As America’s national pastime approaches its season finale, rumor has it that Major League Baseball may inflict the ultimate, unthinkable indignity on the dwindling ranks of sports traditionalists: bringing the designated hitter to the National League. The designated hitter, or DH, hits for the pitcher, who is typically less offensively skilled, and began in the American League in 1973 in an effort to boost attendance and scoring — not a crazy idea for professional soccer. This innovation divided baseball devotees, who found themselves on either side of a chasm as wide as that between Catholics and Protestants, Sunnis and Shiites, and Bitcoin and Bitcoin Classic. For the past 45 years, even as baseball purists have suffered through instant replays, the expansion of wild-card playoffs, and a new rule prohibiting the catcher from blocking home plate if he’s not in possession of the ball, expansion of the DH to the National League remained baseball’s Third Rail.
That the executives in charge of the greatest game known to man would consider such an act of apostasy now is not terribly shocking. While pitchers at the plate have provided some great moments in recent years — Bartolo Colon smacking his first home run at the ripe age of 42, for example — the players’ union supports anything that means another highly paid roster spot. Another consideration is that baseball’s popularity lags among younger fans. The game is far too slow for the selfie generation, whose attention span runs in seconds, not hours.
But by eliminating the pitcher at bat, baseball would all but lose a play that represents one of the great examples of virtue in sports: the sacrifice bunt.
In the poem “Signs for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt,” David Bottoms writes about admiring his dad’s proficiency and technique in the ancient art, “but not enough to take my eyes off the bank that served as our center-field fence.” The far-off fences, the majestic home run, and the exhibition of raw power long have captured our fascination and admiration, particularly in youth. Nike even ran a famous ad campaign in 1999 featuring Braves pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux trying to emulate St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire and proclaiming, “Chicks dig the long ball.”
Many credited home runs and the legendary 1998 duel between McGwire and Chicago Cubs’ outfielder Sammy Sosa — both of them surpassed Roger Maris’s longstanding single-season home run record of 61 — with repairing the damage from the 1994 players’ strike. But as we later learned, the McGwire–Sosa fireworks display that summer may have been too good to be true, as both were suspected of — and McGwire admitted to — using performance-enhancing drugs.
The sacrifice bunt, in contrast to the more awe-inspiring, tape-measure blast, is one of baseball’s most understated metaphors for life. It looks simple — and it is, compared with hitting a 95-mile-per-hour fastball squarely on the barrel of the bat — but it is easily neglected and botched. Young major-leaguers today often reveal an unfamiliarity with how to bunt that would have shamed even Little Leaguers in the past and certainly should shame their coaches.
The sacrifice bunt also is one of baseball’s most seminal chess moves, particularly late in games when one run could make the difference between winning and losing. Before managers worried about how their pampered, overpaid stars might feel about having “the bat taken out of their hands,” they regularly called for the sacrifice and traded an out for advancing a runner into scoring position. And, thanks to the wisdom of some long-forgotten baseball founding father, the sacrifice does not count against a hitter’s batting average, an idealistic cap nod to the idea that life sometimes should encourage modesty to serve the team.
Of course, that ethos increasingly is foreign to today’s professional athletes, many of whom are less than enthused about compromising their own stat lines to benefit teams they soon might leave via free agency. And with younger fans more mobile, less geographically attached to anywhere in particular, and less interested in anything beyond “I” (see, iPhone, iPad, etc.), flashy individualism is elevated above the team and made today’s default value.
In 2016, the number of sacrifice bunts per game was the lowest in baseball history, and the vast majority of those were executed by pitchers in the National League. Baseball may be ready to gamble that a slight uptick in home runs flying into the stands will attract fickle, younger fans who have so many sensory-stimulating entertainment alternatives at their fingertips. But this fan, for one, would miss the tactical maneuvering that the pitcher’s spot in the batting order raises, the reminder that seemingly small moves in life often make the difference, and that earnest hope that sometimes good deeds do, in fact, go unpunished.