Jeff Samardzija’s billowing locks bounced on his pinstriped shoulders as he trotted around the bases. The mid-May weather was not unlike Wednesday’s, but it was 2013, so there was baseball.
The sun peaked through the clouds to warm Cubs fans in short sleeves. They filled Wrigley Field with whistles and cheers. Samardzija had just hit his last home run in a Cubs uniform.
Of course, neither Samardzija nor the fans in attendance knew that the next time the right-handed pitcher would go yard, Samardzija would be a Giant. Samardzija has hit three home runs in his 12-year career, and the rarity of those lightning strikes made them all the more spectacular. If players approve the universal designated hitter for the 2020 season, as is expected, such moments will be all but eradicated.
Even before COVID-19 hit North American shores, the universal DH was gaining traction. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has blown a hole through the case for maintaining the difference in DH rules between the American and National Leagues.
Pending players association approval, MLB’s return-to-play proposal reportedly relies on geographical schedules to limit travel. For example, the Cubs would play their NL Central rivals, plus AL Central teams. Without consistent DH rules, a larger percentage of interleague games would put AL teams at a disadvantage.
It makes sense to adopt the universal DH this season. But that change could be a precursor to MLB permanently changing its rules. As is well documented, pitchers in general aren’t good hitters. Even those who are lauded for their hitting ability don’t get enough at-bats to make a consistent difference.
“It’s tough,” Samardzija said in 2016. “Hitting is not like playing golf. You’ve got to do it all the time and be comfortable with your swing.”
For a league focused on broadening its appeal, leaving unpracticed hitters in the lineup is a tough sell. Adding the DH to the national league also adds starting jobs.
Complaining about the impending change is futile. But now’s as good of a time as any to appreciate the gifts NL rules have given to baseball fans.
On the subtle end of the spectrum, there’s the managers’ chess match. When should he replace his pitcher? Is a late-game pinch hitter more valuable than giving the bullpen another inning off?
On the other side, there are the big boppers who have gone against the odds to thrill both on the mound and at the plate: From Babe Ruth (pre-DH) to Zack Greinke and Madison Bumgarner.
“For (Bumgarner) to hop in there every other day and do what he does is really impressive,” Samardzija said of his San Francisco teammate, as Bumgarner made his (unsuccessful) case to be included the 2016 Home Run Derby.
The unexpected clutch hits and the obscure stats were just as delightful. Whose jaw didn’t drop when Travis Wood hit a grand slam during the 2013 Crosstown Classic, becoming the first Cubs pitcher in over 40 years to send one over Wrigley’s ivy-covered walls with the bases loaded?
Who doesn’t have Bartolo Colon’s first career home run burned into their memory, from the swing to the bench-clearing celebration?
It’s time for traditionalists to accept that the days of pitchers batting may be over. But at least there are decades worth of underdog stories from the era before the universal DH.