Might as well leave the hoodie on, Big Papi. It's not coming off today. (Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE)
The 2013 schedule is out and interleague play is now an everyday matter, a cancer of the body baseball that puts the DH on the road to extinction.
The 2013 schedule has been released, and it contains the usual mix of positive and negative. The former includes warm-weather teams like the Dodgers and Diamondbacks opening at home instead of north of the Arctic Circle, as has happened in some seasons, resulting in snow delays and frostbitten fans. The negatives are almost wholly the consequence of the Houston Astros moving from the NL Central to the AL West. The cancer that is interleague play has now escaped its place of confinement and metastasized to the whole of the schedule.
The number of interleague games on the calendar has been increased to 20 for each team, and the contests are now scattered across the schedule. This makes the interleague schedule uniform; In 2012, teams played 12, 15 or 18 interleague games depending on division, so some teams will be adding eight contests, some only two. Regardless, interleague play has gone from being an occasional date to a live-in girlfriend. You will see interleague play on opening day with the Angels at the Reds on April 1, and on the last day of the season, with the Tigers playing the Marlins, and everywhere in between.
In baseball, as in life, almost every change we make can have unintended consequences. In the case of springing interleague play from its midseason bolt-hole, it paints a target on the back of the pure designated hitter. Then again, maybe that consequence wasn't so unintentional; the DH has always had its enemies, from those misguided fans who think that pitchers hitting is fun to the owners, who see it as an extra high-salary position on a roster, to the commissioner himself. Intentional or not, it's easy to see that players like (if not specifically) David Ortiz and Billy Butler are going to need to find gloves to survive in the long term, and those that can't are going to see their value slightly diminished by the fact that they now have to sit or field badly for a slightly larger part of the season.
In many senses, this is unremarkable. One of the more specious arguments made against Edgar Martinez's Hall of Fame candidacy is that being a DH somehow diminishes his legitimacy. But Martinez became a full-time bat not because he was the world's worst third baseman, but because he struggled with injuries. Had there been no DH, the Mariners would have planted him at first base, just as countless other teams have done with their less-athletic players throughout time, from Zeke Bonura to Dick Stuart to Mo Vaughn to Prince Fielder. Maybe he would have been able to stay healthy in most seasons, maybe not, but he would not have disappeared completely, or ceased being one of the greatest right-handed hitters of his time.
Of course, those teams planned to have their lawn-ornament first basemen. An American League team has to build to have both a first baseman and production at designated hitter, whether they fill those positions through regulars or a rotation. In practice, many teams fail at this; over the last few years, Martinez's former team has deployed DHs with aggregate numbers that would embarrass a shortstop in the advanced stages of death.
Those teams that do the job well will now be punished for their planning. Consider the Tigers. They will wrap up the season in Miami, while their divisional rivals White Sox, Royals, Twins, and Indians will be playing each other. Let us posit that next year the Tigers will again be in a close race. Let us further posit that the Tigers will know what they're doing: pushing the defensive envelope by putting Miguel Cabrera at third base so that Prince Fielder could play first base, which in turn opened up the designated-hitter position for another run producer represented a great insight and an audacious bit of planning. Making Delmon Young the primary designated hitter represented only the audacity of taking a great insight and flushing it down the toilet.
Young will be a free agent this off-season. Imagine, then, that the Tigers correct their earlier mistake by signing themselves the Cadillac of designated hitters, soon-to-be free agent David Ortiz (for purposes of this hypothetical, you have to assume that Mike Ilitch's wallet has limitless depths, which it very well might). As a Tiger, Ortiz hits about as well as he always has and becomes an integral part of the offense. Regardless of the wisdom of signing an aging, limited player like Ortiz, the Tigers would have done exactly what they're supposed to do, and staffed a position with the best player available in pursuit of winning the game they play, which is not generic baseball, but American League baseball.
Yet, having done that, they must go to Miami at the end of September and play with one arm -- or one Papi -- tied behind their backs. Meanwhile, their division rivals will be DHing their asses off in AL parks. Frank Thomas, Harold Baines, Don Baylor, and Hal McRae will come out of retirement, magically restored to their primes, just to DH in those games, that's how DH-y those series will be. Meanwhile, Jim Leyland will watch from behind a dirty window, his wizened-eagle face pressed up against the glass, a solitary tear making its way down his cheek to the gum-spotted floor. As for his lungs, well, never mind.
You can say that the fact that some of the games will come at the end of the season is immaterial -- all 162 games are equally important -- but we know that even if that's factually true, it's not emotionally true. You can say that unequal schedules don't corrupt the pennant races, but yeah, they do. And you can argue it's only a few more interleague games, but that's like saying it's only a few more cancer cells.
Even more than before, AL teams are in the position of having to win with rosters designed for a schedule that is slowly being taken away from them. As Abraham Lincoln once said, a game divided against itself cannot stand. Until baseball expands and does away with odd-numbered leagues, or finally allows the DH to operate in both leagues, this situation can only get worse. We know what happened to Lincoln under those circumstances. Let's just say that "But other than that, how did you like the interleague play, Mr. Ortiz?" could soon become the blackest of humor. At least to those of us who would rather see a slugger slugging than a pitcher bunting.