Baseball owners moved yesterday to streamline the debate over realignment by offering to eliminate the designated hitter rule, but it appears highly unlikely the Major League Baseball Players Association will go along for the ride.
The owners' Player Relations Committee asked union officials to allow the industry to phase out the DH in the American League over a period of several years in exchange for an expanded regular-season roster limit, but union chief Donald Fehr expressed doubt the players would embrace the plan.
"Our position on the DH is well-known, and I see no reason to change it," Fehr said. "It's very hard to see any reason to change it. I'm not sure we want to make it more difficult for the Paul Molitors of the world to stay around and hit."
The owners were seeking to eliminate another stumbling block to their plans to realign the two leagues, which they intend to vote on when they meet Sept. 16-18 in Atlanta.
Support for a "radical" realignment plan that would blur the lines between the traditional league structures appears to be declining as a decision on the issue becomes time-sensitive, and the continued use of the designated hitter in the American League is one of the reasons that some National League clubs seem likely to veto the plan.
Management negotiator Randy Levine informed union officials of the owners' desire to eliminate the DH by an unspecified date and offered to expand regular-season rosters from 25 to 26 to allay fears that the clubs were making the move to save money. However, with the average salary of AL designated hitters above $2 million, the clubs could save significantly by trading that position off for two roster spots at the other end of the salary spectrum.
The designated hitter rule has been in effect in the American League since 1973. There has been talk of standardizing the rules for both leagues ever since, but National League clubs have been reluctant to adopt the DH rule and American League clubs have not shown significant interest in repealing it.
Marketing surveys have shown that fans in AL cities have grown comfortable with the designated hitter rule and do not favor eliminating it. Conversely, National League fans have indicated that they do not want it expanded to both leagues.
The debate has been lifted to a new level with the possibility that some teams may switch leagues to accommodate the two expansion teams that will join the majors next season.
Players like the DH for two reasons: It provides high-paying jobs -- the average salary for DHs in 1996 was $2,731,460, more than double the overall average of $1,119,981 -- and it allows veteran hitters a chance to play for additional seasons after their fielding skills have declined.
Even some AL owners are in favor of eliminating the DH to save money. A straw poll of AL owners in September 1995 tied 7-7.
Pub Date: 8/30/97