Let’s play the next three barefoot! No, wait. Let’s play them without gloves! No, hang on. For the next three games, clean-up hitters get only two strikes!
What am I doing? Nothing more than the insanity baseball does every World Series – changing the rules midway through. Designated hitter, no designated hitter. No other sport on the planet that I can think of – and I am including billiards here – dares try what baseball allows in its championship round: one set of rules in one stadium, one set in the other. You half wonder if on the plane trip to St. Louis, some flight attendant announced, “We are now entering National League Territory. Pitchers, shut off all cell phones and pick up your bats.”
Because tonight that’s going to happen. Tonight, in Game 3 of the Fall Classic, Nate Robertson, the Tigers’ starting pitcher, will lift a bat in addition to a rosin bag and face a fastball instead of just delivering one.
He doesn’t sound thrilled.
“It’s not really that big a deal, because we’re not expected to do anything,” he told me over the weekend. “So if we don’t do anything, well, we weren’t supposed to. And if we do, we’ll turn heads.”
Don’t count on much neck swiveling. American League pitchers have accepted the need to bat as something you put up with if you are lucky enough to make the Series. Sort of like taking a pie in the face if it gets you on the “Tonight Show.”
“As a pitcher,” Robertson noted, “I’m not supposed to hit the walk-off home run.”
But doesn’t the athlete in you want to succeed at everything – including a plate appearance?
“You want to do something, yeah, but it’s also about not putting any added pressure on yourself. One of the ways pitchers can do that is to say hey, I’m not supposed to go out there and bat.’ “
Talk about the power of positive thinking.
Of course, pitchers aren’t the only ones having to make adjustments. What about the manager? Jim Leyland did the pull-the-pitcher-for-a-pinch-hitter stuff when he was in the National League, but that was six years ago.
Now he has to do it to win a championship.
“You get a feel for it again,” he said in his office Sunday night. “Hopefully it won’t take me too long.”
Until now in these playoffs, Leyland’s deft touch has been in knowing when his starting pitcher is done. He has been marvelous at such judgment. Now there is a whole new set of considerations.
“With the National League rules,” Leyland said, “say Kenny Rogers is pitching great, he gets you to the seventh inning, but the game is tied – you got to take him out, because you got to score, right? People say, Hey why did you take him out?’ But if he strikes out, they say You gotta score.’ “
And, remember, the Tigers haven’t spent a lot of time this year on batting practice for pitchers. For one thing, Leyland said, “if you do too much of it, it looks like you’re assuming you’re going to the World Series. Also, you don’t want to risk hitting the pitchers on the fingers.”
The truth is, the Tigers are not as equipped as St. Louis in substitution players. Some of the late-inning switches could leave Detroit with rather tepid bats in key slots.
Problems at No. 9
The DH rule was first tried in 1973. The American League took to it. The National League did not. Since then, pitchers lucky enough to play on one side of baseball pretty much can concentrate on one side of baseball – unless they reach the World Series.
Then, we get to see some of the worst swings in the majors.
Robertson, thanks to interleague play, has a whopping six at-bats this season. He struck out on three of those.
Jeremy Bonderman, who is scheduled to start Game 4, has batted four times this season; he has struck out every time.
Justin Verlander, the likely Game 5 starter, has one at-bat in his major league career.
“Did you used to be a good hitter?” I asked Robertson.
“Oh, I could tell you some stories,” he said.
I waited. Then I realized he was joking.
“I was a pretty good high school hitter,” he finally said, then added an important caveat. “But that was against high school pitching.”
Tonight he will face Chris Carpenter, hardly a prep schooler. It may strike Detroit fans as odd, maybe unfair, the first few times they see it. And it will have them yelling at the TV set over substitutions in a close game.
But baseball brought this on itself by letting leagues behave like separate nations. And tonight, as it does every year, the sport puts on its silly hat and switches rules.
We could add a middle fielder. We could make a home run count for two. We could change the game to 10 innings – and all of these would have the fans howling. But they would be no stranger than what will happen tonight in the No. 9 spot in the lineup.
If there’s truly nothing more rock solid than the tradition of the World Series, how come, every year, it wobbles back and forth?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.