Monday, October 24, 2011

The DH and Other Strange Rules

I was recently on a Rolling Stones discussion site when the subject of the Designated Hitter rule came up (of all things). If there is one sure fire way to stir up the cyber equivalent of a bar fight among baseball fans, just type "I hate the DH" (or "I love the DH") and wait for the fun to begin. But the discussion got me thinking about odd or unusual rules in baseball and other sports. I do not wish to make this month's edition of FOTM exclusively about the DH, so allow me to dispense with it here, before moving on to our main topic:

Connie Mack first advocated use of a designated hitter in 1906.

In my humble opinion, the designated hitter rule is an abomination against God and Nature, a scourge on the National Game, a violation of the most basic and sacred tenets of baseball, and contrary to all that is Right and Good in the universe. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Among its many evils is that it has immeasurably dumbed down the game, taught two generations of pitchers that they needn't bother to learn how to use a bat, and is based on the false premise that more offense necessarily makes a better game. Worst of all, it violates the very first rule in the rulebook, which says "Baseball is a game of two teams of nine players each". Get that? Nine. Not ten, eleven or fifteen. You want a historical reason I'm against it? Okay. If the DH rule had existed at the time, there would have been no Babe Ruth, as Ruth was a pitcher and his batting prowess might never have seen the light of day in a major league game.

Ron Blomberg became the American League's first designated hitter on April 6, 1973. He was walked by Luis Tiant.

I can almost hear some of you go for your keyboards already. Please save yourselves (and me) some time. Yes, I know I am in the minority. I know that most "fans" prefer the DH. I know that virtually all professional and college leagues use it. I know it isn't going away. I know that you "don't pay to see managers manage". I have heard all the arguments. I've heard them and I remain unconvinced. The DH is an artificial and completely unnecessary rule, and the fact that it is still around is an embarrassment, akin to someone you know wearing an open necked polyester shirt with gold medallions long after the disco era ended. (The 70s were not a great era for baseball rule changes or popular music, but unlike the Bee Gees, the DH is still inexplicably with us). Even the name of the position - "designated hitter" - sounds forced and artificial. Yes, lots of fans prefer the DH. Lots of fans are wrong. Glad I got that off my chest, let's move on...

A rule that has always intrigued me is the uncaught third strike rule. This rule (No. 6.09) states that if there are two outs or first base is open, a strikeout victim can advance to first if the ball is not cleanly fielded by the catcher on the third strike. In one of the best examples of the wonderful symmetry of baseball, it was thought that the failure of the batter was not enough to cause an out - the defense must do its part too. In the instance where a batter reaches base successfully the pitcher is credited with a statistical strikeout, but no actual "out" is recorded. (This means that it is technically possible for a pitcher to have four or even more strikeouts in one inning). Of course, throwing the runner out is usually a formality, but in the 1941 World Series this play loomed large. With the Brooklyn Dodgers about to tie the Series at two games each, Mickey Owen's passed ball on what should have been the game-ending pitch by Hugh Casey allowed the Yankees to eventually turn the game around and take a 3-1 Series lead over Brooklyn. New York went on to win the next day and take the Series. One of the writers at the time described it like this: "The condemned jumped out of the chair and executed the warden". (Poor Mickey Owen, no one remembers that in the same season he set a National League record for most chances without an error by a catcher. When he passed away, his New York Times obituary was headlined "Mickey Owen Dies at 89, Allowed Fateful Passed Ball").

Let's turn to the great game of American football. In the early part of the 20th Century the drop kick was a popular way to score field goals and extra points. But by 1934 forward passing had become such a big part of the game that the shape of the ball was made pointed and could no longer be dropped with a reliable bounce. The last successful drop kick for decades was made by Roy "Scooter" McLean of the Chicago Bears (left) against the New York Giants in the 1941 Championship game (Joe Vetrano of the 49ers kicked one against the Browns in 1948, but at the time the two teams were in the AAFC, not the NFL). But the rule is still on the books, and Doug Flutie successfully drop kicked for an extra point on January 1, 2006 against Miami for his very last play in the NFL.

An even more obscure football rule is the fair catch kick, in which the receiving team may attempt a field goal from the spot of a successful fair catch. Unlike a field goal attempt from scrimmage, the defense must line up ten yards away. The ball is spotted at the scrimmage line and the kicker can have a full running start. A place kick or drop kick may be used. The last successful fair catch kick in the NFL was by the San Diego Chargers' Ray Wersching in 1976. (Mark Moseley attempted a record 74 yard fair catch kick against the Giants in 1979, but it fell short).

In soccer, one rule that is really not at all strange, but has been blamed in part for the past failure of professional soccer in the United States is the offside rule. Many Americans just cannot understand why perfectly good scoring drives should be nullified for no apparent reason. In the 1970s, in the interest of more scoring, the North American Soccer League modified the rule and created a "blue line" at 35 yards, similar to hockey's, but it was not enough to mollify offense-hungry Americans, and after a brief surge of popularity the league bit the dust in the 1980s. (The MLS is fairing much better). But in recent years, soccer's international governing body FIFA, has looked at eliminating the offside rule altogether. Maybe those American fans were right in the first place.

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