In 1981, the New York Yankees were desperate and Tommy John was cruising.
In Game 6 of the World Series, the Yankees were facing high expectations and elimination at the hands of the Dodgers. New York was especially chaotic coming out of the 1970s. They had signed Dave Winfield away from San Diego to a 10-year contract and were on their third manager in 12 months.
(Quickly: general Manager Gene Michael stepped into the manager’s role after George Steinbrenner fired Dick Howser, only to be fired himself and replaced by Bob Lemon, who had been replaced by Billy Martin in 1979, who had been fired and replaced by both Lemon and Howser the year before ... the point here is that the the Yankees were a very talented mess. And the guy making important decisions was constantly in flux and undercut by his boss.)
Here we find John, the senior member of a solid rotation that featured Ron Guidry and a young Dave Righetti. In this moment, New York was in trouble and John was pitching well. The game was tied 1-1 in the fourth inning and John had given up six hits and no walks. Facing a two-out situation with runners at first and second, Lemon decided to lift John for a pinch hitter.
It didn’t work. Bobby Murcer stepped up flied out to end the inning, and the next pitcher, George Frazier, was abused the next inning. He gave up four hits and three runs to the Dodgers, including a two-run triple to Pedro Guerrero, and that was effectively the end of the Yankees for 15 years.
It was a weird, fluky thing, but it was brought on by a decision managers aren’t forced to make in half of the games in the sport. Pitchers hitting is a blessing, and we saw that again this past week.
Old friend Torey Lovullo was forced into such a predicament while the Arizona Diamondbacks were trying to navigate past the Colorado Rockies in the N.L. Wild Card game. In the seventh inning, the Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon had cut the deficit to 6-5 with two outs, and Lovullo called on his setup man Archie Bradley to put out the fire.
Which he did. But it set up a two-out, two-on situation in the bottom of the inning. Instead of lifting his pitcher for a pinch hitter, Lovullo let Bradley swing away against Colorado’ Pat Neshek, and a bit of October glory was born. Bradley roped one into center field for a triple, clearing the bases and giving the Diamondbacks an 8-5 lead.
It was ridiculous for all the right reasons. It was the kind of moment that made me wish — again — that pitchers would hit in the playoffs in both leagues, if not all year long.
Even though the American League adopted the designated hitter rule in 1973, the DH didn’t begin hitting in the World Series until 1976, when baseball instituted the extra batter in even-numbered years. It wasn’t until 1986 where we got to the current rule of the DH in American League parks, and pitchers hitting in the National League.
Yeah, there are all those tired, sports-radio friendly arguments in the can. “I’m not paying to see pitchers hit.” “They might hurt themselves.” “It’s boring.” Those are opinions that sound very confident and convincing coming from dudes with headphones who are paid to say as much.
And you might not be paying to see pitchers hit, I guess. And yes, players can get hurt doing all kinds of things. Eduardo Nunez might’ve ended his season leaving the batter’s box by aggravating a knee injury. Clint Barmes once landed on the disabled list after injuring himself while carrying deer meat. I think Kevin Mitchell sat out with tired eyelids once.
It’s a weird game, so let the pitchers hit. It moves the game along quickly and it gives the manager one more uncomfortable decision to make. Force Joe Girardi into a real crisis with his bullpen rather than just running one-batter pitchers out of the bullpen all game. Once in a while, a game and a season will turn on its head because a pitcher stepped up in the batter’s box — or didn’t.
Weird things happen. They happen in a lot of sports, but baseball seems especially prone to it. There’s no need to legislate that kind of chaos out of the game.
Nick Tavares' column appears Sundays in The Standard-Times and at SouthCoastToday.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org