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DH // A hit of miss?

It was voted in on a cold January day in 1973, as a three-year experiment. Twenty-three years later, having given us Ron Blomberg, Mickey Klutts and Eddie Murray, the American League's designated hitter rule may be on the way out.

The planned adoption of interleague play paired with the owners' ever-increasing efforts to control salary costs has the DH under serious review. And with the National League showing no interest in adding it, there is a strong possibility the designated hitter is about to be eliminated.

"I think probably we're looking at (dropping) it in the future, the near future," New York Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner said. "My vote would not be to get rid of the DH. But I think they (other owners) see this as something they're going to do. Maybe not next year, because they have to get union approval and get it in the basic agreement. It will be a battle. But I think a movement will start within baseball to eliminate it."

Interim commissioner Bud Selig, who happens to be an American League owner who happens to support the DH, said it is not yet on the critical list.

"It certainly could survive in its present form. I'm not saying that's what's going to happen, but that certainly is a very viable option," Selig said. "It's certainly going to be reviewed and a lot of people will take a look at it."

The DH has been scrutinized and analyzed and threatened before, with the arguments usually falling along league lines. But with teams expected to play 15 interleague games next season, and possibly 30 each starting in 1998, there is increased pressure to resolve the situation.

Here are some of the salient issues:

THE DH MAKES THE AMERICAN LEAGUE GAME MORE EXCITING TO WATCH _ OR DOES IT?: Struggling against NL teams in terms of attendance and appeal during the early 1970s, AL owners took a bold step and adopted the designated hitter _ or the "designated pinch-hitter," as it was first known _ to add offense.

From that standpoint, it has been a success _ the average number of runs scored in an AL game jumped from 6.9 in the last year before the DH to 8.6 in 1973, and has not dipped below 8.0 in any season since. AL teams have scored more runs per game than NL teams in all but one season during the 23-year DH era, and have hit for a higher batting average in every season.

"I think people get excited about seeing guys hit," Toronto manager Cito Gaston said.

Fan surveys, official and unofficial, confirm that. "What puts fannies in the seats," Steinbrenner said, "are home runs and runs scored."

But while the cumulative AL numbers are higher _ 8.95 runs per game to 8.33 in the NL, a .263 average to .256 _ there is a question of how much excitement that really translates into _ maybe a half-run a game and 500 hits total over the course of a season. And at a time when baseball is trying to shorten games, AL games run about 10 minutes longer.

"To me, it depends on the fans you want to appeal to," said St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, who managed in the AL the past 17 years. "The casual fan probably enjoys the DH more. I think if you're a real devoted baseball fan, you probably enjoy the pitcher being in there because you appreciate all the subtle differences of them playing and having to run the bases and having to use your bench and all that stuff."

Ask managers who have worked in both leagues _ Jim Fregosi (Angels, White Sox and Phillies), Lou Piniella (Yankees, Reds and Mariners), Joe Torre (Braves, Mets, Cardinals and Yankees) _ and they all say it is more interesting to manage in the NL because there is more strategy.

There apparently is considerable pleasure in deciding how to use your bench players, when to pitch-hit for the pitcher and just how to pull off the double-switch.

"I think real baseball fans like to second-guess the manager and there's a lot more things to second-guess without the DH," Fregosi said. "For people really into the game, it's more interesting to watch an NL game."

And what about managing an AL game? "You have to pinch yourself now and then to stay awake," Fregosi said. "It's more fun to manage when you're not just a cheerleader."

AL loyalists maintain the NL strategic defense is overblown. Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson says 80 percent of the NL decisions "are made for themselves." And Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, who was second-guessed for the way he handled the NL rules in the World Series, said, "There's really not a whole lot of strategy."

Besides, says Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs, "People say the DH takes the strategy out of managing. I personally think that people come to the park to see players produce runs and not to see managers manage."

WHO WOULD YOU RATHER SEE BAT _ PAUL MOLITOR OR TODD STOTTLEMYRE?: There is no debate here: DHs, with a .258 batting average over the 23 seasons, are better hitters than pitchers. Last year, DHs hit .276 (six points above the overall AL average) while NL pitchers hit .148 (115 points below the NL average.)

And those numbers often are produced by stars such as Paul Molitor and Eddie Murray, who are able to remain productive only because they can DH.

"Our game revolves around stars like any sport, and the DH enables star-quality position players to stay in the game longer and possibly reach that 3,000th hit, possibly reach that 500th home run, and continue to draw excitement to the game and fans to the park," said Tampa Bay GM Chuck LaMar, who despite his comments is a DH opponent.

Keeping DHs around can be expensive. In 1995, DHs had an average salary of $3.46-million, second only to first basemen in pay by position. And AL teams, by one estimate, will account for seven of the top 10 payrolls this season.

Even Baltimore GM Pat Gillick, a DH proponent, admits "from a cost-saving standpoint, the DH doesn't make much sense."

But there is no guarantee that eliminating the DH will bring down payroll. "I think that's a red herring," Alderson said. "If you don't pay money to the DH it means your bench players become a little more important because they hit every day instead of every 3-4 days. The money you save on the DH you would probably invest more in your bullpen and in your bench."

Even with the possibility funds would be re-directed, the union is not going to agree to any change that eliminates high-paying jobs.

"It's difficult, if not impossible, to envision a circumstance where the players would agree to eliminate the DH and it's difficult to see why we'd want to do so," executive director Don Fehr said Monday. "Why force an Eddie Murray or a Paul Molitor out of the game one minute sooner than absolutely necessary? It's become an accepted part of the game and something we think is good for everybody."

Well, maybe not everybody. There are a small number of pitchers who like to hit and can make a trip to the plate worth watching.

"Baseball is supposed to be a nine-man game," said Yankees pitcher Dwight Gooden, who compiled a respectable .197 average with the Mets. "With the DH you're using 10. To me, 10 is for softball. I definitely like to see the pitcher hit."

And Cleveland pitcher Orel Hershiser, a .214 hitter in the NL, not only likes to hit but, "I enjoy pitching to pitchers."

Milwaukee GM Sal Bando even suggested that eliminating the DH might help improve baseball's dreadful pitching. "It would allow pitchers the benefit of pitching to the pitcher in the lineup instead of nine hitters and allows him a little flexibility with what he'll do with the No.

8 hitter," Bando said.

OKAY, SO WHAT ARE THE RULES AROUND HERE?: As it is now, there is an occasionally awkward compromise on the DH when AL and NL teams play _ home rules apply.

The DH is used in some form at virtually every level of baseball, meaning a pitcher could go through high school, college and minor leagues without ever coming to the plate. But he has to bat during spring training and World Series games in NL parks. "It's absolutely idiotic," Gillick said.

Fregosi is one who prefers to see the DH eliminated for the sake of tradition. "I think it would be good for everyone if they threw out the DH and got back to playing baseball the way it was supposed to be played," he said.

With interleague play starting, the number of AL-NL games and the importance of the situations will increase to where some say there has to be a resolution. "To me, having two sets of rules doesn't make good sense," La Russa said.

But how do you resolve it? NL owners want no part of the DH and AL owners have been split 7-7 in recent non-binding straw polls. The simplest solution appears to be for the AL to keep it, with the DH used in some, or all, interleague games.

"I think the AL clubs and fans have really grown to like it and the NL has always had antipathy toward it," Selig said. "Some think the controversy is good for baseball. We'll see."

It's not just a job, it's a career

The DH often is associated with older players on the way out, but some have made a career of the position. Here is a list of the players who have logged 2,000 or more at-bats as a DH, with their stats reflecting only their performance as a DH. Career leaders are indicated in boldface.

Player Years AB R H HR RBI AVG

Paul Molitor 78-95 3,184 529 979 82 407 .307

Hal McRae 73-87 5,293 720 1,555 145 823 .294

Rico Carty 73-79 2,244 268 648 82 361 .289

Harold Baines 80-95 3,839 508 1,111 153 629 .289

Jim Rice 74-89 2,047 302 583 98 356 .285

Chili Davis 88-95 2,600 407 733 120 469 .282

Willie Horton 73-80 2,859 297 807 96 410 .282

Brian Downing 74-92 3,019 468 819 125 417 .271

Cliff Johnson 77-86 2,439 331 653 115 415 .268

Don Baylor 73-88 4,676 734 1,209 219 801 .259

Andre Thornton 77-87 2,690 376 683 125 459 .254

Times research _ JOHN ROMANO