Interleague here to stay
Traditionalists may never fully embrace interleague play, but Bud Selig's once- radical idea is a permanent fixture.
Believe it or not, this is only Year No. 8 in the glorious history of interleague play. So how come it's already so hard to remember life before interleague play?
Yes, it was only 1997 when this was still such a foreign concept that the Dodgers forgot to include a DH on their first interleague lineup card. And the Pirates' Al Martin was so out of his league, he showed up for an interleague game in Minneapolis at the Target Center instead of the Metrodome.
But now interleague play is not only here. It's here forever.
At this point, it's as big an annual baseball tradition as a David Wells barstool mishap.
And while players still grumble about it, they have about as much chance of getting rid of interleague play as they do of dumping three-strikes-you're-out.
So all we can do these days is just gaze at the vast interleague panorama and assess its pros, its cons, its ups and its downs. What's good? What's bad? What could be tinkered with? What should be left alone? Join us now as we assess the State of the Interleague Union:
BIGGEST INTERLEAGUE MYTH: IT DETRACTS FROM THE WORLD SERIES AND ALL-STAR GAME
Wasn't this the No. 1 fear when people debated the merits of interleague play back in the beginning?
That nobody would care about the World Series anymore?
That there would be no more reason to watch the All-Star Game, because (shudder) Randy Johnson might already have pitched to Tony Gwynn in a (gasp) real game? Come on. We know there are people who still believe that. But they're the same people who think the game hasn't been the same since they put light bulbs on top of the stadiums.
"You know how much impact this has had on the World Series and the All-Star Game?" says Bud Selig. "None. Zero."
Nobody utters one complaint if the Lakers have played the Pistons in the regular season. Or the Flames have played the Lightning. Or the Patriots have played the Panthers. So if nobody thinks that sort of thing detracts from the Super Bowl, or the NBA Finals, or the Stanley Cup, why would it ruin only baseball's greatest event?
In fact, there have been just two World Series since 1997 that featured teams that had met during the regular season (Yankees-Braves in '99, Yankees-Mets in 2000). And in the case of Yankees-Mets, their regular-season duels just added plot lines to the October rematch. (Cue the Clemens-Piazza videotape.)
OK, there is slightly more merit to that All-Star Game argument. There was, we'll concede, a certain mystique to the sight of Mickey Mantle hitting against Sandy Koufax in the All-Star Game for the first time ever. But that was a world when there was so little baseball on TV, people barely saw those guys play anywhere. And we don't live in that world anymore.
"Let's just say," Selig muses, "that Roger Clemens opens up this All-Star Game for the National League. I don't think interleague play will take away from anything. I think the All-Star Game is as big, or bigger than ever."
BIGGEST LEGITIMATE GRIPE: THE SCHEDULE ISN'T FAIR
If this were utopia, every team in each division would play exactly the same number of interleague games against exactly the same opponents. Well, this just in: Utopia got buried a long time ago behind somebody's cash register.
So the schedule isn't fair, equitable or symmetrical. Neither is the NFL schedule -- and they're in no danger of going out of business because of it.
Is it fair that the Marlins play their impassioned "rivals," the Devil Rays, six times -- while the Mets are stuck with six games against the Yankees? No.
"But Fred Wilpon [owner of the Mets] is one of the leading advocates of interleague play," Selig says. "And he bristles at the thought of playing less than six games against the Yankees."
So score one for the cash register.
And is it fair that the Cubs have to play the White Sox six times and the Dodgers have to play the Angels six times, while two teams they're dueling with -- the Cardinals and Padres -- both will have their six "rivalry" games assigned to the Royals and Mariners (a combined 27 games under .500)? Well, no.
But that's the breaks. It's universally agreed that the best feature of interleague play is the electricity that busts out for Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels, Giants-A's, Astros-Rangers and Reds-Indians. But while rivalries are great, rivalries aren't always fair. And there's no way to escape that.
"Everyone likes those rivalry games," says Braves GM John Schuerholz, "except the team that has to play its rivalry against a team that might be loaded."
We've listened to the complaints of Mets players about this particular topic. We sympathize. But Fred Wilpon never complains when those turnstiles spin, so his players are going to be cursed with a lifetime of home-and-homes against the great Yankee monster. And there's not a thing they can do about it.
The second problem with those rivalry games is: Not everybody has a logical rival. But the schedule still requires that they play those six "rivalry" games against somebody. So welcome to the magic of Twins-Diamondbacks and Tigers-Rockies. They're the real curse of interleague play -- because they don't make for a better schedule or better attendance.
"Joe Smith may say, `It's unfair that you get to play, say, Cincinnati, and I've got to play, say, Colorado,' " Orza says. "But you know what? The people in Cincinnati don't care, and the people in Colorado don't care. The people who own Joe Smith's team don't care. And the guys who are Joe Smith's competitors are actually happy, because Joe Smith is playing a tougher team than they play. So for every player who's unhappy, there's another player who's happy. So that balances out.
"Which means the only people really affected are the people who root for Joe Smith's team. But you know what those people do? They watch the games. I understand there's some legitimate conceptual concern about this. But it doesn't translate into any box-office impact. ... It's a valid argument. But the pros outweigh the cons."
SECOND-BIGGEST SCHEDULE SNAFU: ROTATING INTERLEAGUE DIVISIONS
For the first five years of interleague play, life was simple: East played East. Central played Central. West played West.
But just because life was simple didn't mean life was better -- because after five years, nobody in Boston wanted to see the Expos visit one more time. And nobody in St. Louis wanted to see the Tigers visit one more time. And nobody in Kansas City wanted to see the Pirates visit one more time.
So baseball made a wise decision -- to begin rotating divisions for all interleague games except the rivalry portion of the schedule. Good idea. But it also looked cleaner on Selig's blackboard than it does in real life.
It starts getting messy because the two leagues aren't the same size. And not all the divisions are the same size. And it skews the wild-card race, among other things, if, for instance, one NL division has to play the powerhouses in the AL East while another division gets to play the far less-formidable AL Central.
It also creates more imbalance if (as happens this year) the Giants and Dodgers play the same "nonrival" schedule against the AL East, except that the Dodgers have to play the Yankees while the Giants play the Devil Rays.
So players grumble about those issues, too. And you can't blame them.
"What they're told," Orza says, "is that, over the course of time, all things balance out. And that's true. But the problem is, players don't play over the course of time. They're playing right now. So that doesn't do any good for a guy who believes this year is his one shot to win a championship."
There is, in fact, one way to make the interleague schedule much more fair: Realign again. Create two 15-team leagues, with three five-team divisions apiece. And presto -- every team in each division can play exactly the same interleague schedule, except for three rivalry games instead of six.
But that's a union proposal that owners have decided they want no parts of. It means some team would have to leave the National League for the American League -- and there are zero volunteers.
It also means there would be an interleague game every day. And owners prefer these June interleague "blocks."
And it would mean, in two of every three years, a team would play its "rivals" just three games instead of six. And the thought of playing the Mets only in Shea Stadium some year makes George Steinbrenner's turtleneck curl.
Orza, a major proponent of this idea, says this proposal wouldn't present "nearly as big a problem as people think." Most interleague games could still be played in one block. And the matchups left over could be promoted, as the Interleague Series of the Week.
But is there much chance of seeing this change enacted in Alex Rodriguez's lifetime? Nope. There's a better shot of contraction.
BIGGEST INTERLEAGUE DILEMMA: WHAT ABOUT THE DH?
If we're going to have two leagues in one sport with two different sets of rules, we're always going to have major complications when they have to play each other. Fortunately, in our continuing efforts to solve all of baseball's problems, we have the perfect solution.
We rolled this out last year, to major acclaim. So we'll roll it out again.
If the Seattle Mariners arrive in, say, St. Louis for the first time ever, it would be great if mom and dad could tell little Johnny: "Grab your glove. We're going out to see the great Edgar Martinez play."
Unfortunately, as the rules stand now, what they have to say is: "Grab your glove and your pillow, little Johnny. We're going to wake you up in case Edgar gets to pinch-hit in the ninth inning."
Under our plan, we would solve that problem with no muss and no fuss -- by holding a DH Night once in every series featuring an AL team in an NL park: AL rules. DH gets to play for both teams. One night only. Be there.
Meanwhile, just to acquaint those DH-dazed AL fans with the way baseball ought to be played, we'd stage Pitcher Gets To Hit Night once a series in AL parks. Let them experience the thrill of watching Dontrelle Willis hit. Or the intrigue of trying to figure out which side baseball's most innovative switch-hitter, Phillies pitcher Vicente Padilla, will be hitting from in any given at-bat.
If baseball would just enact this plan, it would take an annual controversy and convert it into an actual promotion -- one more reason to attend an interleague game. Can't beat that, huh?
Well, in a major upset, even the commissioner loves this idea, despite the fact that it came from the likes of us.
"I like that," Selig says. "I really do. This winter, I'm going to try to put that through."
Hey, what do you know? More proof that ESPN.com can, occasionally, make this world a better place.
EMPTIEST INTERLEAGUE COMPLAINT: THE NOVELTY HAS WORN OFF
When the interleague detractors run out of stuff to complain about, they point their fingers at Tampa Bay, where 13,275 people showed up Tuesday to watch Barry Bonds' triumphant arrival. Or Kansas City, where 15,209 checked out the view of those nomadic Expos. Or Detroit, where 19,602 were on hand to witness John Smoltz's emotional Michigan homecoming.
That, they tell us, is clear proof that the thrill of interleague play has officially expired.
OK, here's our rebuttal: What it really proves is that the novelty of watching the Devil Rays, Expos and Tigers has worn off no matter where they play. Doesn't matter if it's an interleague game, a National League game, an American League game or a Little League game.
There are always going to be games every night, in every sport that are less attractive than others. It's the nature of the sporting beast. So those attendance figures are a commentary on that reality, not the worth of interleague play.
"I really don't understand why people think interleague play is so bad," says one sane locker-room voice, the Mets' Todd Zeile. "I don't know what everybody wants to improve. It comes at a point when you're playing midseason baseball games. You can't keep adding bells and whistles and make it a carnival. So you try to change the matchups to make it more interesting. To me, it just breaks up the monotony in the middle of the season."
Bingo. Give that man a hand. Or a job as an official interleague spokesman. He's 100 percent dead-on.
At worst, interleague play breaks up the monotony. At best, it's a chance for some kid in Baltimore to see Barry Bonds in real life. Or it's Cubs-White Sox in front of zero empty seats. Or it's a chance to stage one more Pedro Martinez-David Wells duel in Fenway. What the heck is so wrong with that?
"It's not a question of, is everything perfect," Orza says. "It's a question of whether you like it or not."
And people vote on that question with their wallets every year. Their vote is clear: They like it. Interleague attendance has been 14.3 percent higher than all other games over the years. And Selig predicts a 20-percent increase this year.
"The people love it," Selig says. "So should we tell our customers, `We're not going to give you what you want?' Of course not. No business would do that."
Some owners are actually pushing for more interleague games. That's not happening -- not any time soon, anyway. But there's probably a chance of more than less, because it's time for even the grumblers to face the truth:
Interleague play is now so ingrained in the baseball landscape, you couldn't uproot it with an earthquake.