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Going to Bat for Designated Hitter : American League Feature at Risk, but Players Will Lobby to Keep It

February 26, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAMPA, Fla. — It was adopted by the American League on an experimental basis in 1973 to help promote offense, but the 24-year test of the designated hitter might soon reach a designated end.

With interleague play expected to begin in 1997--another experiment that probably will become permanent--the designated hitter could be phased out as the 20th century passes.

Among those who would be sorry to see it go is New York Yankee third baseman Wade Boggs.

"I've been in the American League for 14 years and seen how it works," Boggs said. "It puts nine guys in the lineup who can hit .280 or more. It creates excitement.

"Purists say it takes strategy out of the manager's hands, but I think people come to see players produce runs and not to see manager's manage--unless, perhaps, it's Tom Lasorda. I don't know, but from what I'm told that can be interesting."

Obviously, word gets around.

The word on the designated hitter is this:

--The senior, and sometimes haughtily superior, National League still wants no part of it.

--The American League is no longer totally supportive of it. A recent straw poll of AL owners, some of whom think rising salaries have turned it into an overly expensive experiment, was 7-7.

--The players' union, which must approve interleague play, wants to retain it as a boon to jobs and salaries.

Said union lawyer Eugene Orza: "Our basic position is that the DH has been good for the game, and that the game is better served by having the DH in both leagues than neither league. I would personally attest to the delicacies of a 2-1 game, but fan reaction has been overwhelmingly in support of more run production. We also understand the political reality. Logic tells us that the National League will not accept it."

The National League will accept the way it is now--the designated hitter would be used in American League parks as it is during exhibition games, the All-Star game and World Series--to get interleague play off the ground in '97. But, as San Francisco Giant owner Peter Magowan has said, "there doesn't seem to be any National League support for the DH on a permanent basis."

"Baseball is a strategic game, and some of the strategy is eliminated when you go to the DH," Magowan said.

"There's more bunting without it, more pinch-hitting, more decisions on pitchers and more of the traditional elements.

"The financial considerations are a factor in our thinking, but not as large a factor as those others.

"I do agree that the DH has helped prolong the careers of some excellent hitters who can no longer withstand the rigors of playing defense, but I think players were starting to stay longer even before the DH.

"I also think the controversy is not entirely bad for the game in that it creates conversation, but the overriding feeling in our league is that it would be better if both leagues played the same game and a better game without the DH."

Nonsense, said a Yankee executive named Reggie Jackson.

"The word for the '90s is interactive," Jackson said. "If baseball understands the meaning in relation to the demands of the fans, it will do everything possible to produce action and excitement.

"I mean, the National League should get with it and get off this business of seniority and superiority. Football went to a two-point conversation and basketball to a three-point field goal. Name a sport that hasn't adopted rule changes for more offense or doesn't use offensive and defensive specialists.

"If baseball wants to preserve respect and integrity, it should stop expanding, stop diluting the talent, stop putting triple-A pitchers in the big leagues."

Where does this leave the designated hitter in relation to interleague play?

--Barring an imminent labor agreement that would include a long-term decision on the designated hitter, management and union negotiators expect to announce a separate agreement in March, approving interleague play for '97 with the designated hitter used only when the American League team is at home.

--Use of the designated hitter beyond '97 would then become a bargaining chip for the union in overall labor talks, with the National League dead against adopting it permanently, and the American League more willing to give it up.

The union will take a rigid stance in regard to keeping it.

Based on 10 players who appeared in 72 or half of their team's games as the designated hitter last year, a union survey on mean salaries concluded that the designated hitter was the second-highest paying position in the lineup at nearly $3.46 million last year. First basemen had the highest mean salary: $3.57 million.

"There's no question but that economics plays a role in the issue for both the clubs and the union," acting Commissioner Bud Selig said.

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