The Day the Designated Hitter Died

At least in the National League.

The day was August 10, 2010.   Two two teams battling for the National League Central Division title met for a three game series in Cincinnati.  Fueled by some incendiary comments from a member of the Reds, a fight broke out between the two teams at the start of the home half of the first inning.   It was a typical baseball conflict – more yacks than whacks.  Until a rugby like scrum formed and started pushing players up against the backstop.   That’s when all hopes for a National League Designated Hitter died.

At the back of the scrum was a frightened little child named Johnny Cueto.  Cueto was the starting pitcher for the Reds and somehow he found himself with a bunch of players invading his space.  Instead of pushing back like the other men were doing, he started kicking like a toddler that just had just lost his favorite security blanky.  He kicked furiously, repeatedly catching the Cardinals Chris Carpenter and Jason Larue in the back, ribs and face.  In all my years of watching sports, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a display of childish behavior.  I’m not even sure I’ve seen anything like that in the neighborhood playground.

But there is an upside to this terrible situation.  Perhaps fans of old school National League style baseball should thank Johnny Cueto for doing in 30 seconds what baseball writers and fans have been unable to do in 30 years – stop the progression of the designated hitter .   With it’s origins in the mid 1960s as an expanded pinch hitter, and finally adopted in the American League in 1973, nothing polarizes baseball fans more than the designated hitter.  In the years since its adoption, much has been written defending the rule as a fan friendly improvement to the game and suggesting that the National League should follow suit.  Just as much has been produced vilifying it as an abomination to the game and it fundamentally altering the competition between the two leagues.   The only thing that the two sides can agree on is to disagree.  If you have read anything on my blog, you would know that I’m firmly in the latter, camp abomination.

When the league office handed out their disciplinary ruling following the August 10 fight, only one player  was suspended.   Johnny Cueto was given a 7 game suspension, which if served immediately, would mean he would only miss a single start.   Cardinals fans are outraged by the slap on the wrist punishment, considering the how dangerous  Cueto’s actions were.  While I would have given a much longer suspension, to include additional games should any of the injured players spend time on the disabled list, I’m actually satisfied with the punishment.  Maybe this is the league office’s way of letting baseball police baseball.  If so, they have also taken a huge step forward in eliminating the possibility of a National League DH.

Let me explain.

As long as Johnny Cueto remains in the National League, he will have to stand in the batters box and face opposing pitchers.  Every fifth day, as long as he stays in the game.    Not just facing pitchers on the St. Louis Cardinals roster, but perhaps some that are friends or former teammates of the players involved in the incident.  Or maybe some that are just fans of old school baseball and take exception to one of their own kicking like a baby instead of standing up like a man.

To be clear and without ambiguity, I am not a fan of a retaliatory pitch thrown at any baseball player.  Too many players have been injured and careers impacted – it is very dangerous.   At the same time, I love the psychological torment that will accompany every at bat for Johnny Cueto as he wonders, is this the one.  Or even if it is just one.

But it is so much more than just the high hard one.  Every other professional sport allows players to police each other.  A cheap shot in football will be met with a little bit of extra-curricular activity on the next play, often going unnoticed by the fan.  A hit that is deemed excessive in hockey will be immediate handled by the enforcer, a guy that plays on the 3rd or 4th line whose sole purpose is to provide a tiny bit of civility to an exceptionally violent game.  Even basketball has its share of elbow punches and hip checks when bodies are at their most vulnerable.   All of these things are necessary aspects of professional sports  so that hostilities are quickly dealt with and unfortunate and costly escalations are prevented.  Yes it is ugly, but it is also part of the game.  And baseball cannot afford to take this essential part of the game away from the players.

That’s why the DH rule must stay out of the National League.  Players like Johnny Cueto must stand in the batters box every fifth day and face the consequences of their actions.  They cannot hide on the bench and be protected from the very players that they set out to harm.  There was no designated kickers rule protecting Chris Carpenter and Jason LaRue.   Guys like Cueto must face the music, and if there is a verse or two involving the chin, then so be it.  No, you cannot remove the consquences from the action, especially one as egregious as Cueto’s.

As we say goodbye to the hopes of the National League adopting the designated hitter, let’s cue up some Don McLean and sing along with me.

Don McLeanSo bye bye, designated bat

Way to go Cueto, you’ve put an end to that

For the rest of your career, you have to stand up and bat

That’s what you get for being a rat, yes

That’s what you get for being a rat……..

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2 Responses to The Day the Designated Hitter Died

  1. Chris says:

    Great piece! (The real song was already running through my head just from reading the headline!) I will not be one bit surprised if Cueto does not pitch during the Labor Day weekend series, no matter if it’s his turn in the rotation or not.


  2. I wouldn’t be surprised either, but I hope he does. What does it say for your team if you are afraid to put your best pitcher on the mound in a critical series ?

    I’ll also be interested to see how he responds. He had been impressive up to that point, but the combination of the negative publicity and the skipped start might affect him. And it couldn’t happen to a better guy …. ahem …. child.


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