An 'ah' for the '81 Series and the classic strategy
The World Series opening here Tuesday night will offer a nationwide audience its biennial reminder of how much more interesting, exciting, and strategy-filled baseball can be without the designated hitter.
They take turns in the Series nowadays, using the American League's gimmicked-up version of the sport in the even-numbered years and playing the National League's traditional nine-man game in the odd ones. Thus 1981 means pitchers in the batting order, managerial wheels turning constantly in the late innings of close games, and probably enough controversial moves to keep the second-guessers occupied well into winter.
You don't get this anymore in American League games, of course. Instead you get a somewhat stronger bat in the lineup (it figures out statistically to about one extra hit per team every three games), and for this you give up most of the managerial wit-matching which is one of the game's main fascinations.
That's hardly a fair trade - a fact that becomes obvious every October when we get a chance to compare the two games side by side during the playoffs. While American League managers sit there staring at the sky and making an occasional pitching change, their National League counterparts are faced with one critical decision after another.
Do you pinch-hit for your pitcher if you're behind in the eighth inning? The seventh? The sixth? Of course it depends upon so many variables. What's the score? How many out? How many on base and where? How good a hitter is the pitcher - and how good the potential pinch-hitter? How effective has the pitcher been? How strong is the bullpen? Etc.
It can get to be a chess game out there, and it frequently is, with managers making multiple lineup changes to move the pitcher around in the batting order, thus putting a premium on depth, and versatility, and a 25-man squad on which everybody contributes. Meanwhile in the AL version, there are many games with no lineup changes at all - just a nine-man batting order, a starting pitcher going all or most of the way, and everybody else sitting on the bench cooling his heels.
Some good examples of how much more interesting nine-man baseball is occurred in the Philadelphia-Montreal division playoff - especially the last two games.
In the fourth game, each team used 18 players, and the decision came down to a pair of pinch-hitting situations in the 10th inning.
In the top of the inning with the score 5-5, the Expos got the leadoff batter on first and tried to sacrifice him to second. Had the play been successful, they intended to pinch-hit for ace reliever Jeff Reardon. But the Phillies turned the bunt into a double play, so with two out and nobody on, Manager Jim Fanning let Reardon bat for himself and he went out to end the inning.
On balance that double play was a big plus for the Phillies, but it did have one apparent negative aspect - it kept Montreal's top relief pitcher in the game. But irony of ironies, George Vukovich pinch-hit for Philadelphia reliever Tug McGraw to lead off the 10th and blasted a game-winning home run.
The next day we had a different type of example - the added thrill of a pitcher winning his own game. Opposing aces Steve Rogers of Montreal and Steve Carlton of Philadelphia were locked in a scoreless duel when Rogers drilled a bases-loaded single in the fifth inning to give himself the only runs he needed in a 3-0 victory.
Meanwhile in the AL playoffs the pitchers pitched, the hitters hit, and nobody had to think much about anything. But the World Series will be a different story this year, with both teams put to the test of all-around ability that the game is supposed to be about.
One might automatically assume that this would be a significant disadvantage for the Yankees, since their pitchers will be batting for the first time all season, but actually it has usually worked out the other way in recent years. Incredible as it may seem, in the five World Series in which pitchers have batted since the American League adopted the designated hitter rule in 1973, it's been the AL hurlers who have done the most damage at the plate.
Ken Holtzman of Oakland was the only pitcher who did any noteworthy hitting in 1973 or '74, with some key hits each time. Then in 1975 Boston's Luis Tiant was the only pitcher-batsman of any consequence, getting two vital hits and scoring a pair of runs.
It was in 1976 that the new alternating policy began, and since then pitchers have batted only in 1977 and '79. In the former year no hurler for either team did much, while in the latter it was again an American Leaguer - Tim Stoddard of Baltimore, in his first big league at-bat - who made the only major contribution.
Now it's time for another test, and the Yankees have done all they can to continue this improbable trend. In anticipation of possible Series participation, they had their pitchers take batting practice during the last three weeks of the season - and although nothing can fully replace ''live'' game pitching, they expect to be be reasonably sharp.
The New York coaches graded the pitchers for their batting skill, and not surprisingly it was Ron Guidry, a fine all-around athlete, who took top honors, followed by Rick Reuschel, who pitched in the National League until this past season.
With these two, plus some others who can swing the bat without looking foolish, perhaps the Yankee pitchers can indeed follow in the tradition set by Holtzman, Tiant, and Stoddard, though any logical assessment would still have to give the edge to the National Leaguers who have been batting all year long.