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Striking Out The Pitcher

New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard.
Photo of Noah Syndergaard by Flickr user slgckgc

On a sparkling spring day in New York City last year, Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard accomplished something that almost never happens in major league baseball.

No, he did not throw a perfect game. There have been 23 of those in the big leagues, counting the lone postseason masterpiece by Don Larsen in 1956. Syndergaard merely pitched a complete-game shutout against the Cincinnati Reds – and hit a home run that provided the only offense in a 1-0 Mets victory.

According to research by James Gentile published on the website FanGraphs, Syndergaard became only the fifth major leaguer in history, and the first since Bob Welch in 1983, to so master the 60 feet, 6 inches that separate the pitching rubber from home plate. Four others received credit for a 1-0 win in which they homered but did not pitch the full nine innings. That makes nine times, total, in 117 major league seasons since the modern baseball era began in 1903.

We may never see such an accomplishment again. Jayson Stark of the Athletic reported this week that in the plans for a pandemic-abbreviated season this summer, National League teams will adopt the designated hitter rule that the American League has used since 1973. (The Athletic is paywalled. It is also, in my opinion, the best daily sports journalism on the market today, and well worth a subscription price cheaper than most big-league tickets to a single game.)

It remains to be seen whether there will be any season at all this year. Recent rises in COVID-19 cases, coupled with player-management relations in urgent need of ventilator support, may prevent that. In theory, the league should revert to previous form next year if the pandemic subsides. But Stark speculates that the National League designated hitter experiment may continue. It would then become a matter for negotiation in a new collective bargaining agreement, which will be needed before the 2022 campaign. Both the players and owners have their own reasons for wanting to keep the designated hitter rule. It provides more roster spots for aging position players, from the union’s vantage point, and more offense to attract paying customers, from the owners’.

I understand the rationale. In general, I have no problem accepting change. Starting extra innings with a runner on second base? Ugh, I can live with that, I guess. Require relief pitchers to face at least three batters, eliminating the left-handed specialist? OK. A clock limiting the time between pitches before a ball is automatically called? Sounds good to me. I used to watch Steve Trachsel and Al Leiter when they pitched for the Mets. I could read a whole bedtime story to my kids between pitches.

But I am going to continue to detest the expansion of the designated hitter rule. I don’t think of myself as a baseball purist, although I confess to being old-fashioned. Also to just being old. The advantage of being old is that you get to tell younger people what they missed. Life is like walking into a theater in the middle of a movie, or starting “Stranger Things” at the second season. (Granted, almost nobody does this in the streaming era.) Somebody needs to catch you up on what came before.

I became aware of baseball in the summer of 1967. My first two World Series were the seven-game epics featuring the St. Louis Cardinals against the Boston Red Sox (St. Louis won) and the Detroit Tigers (Detroit won). Since Sandy Koufax retired after the 1966 season, the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson was the most dominant pitcher in an era when pitchers dominated the game.

But Gibson was more than a pitcher. He was a consummate athlete and a fierce competitor. He is still the only pitcher ever to surrender a home run to an opposing pitcher (Boston’s Jose Santiago in Game 1, which St. Louis won) and to hit one himself in the same Series (the decisive Game 7). Gibson hit one out in the next World Series as well, against Joe Sparma.

Gibson, who had 24 regular-season home runs in his Hall of Fame career, was a particular threat. But there were quite a few excellent pitchers between the 1930s and the 1960s who were also legitimate hitters. Wes Ferrell of the 1930s Cleveland Indians and Red Sox (a six-time 20-game winner) is the all-time leader with 38 home runs, followed closely by Bob Lemon and Warren Spahn of the 1940s and ’50s Indians and Boston (later Milwaukee) Braves, respectively. Don Drysdale, who pitched in the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation with Koufax, had 29. (Koufax, never a big threat with a bat, had two.) Earl Wilson, who pitched mostly for Boston and Detroit in the ’60s, had 33.

I grew up a Yankees fan, a mile from Yankee Stadium. Yankee pitchers of that time generally could not hit worth a lick; until their dynasty’s abrupt demise, the Yankees always had plenty of other reliable bats. Al Downing, who would go on to surrender Henry Aaron’s record-shattering home run while with the Dodgers, was an exception. I gradually drifted over to follow the Mets and their National League brand of baseball – the sort I grew up with – when I returned to the East Coast in the 1980s after college in Montana.

The Mets have a richer history of decent-hitting pitchers. Tom Seaver prided himself on being capable at the plate. In the 1980s, Dwight Gooden loved to hit; he still holds the Mets record for home runs by a pitcher (seven, plus one later in his career with the Indians.) Syndergaard already has six after just five big-league seasons, and he is playing at a time when pitchers start fewer games and are taken out earlier for relievers.

But it isn’t only the standout athletes and excellent batsmen that I am going to miss. It is the potential for the sheer pleasure of seeing the unexpected happen.

If the National League adopts the designated hitter rule, we will probably never again experience the joy that Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen captured with his call of Bartolo Colon’s home run in 2016. Colon was a rotund 42-year-old in his 20th season in the major leagues (including many with Cleveland, where he seldom had the chance to bat) and a home run total of zero. In his hands, a baseball bat was usually about as productive as a hood ornament.

But on that day, the man Mets fans called “Big Sexy” deposited a fastball into the left-field seats. “It’s out of here! Bartolo has done it!” Cohen screamed, as his broadcast partner Ron Darling chuckled. “The impossible has happened! ... This is one of the great moments in the history of baseball.”

If the designated hitter rule expands to the National League, it will be impossible for the impossible to happen again. Somebody please tell the kids of the future what they missed.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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