter of course in my life, Jon Lester can swing a goddamn bat once every five days for two weeks.

But if he doesn't want to slide, that's OK. I'm no radical.


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