DH rule takes some fun out of baseball

By , Sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor

If anyone wants proof that the designated-hitter rule takes away a lot more from a base-ball game than it adds, all he has to do is look at this year's playoffs. There's just no comparison between the exciting and strategy-filled National League brand of ball, as exemplified by the first two Houston-Philadelphia contests, and the American League version with its DH mutation in which the pitcher never comes to bat.

Time after time in Philadelphia, one manager or the other faced the crucial question of whether to pinch-hit for a standout pitcher in a key situation. From their decisions flowed all sorts of interesting developments that significantly affected the outcome of at least one game -- and that will keep the second-guessers occupied well into the winter.

You never get this in the American League. Instead you get a somewhat stronger bat in the lineup (it figures out statistically to about one extra hit per team every three games) and for this you give up the lion's share of the managerial wit-matching which is one of the game's chief fascinations.

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Hardly a fair trade -- yet, incredibly, the National League appears on the verge of adopting the DH rule which it has resisted ever since the AL started using it in 1973. The latest NL vote on the matter was only 5-4 against, with three abstentions, and proponents are confident of success soon.

So this year's playoffs could conceivably be the swan song for baseball as it was meant to be played -- with just nine men on a side -- unless some DH advocates open their eyes long enough to see how much better the game really is without their gimmick.

Houston's Bill Virdon had the first big decision in Game 1. It was the top of the 7th and the first batter was pitcher Ken Forsch, who had been effective all night but trailed 2-1.

A lot of managers would have pinch-hit, but Virdon left Forsch in -- and looked like a genius when the pitcher singled. Forsch got picked off first, however, leading to some tongue-in-cheek comments that Virdon should have sent in a pinch-runner (actually that happens occasionally, and has a point, since now it's an entirely different situation).

Ironically, Dallas Green played it the other way in the Phils' 7th, pinch-hitting for Steve Carlton even though he was ahead. The move worked as Greg Gross singled in a run and Tug McGraw preserved the 3-1 triumph.

In Game 2 Virdon again had the first tough choice. Nolan Ryan had been sharp but trailed 2-1 when he came up with two out and none on in the 7th, and rather than send up a slugger on the longshot hope of trying it with one swing of the bat, Virdon let his pitcher hit.

Ryan surprisingly drew a walk, then Terry Puhl lashed a double to right, and for a while it looked as though Virdon again should have put in a pinch-runner. Ryan kept watching the ball instead of running all-out, turning what should have been an easy run into a potential play at the plate, but Bake McBride's throw was off line and Nolan scored to tie the game.

Ryan, by the way, also executed a successful sacrifice bunt in that game, while Forsch went 2-for-2 and also had a sacrifice in the opener. Obviously, having the pitcher at the plate isn't quite the automatic ho-hum affair the DH advocates would like us to believe.

With the score 2-2 in the bottom of the 7th, it was Dallas Green's turn. Dick Ruthven was due up with men on first and second and nobody out. The Phillie pitcher had been sharper even than Ryan, allowing only three hits. Furthermore, it was a sacrifice situation -- just what you want if you are going to let your pitcher bat. But Green wanted to make sure, so he sent Gross up to pinch-hit.

Gross did the job, but in light of later developments the second-guessers have to wonder if Ruthven might not have done just as well. Anybody is supposed to be able to lay down a decent bunt. Anyway, Pete Rose was walked intentionally, loading the bases, but then McBride and Mike Schmidt both struck out, leaving the Phillies without any runs -- and also without Ruthven.

The Astros scored in the 8th against Tug McGraw (would they have done it against Ruthven?), so when the Phillies retaliated they just tied the game 3-3 instead of winning it. Then with two on and two out Green went somewhat against the book again by taking out one of his top pitchers (McGraw has been spectacular in relief all year) even though his team was tied and at home. The strategy backfired, as pinch-hitter Del Unser flied out and the next pitcher, Ron Reed, was bombed in the 10th as Houston won 7-4.

That's the way it usually goes in close National League games when managers don't have the luxury of just sitting back and watching the DH swing his bat. But then the American League has all that extra offense -- a hit every three games or so!

Managerial strategy wasn't the only reason the Phillies lost Game 2. In fact , the way they constantly failed to put away a game that seemed their almost all night illustrated this team's uncanny penchant through the years of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The litany of frustration starts with the fact that the Phillies have never won a post-season series (they lost both times they got in the World Series, 1915 and 1950, and in all three previous playoff appearances, 1976-77-78). Even more incredibly, they had not won a single post-season game at home since 1915 until the opener of this year's playoffs.

Worse yet -- especially in recent years -- they seemed to be one of those teams that always figured to win but managed to lose one way or another. The current club was supposed to be different, with character as well as talent. But then came that disastrous second game -- bringing out all the doubters again.

After nine innings, the Phillies had outhit the Astros 13-5, and for the whole game it was 14-8. Twice they had the bases loaded with less than two out and good hitters up only to fail to score a run. They left 14 runners on base -- including three in the 7th, two in the 8th, 3 in the 9th, and two in the 10 th.

It was only one game, of course. And this isn't 1915, or 1950, or even 1978. But this 1980 club can't avoid carrying the burden of all those other failures on its shoulders as it goes to Houston now for the rest of the best-of-five series knowing that no matter what happens -- even if all the breaks go against it, even if it loses in some bizarre way as Philadelphia teams have done in the past -- nothing but victory will stop the doubters from chanting their familiar chant of "same old Phillies."

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