Tuesday, June 11, 2002
Bonds-Clemens incident spotlights a bad rule
By Mark Kreidler Special to ESPN.com
During an interleague baseball series the other day, Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens hinted he'd probably hit Barry Bonds with a pitch on Bonds' fat protective elbow pad, after which Clemens did just that. After which Clemens was dubbed "Roger the Dodger" by irritated Giants manager Dusty Baker, who noted that there was no chance for retribution in an American League park. After which Clemens said if people wanted to see Bonds take his home-run hacks, they should come to the ballpark around 5 p.m. and watch batting practice. After which MLB said it would launch an investigation into the whole unhappy deal.
Whether Roger Clemens plunked Barry Bonds on purpose isn't the issue. That Clemens doesn't have to bat is.
All of which raises the perfectly reasonable question: How much do I hate the designated hitter?
Answer: Pretty much all the way through.
The Clemens story sounds but a minor, clunking note in the ongoing caterwaul that is the history of the DH. Baker's comments afterward, in fact, were almost of a vintage variety, which is to say they were nothing new.
"You can be bold in the American League and get away with that stuff," he said of Clemens plunking Bonds. "It would be a little different in our league. You (pitchers) have to hit."
Give Baker zero points for originality (come on, not even a decent joke?), but in the particulars he remains 100 percent right. And while the Clemens-Bonds scowl-a-thon broke no new ground in the DH discussion, it did serve as one small but solid reminder of what a continuing mistake that invention truly is.
The DH remains the unwanted appendage on the baseball body, a thing that perhaps -- and only perhaps -- once served a purpose, but which has no special place in the game today, other than the fat salary it commands on behalf of the stick-swinger in question and the players union that represents him.
If ever the argument was bought that the DH was needed to enhance the offensive side of the game, it can be dispensed with now. With pitching in baseball so diluted, with so many teams running so many lame arms out there, with a strike zone that remains largely indeterminate from game to game, with hitters bigger and stronger and, depending upon what you believe, occasionally more juiced than ever -- with all that, greater offensive output is hardly mandated. Hits happen all the same.
As for pitchers batting, it's old ground, long since covered. For some teams it is indeed a disadvantage, because they have worse-hitting pitchers than other teams. In other news, teams without a Bonds are less advantaged than teams with a Bonds. That's baseball.
I've always found the DH argument to be too cheaply compartmentalized. It's a lazy intellect's way around the better discussion. Ask for the DH to be eliminated, and you're labeled a traditionalist who still thinks the game is going to return to day starts, natural grass and no Tampa Bay. Stand in favor of the DH and what it has produced in the American League, and you're a gizmo freak who'd shorten games to seven innings and add exploding baseballs if you could get away with it.
I gave up on "tradition" in baseball a long time ago, and so did most thinking people. Games evolve, and their rules ought to evolve right alongside them. (Sidebar: Why does the NBA continue to attempt to enforce a set of rules that were drawn up for players barely two-thirds the height, weight and width of today's behemoths? Widen the court and the lane, for the love of Shaq.)
But, upon further review, the DH continues to be a bad idea. If it ever served a truly useful purpose, and I'm not sure about that, it does nothing today to enhance either the game or my enjoyment in watching it.
This has nothing to do, by the way, with whether Clemens was within his rights to smack Bonds with a pitch. All in all, I'd say he was. Bonds stands there leaning way over home plate, that elbow guard sticking out there for protection. He is clearly trying to take away a third of the plate from any pitcher, not just Clemens, and Clemens has the right to go inside on Bonds in an effort to reclaim the territory. (That's actually traditional baseball stuff, but don't tell anybody.)
For that matter, it's completely unknown whether Clemens would throw inside with such ferocity were he the batter who'd have to go to the plate himself sometime later in the game. It's the easiest kind of claim in the world to make, that he wouldn't have so much nerve if he faced payback, but it's just utterly unprovable. Maybe Clemens would continue to work inside, maybe he wouldn't. Randy Johnson bats in the NL., and I haven't seen anybody suggest location-timidity on his part lately.
But when Baker decries the lack of potential retribution, what he's really getting at is the imbalance of the rules -- and that's the argument against the DH that ought to prove timeless. Baseball missed its trick with the DH at the moment of conception, when it failed to implement it in both leagues simultaneously. It unwittingly declared the American League to be the experimental side, and that's a stigma the AL still hasn't cleared with some fans, including a bunch of folks who'd prefer to love baseball in general rather than be pigeonholed as either AL or NL people.
That is: I didn't mind Clemens throwing inside against Bonds the other day. It looked like baseball to me. When Clemens never subsequently showed up with a batting helmet on his own noggin -- that's when I began losing track of the game. There must be a lesson in there somewhere.
Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.