Monday, May 18, 2015

Alberto Contador And The Designated Hitter

Every sport has its marquee athletes, the superstars who attract attention from the media and from the fans and, therefore, money from the sponsors. It’s good for business to maximize the exposure of such athletes; it’s bad for business when they are unable to compete due to injury or other factors.

The biggest stars in the National Football League are the quarterbacks. In recent years, the league implemented several rule changes to keep them on the field. Some are intended to prevent injuries—e.g., the “in the grasp” rule that brings play to a halt without requiring that the quarterback be tackled. Other rules produce more plays on offense by stopping the clock—e.g., allowing the QB to spike the ball or, if outside the pocket, to throw an intentionally incomplete pass without penalty.

Major League Baseball, it could be argued, takes the concept another step by allowing some of its star players to avoid the parts of the game in which they do not excel. Under the designated hitter rule—in use since 1973 for games played in American League stadiums—pitchers are not required to hit. Hitting is something most pitchers do poorly, so the DH rule ensures more offense and allows pitchers to remain in games when they otherwise would be removed for a pinch hitter. The DH rule also allows pitchers to avoid baserunning, another activity that can result in injury. And the DH rule has created a lucrative niche for players who can hit well but whose defensive skills would make them a liability at any position on the field.

Cycling has a rule that provides some protection for riders who suffer misfortune in a stage race. It says, in part:

“In the case of a duly noted fall, puncture or mechanical incident in the last three kilometers of a road race stage, the rider or riders involved shall be credited with the time of the rider or riders in whose company they were riding at the moment of the accident.”

The rule is an acknowledgment of the dangers the riders face in the final moments of a stage designed for a bunch sprint. (The rule does not apply to mountaintop finishes where riders typically arrive individually or in very small groups.) But while the rule can allow riders to remain competitive in a multi-day race when otherwise their time losses would be too large, it applies only after misfortune strikes.

Alberto Contador, the greatest Grand Tour rider of the present generation, crashed in the final meters of last Thursday’s stage of the Giro d’Italia. Wearing the pink jersey of race leadership, Contador was near the front of the race when a multi-rider crash swept across the road and knocked him to the ground. Contador injured his left shoulder and there was serious doubt that he would be able to start Friday’s stage, but he was able to continue through the weekend. Today is the first rest day of the three-week race and it should bring Contador, still the overall leader, closer to full health.

Without Contador the Giro would be far less compelling. In 2014, both Contador and top rival Christopher Froome crashed out of the Tour de France. Vincenzo Nibali rode well and may have won the race anyway, but there’s no denying that the Tour was diminished by the absence of Contador and Froome. In the memories of many cycling fans, Nibali’s victory will always come with an asterisk.

In last year’s Tour, the injuries to Contador and Froome were not sustained while sprinting. Crashes and mechanical failures can occur anywhere on the course, and there’s no way to insulate every rider from every negative possibility. But given last Thursday’s events at the Giro, I think we soon might see an expansion of the three kilometer rule. It’s not hard to imagine a rule that allows riders to turn off the gas shortly before the finish line with no loss of time in the general classification. Fans want to see high-speed sprints and riders like AndrĂ© Greipel, Thursday’s winner, will continue to deliver. But in the mountains, where he struggles, Greipel will work with the other sprinters to avoid the time cutoff. No one will expect them to finish with the GC men, and the time they lose will have no bearing on the points classification. Why, then, should riders like Contador be compelled to mix it up with the sprinters on stages that don’t affect the general classification?

Personally, I don’t like the designated hitter rule. I think baseball is a better game when managers have to decide between offense and defense rather than always having the best of both. And I don’t like many of the rule changes in the NFL that have made quarterbacks and receivers almost untouchable. In cycling, if the general classification fight were over with three kilometers to go, we might just see more crashes at that point and fewer at the finish line. I don’t know what the UCI will do, but I think some kind of rule change is coming.

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