WASHINGTON — If the National League doesn't start scoring more runs--a lot more runs--and do it in a hurry, then baseball might have little choice but to adopt the designated hitter rule in both leagues whether it likes it or not.
Regardless of what Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's fan surveys say.
In this spring's baseball debate about the merits of the DH only one thing has been overlooked.
Abstract jawboning sessions about "esthetics" and the "purity" of the sport are nice. But not when the wolf's at the door.
And that wolf's pretty close to the National League's neighborhood.
The baseball reality of the moment is that the National League's offense has been weak in the '80s compared to the American League's, and that, so far this spring, its offense has been worse than pathetic.
How bad, you ask?
In last Sunday's averages, three NL teams--the Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies--each had only one home run for the season. That's in almost 1,000 at-bats. Through the first two weeks of the season, 20% of NL games had been shutouts and the league was averaging 6.9 runs a game.
The NL hasn't scored that few runs per game since 1919. Dead ball days.
It's only April, you say. What can two weeks mean?
Maybe a lot. At the same two-week juncture last year, the NL was averaging 8.1 runs a game and ended the season with an 8.1 average. For comparison, the AL averaged 8.7 runs in the first two weeks of '84 and finished the year at 8.9.
Those numbers--the AL scoring almost exactly nine runs a game and the NL barely keeping its nose above eight--have held steady throughout the '80s. Last year the gap became doubly dramatic because the NL seemed to forget how to hit home runs. Only four National leaguers had more than 25 homers while the American League had 19 such sluggers. The top five home run hitters in the whole National League had fewer homers than the top five musclemen on one American League team--the Boston Red Sox.
Now, the American League's scoring is a bit above last season's while the National League has dropped almost out of sight.
Before those of righteous mind become indignant and rip this messenger asunder for bearing bad tidings, let it be noted that nobody ever wanted the designated hitter rule in the first place. It was always a desperate ugly measure--a choice between two bad alternatives. Even now, it is hard to imagine that more than one fan in 100 would want the DH to stay in the game if there were enough scoring without it.
But is there?
Perhaps it's time for some historical perspective.
Ever since Babe Ruth "invented" the home run in 1920, savvy baseball fans have realized that their game exists in its best and purest form when both teams have nine players on a side who play nine innings and score nine runs.
All the game's statistics and aethetics, its balance of power between offense and defense, work best at that one-run-per-inning rate.
When a league deviates too greatly from this nine-run norm, we worry. If the offense gets the upper hand, we fret less. Fans don't mind 10 runs a game. In fact, many of the game's golden periods--between 1920 and 1960--had patches of 10-runs-a-game seasons.
On the other hand, a league with an eight-run average is flirting with attendance poison.
In only two seasons since 1920 has a league averaged fewer than seven runs a game. Both times, drastic, almost desperate, measures were taken.
In 1968, the American and National Leagues plunged to sickly marks of 6.8 and 6.9 runs per game, respectively. The sport was anemic and endangered. In 1969, the strike zone was shrunken and expansion watered down pitching enough that both leagues jumped back above an eight-run average.
By 1972, the American League's run average was down to an atrocious 6.6.
The solution was the designated hitter.
The league's health revived as its scoring average gradually climbed until, in the '80s, the American League has averaged almost exactly nine runs a game every season.
In other words, the American League decided that, in a pinch, it was better both financially and artistically to play the game with nine innings, nine runs and 10 men on a side, rather than play with nine men and only seven runs.
Now our old problem might be back again. The National League's 6.9 run-average so far this season is scary. Even if the league gets that figure up to 7.5, it's probably not enough to keep the senior circuit from being embarrassed all year.
If the National League's problems weren't so pressing, there might be time to cogitate about the reason for the league's offensive stagnation. Big symmetrical AstroTurf parks--the game's greatest eyesore--are probably to blame. Fences are just a few paces too remote to promote power hitting and the speedsters who prosper on turf are seldom complete or powerful offensive players.