by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

ST. LOUIS — How would you feel if your boss suddenly said you could keep your job but not do any work?

Quit cheering. It’s a hypothetical question.

Except in baseball.

Consider Hal McRae, age 39. Occupation: Designated hitter, Kansas City Royals. Job Performance: Excellent. Experience: First rate. Priority to team: Highest.

Starting Role in World Series: None.

Reason: Rules.

Yes, here we are, in the Promised Land of baseball, and Hal McRae is suddenly playing Moses, an aging leader who helped his team to glory, who is now forced to survey the scene from Mount Dugout, forbidden by the rules to enter except in the rare role of pinch hitter.

Heaven help him. This is ridiculous.

As you know, since the American and National leagues can’t agree on one way to play the game, baseball alternates the World Series every year, one year DH, next year, no DH. Kind of like giving each of your kids a chance to ride in the front seat.

This year the DH is benched. Calendar says so.

And so McRae — the team’s third-highest RBI man — must sit, too. As the DH, he’s as much responsible for his team’s being here as anyone. But after each game he returns to the clubhouse wearing a uniform as crispy clean as when he went out for batting practice.

This is the Royals’ week in history. And he’s all but locked out.

Ridiculous. He sits and watches from afar On Monday a group of reporters was talking with McRae during a workout. He was wearing his glove, even though he hasn’t played in the field in years. He kept slapping it, rolling a fist inside it, as if warming up for something. It was obvious. Playing a position would be the only way back into this Series.

“If I was asked, yeah, I’d play the field again, ” he said. He slowly worked his arm through a make-believe throw to the infield. His eyes had a far-away look. Then he stopped. Blinked. Who is he kidding? He’s 39 and has a pulled side muscle. “No, I really can’t throw too well. I haven’t played a position since I don’t know, ’82 or ’81. Let’s face it. It’s not going to happen.”

No, it’s not. Royals manager Dick Howser has already declared that no matter how badly he needs offense in his lineup in this World Series — only as badly as Custer needed reinforcements — he won’t put McRae in the field.
“You’ll never see it,” Howser said.

So McRae sits.

Don’t blame the manager. He wants that bat as much as anyone. For with McRae in the cleanup spot, not only do the Royals have a clutch hitter, but pitchers won’t pitch around George Brett (who bats third) so often. McRae is a catalyst, has been all year. When he got hot, the Royals got hot.

And this is his reward. Time off for good behavior.

“I won’t complain,” McRae said in a measured tone. “We knew the rules coming in here.”

But that can’t make them any easier to swallow. This is McRae’s fourth try at a World Series ring. Everyone knows this could be his last hurrah. True, the Royals are hardly sitting pretty against St. Louis. But a man would almost always rather join a fight and lose than watch his team’s defeat from afar. At least a man like McRae.

“It’s funny,’ he said, taking in all the notepads around him. “All you guys here, asking me all these questions and . . . I’m not even playing.”

Everyone laughed. What a joke.

What a pity. DH should be used full time One of the reasons the DH was instituted in the first place was to help keep older players like McRae in the game longer. It has paid off for the Royals, who will all tell you that without McRae, they would not be here.

Why then must they be without him now?

Plain and simple, because this a stupid system. If the two leagues are going to continue to part company on the DH, the least they could do is agree to use it full time in the World Series, since it’s becoming painfully clear that a team minus its regular DH suffers more than a team suddenly forced to use one.

McRae and players like him deserve their dessert as much as the others. And those who say it violates the “tradition of the game” should wake up. Baseball

already is using the DH half the time. What does that leave you? Partial tradition? You can argue for partial tradition about as easily as you can for partial virginity.

“I accept the rule,” McRae said, nobly. But a guy doesn’t work all year long just so he can reach the World Series and take a seat. This shouldn’t be happening. McRae deserves better.

If I remember correctly, Moses died on the mountaintop after getting a glimpse of the Promised Land. Baseball should take a twist on that. Let the DH live. Kill the rule instead.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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