A Eulogy for the NL

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I wrote this nearly a year ago for the start of the past baseball season, but it seems to have sprouted up as a hot topic with year long interleague play beginning this coming season.  I figured I would post this since it seems to be relevant again.

The National League opened play yesterday in Miami, and it might be the last time it is truly significant to say the National League opened play. The death of the National League has been long coming. The domination of the American League in interleague play for years was a harbinger of things to come. Interleague play itself has ended a familiar way of life, and it is fitting that change should be the final undoing of the National League. Next year the Astros will move from the National League to the American League, and unless you live in Houston or are Lance Berkman you probably don’t care that much. This realignment will require interleague to be played all year round for the first time in baseball history, and the quaint tradition of playing by the rules of the home team’s ballpark will have to end.

 

The senior circuit is used to having the advantage. The very reason the DH was instituted in the American League to begin with was because of the domination of the National League. Those days have long since passed us by with the American League surpassing the National League in talent, but now that rule change meant to close the gap between the two leagues is going to become permanent. It is only a matter of time at this point.

 
American League teams have been complaining since the beginning of interleague about having their pitchers bat and not being able to use their DHs in NL parks. The union will not allow the loss of pay for a starting position. Fans for the most part would rather see the 10-9 games of the previous decade than the 2-1 games that baseball seems to be returning. So when the calls for having one set of rules overwhelm tradition it will be the National League that dies.

 

I have always been a National League guy. It should be natural considering the team I have rooted for since childhood was a National League club, and perhaps it is just nostalgia that makes me lament the end of National League ball. But I will miss the strategy. I miss the natural order of the lineup. I will miss the role of the eighth hitter in the National League lineup. I will miss the creativity of guys like Tony La Russa batting pitchers eighth. I will miss the differences in watching guys like Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza hitting. And I don’t think it is wrong to feel a sense of loss at the way the National League has played baseball for 132 years and counting at this point.

 

I have long resented the designated hitter. There is something fundamental at odds with the spirit of the game. The designated hitter is supposed to remove the weakness of one position and replacing it with a player whose strength is that weakness. Pitchers are generally bad at hitting so lets allow a guy who can mash to hit for him. We have a guy that is a terrific hitter but a butcher in the field. If the point of baseball was to let players only do what they were best at why not have designated runners or fielders. It would make the game more exciting. Or for that matter why not just allow free substitutions to allow for the best matchups to occur throughout the game because that would be more exciting than watching a scrub middle reliever face a catcher hitting below the Mendoza line.

 

The reason we don’t do that is because the spirit of baseball is that the ball finds you as the saying goes. This devalues guys that are good at lots of things and instead puts the emphasis on players that are highly skilled in one area but flawed otherwise. A pitcher that could hit a little was always a useful advantage for the NL manager because he could leaving the pitcher in longer. That no longer matters in the American League game where the manager only has to concern himself with the matchup between the pitcher and batter.

 

And I will miss the double switch. Or rather I will miss watching managers comically overuse the double switch as if just to prove that they were a National League manager. But it was a thing of beauty to be able to play armchair manager as the pitcher spot was rolling around in the batting order. The mental gymnastics of what combinations would create the ideal situations in the following half inning and beyond was part of the fun of watching a game that many consider slow. Instead I will be treated in the near future to push button managing where the need for pinch hitters will be minimal and the focus will be on pitting the strength of players against another players strength instead of the National League stratagem of minimizing the weaknesses of your players.

 

Nothing has been said about this coming apocalypse to what has been baseball for 150 years. The change has only been hinted at by a few astute writers and commentators, but whether the world of the National League ends in the appropriate year of 2012 or later matters very little. The way that I and many of my ilk who favor the National League will be out of luck in the very near future as the game will be fundamental change for the first time since the introduction of the DH in 1973. So goodbye to double switches and strategy. Goodbye to actual baseball whenever it may come.

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