Home Run Title Debate--Take That, Ken Griffey, Jr.!!!
The Major League Baseball Home Run Title is deceptive. Until the American League gets rid of the designated hitter, the National League players are at a disadvantage.
The other day, I had lunch with Dean, a friend of mine. We were talking about nothing short of the mundane when the conversation turned to baseball. We were making our predictions for the 2000 season - which teams would make it to the World Series, which team had the nicest of the new stadiums, and, of course, who would hit the most home runs this year. With the season just underway, some guys have hit five, even six, home runs. I told him Andres Gallaragas would be the Home Run Kin this year. He spent the last year battling cancer and deserved to have a magical season. Besides, he has already hit four home runs and was bound to hit many more for the Atlanta Braves. Sean, however, said the same thing he says every year - that Ken Griffey, Jr. would hit over sixty home runs and possibly crush Mark McGwuire's record from last season. Much to Sean's chagrin, I pointed out that Junior had only hit two homer so far this season. He stammered, "Well, he's playing for a new team in a new league. He just needs some time to figure out these National League pitchers!" I laughed. Sean could rationalize just about anything Ken Griffey, Jr. did. Griffey could show up to the stadium naked and Sean would find some way to make it sound like perfectly normal behavior. (That is not to say that Griffey would actually show up at the game wearing his birthday suit!) "Sean," I said, "it doesn't matter who he plays for. He's in the National League now. He's going to hit fewer home runs no matter what!" His face aghast, Sean dropped his fork and retorted, "You'll see--talk to me in October!"
True, Ken Griffey, Jr. has only hit two home runs so far this season. He'll hit more - probably twenty-five or thirty more. However, chances are, he wont hit as many as he did last year. It's nothing against Ken Griffey, Jr. It's just that, all things being equal, any player will hit more home runs in the American League than in the National League. It's a fact. Whether we're talking about Ken Griffey, Jr., Juan Gonzeles, or Sammy Sosa, the fact still remains: a professional baseball player in the American League will hit far more home runs than that same player would hit in the National League. It has nothing to do with pitching and it has nothing to do with strength. It has everything to do with a little demon known as the "Designated Hitter."
Years ago, in a land far, far away, some Major League Baseball official decided that it was okay for the American League and the National League to play by different rules. In the National League, the pitcher has a sport in the batting lineup and he is expected to come to bat, usually in the nine hole. If a team has a chance to score some needed runs, and the pitcher is up to bat, they can have someone "pinch hit" for the pitcher, but then the pitcher is out of the game. Naturally, pitchers tend to be not such great hitters. They tend to be really tall, so they have a strike zone biger than the State of Rhode Island. Also, pitchers are supposed to be able to pitch, not hit. Who wants their ace pitcher taking batting practice when he should be perfecting his curve ball? To make a long story short, unless by some miracle, a pitcher connect to get a hit, he's a guaranteed out. It follows that, in the National League, batters can expect to get three solid, may be four at bats per nine innings. This is not the case in the American League.
Playing in the American League is like being a kid in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. You get to have your cake and have it too! You put your ace pitcher on the mound. You turn in your lineup card. However, the pitcher's name doesn't appear in the batting order. How can this be? Everyone has to bat, right? Wrong! In the American League, pitchers do not have to bat. Instead, the team gets to use a "designated hitter." The designated hitter is the guy who bats in the pitcher's spot. He doesn't take the field. He doesn't take the mound. He sits on the bench eating sunflower seeds and drinking gatorade until it's his turn to bat. His sole job is to walk into the batter's box, swing at the ball, and get a hit. Think of this: to be a designated hitter, the only thing you need to be able to do is hit the ball. You don't need to be in shape, you don't need to play defense, and you don't need to pitch. So, theoretically, if Michael Jack Schmidt felt up to it, he could be a designated hitter for the Yankees. (This is not to imply that Mike Schmidt is out of shape!)
So, what's wrong with that? Every team in the American League has a designated hitter. What's unfair about that? Nothing if you play in the American League. Nothing if you're a New York Yankees fan. Everything if you play for the Braves. Having the designated hitter in the American League means that batters in the American League get more at bats per nine innings than their counterparts in the National League. Without that "guaranteed out" every three innings, American League batters can expect four or five solid at bats per nine innings. This translates into approximately 175-200 more at bats per season. This means that, come October, when we all gather around the television sets or radios in the local sports bar, or our own living room, watching to see who will be crowned the 2000 Home Run Champion, we must remember this: the title means more if you play in the National League. Sixty home runs in the National League means seventy home runs in the American League. So, watch out Juan Gonzales - when Mark McGwire lights up home run number seventy this year, we'll we looking for eighty from you!