Commentary

Players express interleague angst

Most think annual NL-AL schedule is in dire need of a makeover

Originally Published: May 21, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Another must-see edition of interleague play (insert your favorite Rockies-Tigers joke here) begins this weekend. And here's something you might not know:

If it were up to those players you'll be stampeding through the gates to watch, they'd just as soon see intergalactic play as interleague play.

Dunn I say just stick to the rivalry games and eliminate all the useless interleague games. People don't care about Washington against Toronto. They do care about Washington against Baltimore. So keep them and dump the rest.

-- Nationals slugger Adam Dunn

Players we surveyed this week told Rumblings they would estimate the number of players who dislike interleague play is somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-75 percent. And here you thought the only thing we could get 70-75 percent of all players to agree on was the euphoria of having their paychecks delivered via direct deposit.

"I say just stick to the rivalry games and eliminate all the useless interleague games," said Nationals philosopher-masher Adam Dunn. "People don't care about Washington against Toronto. They do care about Washington against Baltimore. So keep them and dump the rest."

Players mostly understand that's not happening, of course. Interleague games drew 10 percent more paying customers last year than the rest of the schedule. So since the customer is always right, particularly if he brings his wallet, this sport isn't about to mess with any invention that represents that big a bump in its bottom line.

So "this isn't going away any quicker than the DH," said Dodgers reliever Will Ohman. "We know that."

But that doesn't mean players' gripes with the current system don't deserve to be heard. So here they come. See what you think.

It isn't fair

The biggest, and most valid, complaint players have about interleague play is as basic as a 3-and-0 fastball: The schedule isn't fair. It can't be fair when teams battling for a ticket to October don't -- and, in fact, can't -- play the same schedule.

Let's say, for example, that the AL Central comes down to a race between the Tigers and White Sox. Theoretically, the AL Central is matched up this year with the NL Central for interleague purposes. But here's where that theoretical stuff goes down the disposal:

The White Sox don't get to play either of the two bottom teams in the NL Central, the Pirates and Astros, but do get six games with the Cubs, plus a "bonus" series with the Dodgers. The Tigers, on the other hand, play half their interleague games against the Pirates, Astros and (for some reason) Rockies. Advantage: Tigers.

"I remember when I was with the Astros," said Tigers shortstop Adam Everett, "we always played the Rangers home-and-home, and it seemed like they always beat the snot out of us. And the Cardinals always played the Royals, and it seemed like they always swept them. So that was like a five-win difference right there."

Now you could make a case, naturally, that that was more the Astros' fault than the schedule-maker's fault. But players have every right to grumble about inequities that affect their whole season's work.

"There's just a major structural problem," Ohman said. "It's not an even playing field. And the teams it hurts most are the teams vying for the wild card, because that's based on overall record. So if you're a team going for the National League wild card and you draw the AL East in interleague, it means you're going to run into a buzz saw in New York, Boston and Tampa Bay. And if somebody else is drawing teams that are not of that caliber, that's a distinct disadvantage. It's like they're negating all the other things they've done to create parity."

These are all totally legitimate points. And to be honest, it's hard to tell these guys otherwise. So here's what we tell them instead:

• The wild-card race is already skewed, just because of the unbalanced schedule. So the interleague issue isn't even the main problem.

• Baseball isn't the only sport with schedule inequities. The NFL is loaded with them. Just a quick for-instance: The Jets and Patriots will play 14 games against common opponents (or each other) this year. But in the other two games (that's one-eighth of the schedule, remember), the Patriots draw the Ravens and Broncos, while the Jets get the Raiders and Bengals. Have you heard one complaint about that? From anybody? So how come baseball takes all the heat?

• And, finally, here's the reason this can't be fixed: It's impossible. If we're going to have a sport in which not all divisions are the same size, and we're going to have a sport that prioritizes interleague "rivalries" when not every team has a "rival," there won't ever be such a thing as a "fair" schedule, interleague or otherwise. So what's the solution? There is none. Sorry.

Too much of a good thing

We all know North America hasn't exactly been clamoring for a Reds-Blue Jays interleague series. Or A's-Diamondbacks. Or Pirates-Twins. But North America is going to get those series this year whether it wants them or not.

So players often wonder: Are all these interleague games really necessary?

"When you think of interleague, you think of rivalries," Dunn said. "You don't think of Washington against Seattle or Oakland. You think of the Mets against the Yankees. And when I was in Cincinnati, when we'd play Cleveland, it didn't matter who was good and who wasn't. The house was packed. One thing you could always bank on in Cincinnati was that Opening Day and the Cleveland games, it was going to be packed."

So if interleague is really about giving the fans what they want, Dunn said, then give them those rivalries, period. Six interleague games a year is plenty, he said.

But of course, there are two major hang-ups with that idea. One is that it would mean that fans in, say, Milwaukee and Houston would never see the Yankees come to their town. Which kind of defeats the whole purpose of interleague play. The other is that only 18 teams are matched up with "natural" geographical rivals. So what would we do about the other 12 teams?

Well, said Ohman, why can't those teams develop nongeographical rivalries, kind of like Notre Dame and Southern California in college football? Hmmm, we replied. So how exactly would we translate that to baseball?

"I don't think I'm at liberty to reveal that," Ohman said, with a knowing sort of chuckle. "But it can be done."

Uh, can it? We're not so sure. But at least he got us thinking about all this. So we thought it would be useful to investigate this question:

Is it possible interleague play isn't as big a draw as it's made out to be? If you took away the four biggest rivalries -- Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels and A's-Giants -- would you find that all those other interleague games don't attract any more fans than normal games?

Fascinating question. So ESPN research whiz Scott Beaman broke it down for us. Here's what he found: If you subtracted those four rivalries in each of the last three seasons, interleague attendance was still 7.5 percent higher last year, 4.1 percent bigger in 2007 and 6.0 percent larger in 2006.

Obviously, then, there's a market for more interleague games than players think. Maybe not Pirates-Twins or Reds-Blue Jays. But enough to keep interleague play alive, anyway.

Other issues

And now the other issues that constantly come up in this conversation:

Ausmus Players do complain about [interleague play] -- unless they get to go to cities they like. ... Funny how that works.

-- Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus

• Travel bureau: Travel nightmares aren't as big a problem this year -- with the East vs. East, Central vs. Central and West vs. West interleague format. But in other years, interleague schedules can add thousands of miles to a team's schedule. Last season, for example, thanks in part to an AL West-NL East interleague template, the Angels made seven different visits to the Eastern time zone. This year, they'll make only four.

But this is a complaint that even players admit will shift with the breeze. "It's funny," said Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus. "Players do complain about it -- unless they get to go to cities they like. Like if you're playing the White Sox and you get to go to Chicago an extra time, then everybody's happy about it. Funny how that works."

• The old rules switcheroo: People in baseball seem to love the fact that one league has a DH and the other doesn't, giving us all a topic we can debate for the rest of our lives. Which would be fun if the two leagues never played each other. But now they do: 252 games a year. And any system that forces a team to take a Jim Thome, a Junior Griffey or, in a normal year, a David Ortiz out of its lineup has major flaws. Doesn't it?

"It changes things a lot," said Everett, a guy who actually likes interleague play for the most part. "Once you build your team around a DH, you get into a flow, you get on a roll, and then you travel to a National League city and everything goes haywire. On a good team, everyone knows his role, and when you throw out that role, your team chemistry changes a little. And it's not always easy to get it back."

• The no-comfort zone: Even players who are down on interleague play understand it doesn't exist for their pleasure in the first place. But that doesn't mean it makes players' lives any easier.

"There's nothing about interleague play that isn't great for the fans," Ohman said. "It's a great idea for the fans. The problem, from a player's standpoint, is you have to play three games against a team you've never seen before, and you have very little information about them. So it doesn't allow you to exploit weaknesses the way you do against a team you play 18 times."

"It gets you out of your comfort zone," Dunn said. "You've got to learn new pitchers, and, personally, I don't like that. Believe me, I could do without seeing Roy Halladay. But I've got a feeling I'm going to have to face him."

We have some degree of sympathy for all those plights and all these issues. It's tougher to play -- and succeed -- in the major leagues than your average fan thinks it is. And interleague play just adds to the degree of difficulty.

But is there anything baseball could do to make it better for everyone? Uh, not much. But we got a couple of fun proposals from our panelists.

Phillies pitcher Chad Durbin proposed an idea we've campaigned for forever: "Use the visiting team's league rules," he said. "Show the fans something unique."

We're all for this one. Here's our longtime variation of this idea: Once every series, when an AL team comes to an NL town, there should be a DH Night. See Junior Griffey. Contemplate the impact the DH rule has on strategy. And vice versa when an NL team visits an AL city. It's Pitchers Get to Hit Night. Can't beat that for entertainment.

Meanwhile, that always-innovative Adam Dunn had a proposal to liven up the interleague schedule, if we're not going to buy his rivalry-only plan.

"If you want the best interleague games known to man," he said, "then why not do best record in one league against best record in the other league -- home-and-home, six games a year?"

Hey, interesting. So how would we make that work? Easy. Take the June 1 standings and give every team a seed. Then No. 1 plays No. 1, No. 2 plays No. 2, all the way down to 14 versus 14. Those 15th and 16th teams in the NL? They'd get six extra games with each other. We could call them the Basement Bowl.

Only one problem: Those series would just add to almost all of the interleague problems players complain about now. More travel messes. And even greater schedule inequity.

"Nah, do it like this and players can't [grumble]," Dunn said. "If you're the best team, play the other best team. That's what baseball is supposed to be -- the best against the best."

Cool. Works for us. But we're sure it wouldn't work for everybody, because there's no way to do this that works for everybody. And that's the biggest problem of all with all this constructive interleague criticism. No good answers, even to valid questions.

"Hey, that's OK," said Rays reliever Jason Isringhausen. "If the world was perfect, then nobody would have anything to complain about."

Peavy

Ready to rumble

• Attention, shoppers: Jake Peavy's near-trade to the White Sox came as no surprise to scouts around baseball. We heard from multiple scouts this week that White Sox scouts were spreading the word that GM Kenny Williams was open for business, meaning "they'll talk about anyone," said one scout. So even after this deal for Peavy, Williams might not be done.

Obviously, John Danks and Carlos Quentin aren't going anywhere. And Mark Buehrle's contract swells to $15 million a year if he's traded, and guarantees his $15M option for 2012. But the buzz is that Williams will listen on Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, Paul Konerko (who has to OK any deals), Octavio Dotel, A.J. Pierzynski, etc.

Williams is one of the most aggressive GMs in the business. So once he decides to move, look out. "Kenny's always open for business," said one GM. "He loves to make deals."

Bedard
• Aceless in Seattle: As the Mariners start to slide, teams are already debating how big a trade-deadline attraction Erik Bedard would be. And who can blame them? Bedard is 2-1, with a 2.53 ERA, and he's averaging more than a strikeout an inning. But compared with the spectacular year he had in Baltimore in 2007, his WHIP is still up and his whiff rate is still down. Plus, after giving up Adam Jones and hot pitching prospect Chris Tillman (among others) to get Bedard, the Mariners almost certainly will want at least one potential impact player back.

"At this point," said an exec of one team, "they're still trying to push you toward [Jarrod] Washburn or [Carlos] Silva. But at some point, I expect that to change. The problem is, [Bedard] still hasn't gotten back to what he was in Baltimore, when it looked like he was starting to apply himself and get on a roll. Oh, I'd love to have him. Don't get me wrong. I'm just not sure what you're getting if you trade for him. He's not a No. 1, but he might be priced like a No. 1."

Holliday
•  All A's: Clubs that have spoken to the A's report that Billy Beane "has had it" with his scuffling outfit. But it figures to be at least a month before he starts unloading Matt Holliday or anyone of significance.

"If he could do something right now, he'd do it," said one front-office man. "But I don't think clubs have enough feel for what they've got on that club. So I'd say late June, early July is more likely."

For your shopping pleasure, here are some scouting snapshots of notable A's on the block:

•  Into the snake pit: Before the Diamondbacks made the decision to move A.J. Hinch into the dugout, they compiled a list of other managers and coaches in professional sports who succeeded despite little, or minimal, experience as a manager or head coach: Mike Tomlin (Bears), Ozzie Guillen (White Sox), Vinny Del Negro (Bulls), Larry Dierker (Astros) and even, in their own recent past, Bob Brenly.

They also looked at Bobby Cox and Terry Francona, who managed, then spent time in the front office and then went back to managing. And the D-backs concluded that, if you bring in the right guy, it isn't necessarily experience that determines if he succeeds or fails.

So did they take a risk, especially in a sport in which nontraditional thinking is always eyed suspiciously? Absolutely. But A.J. Hinch is a bright, creative guy. He's shown a willingness to give everyone around him a voice in the big decisions of the day. And he deserves more of a chance than a lot of people have been willing to give him around this sport.

And the Diamondbacks are allowed to think outside the box, because there's no magic formula for success. The last four managers to win the World Series are Ozzie Guillen, Tony La Russa, Terry Francona and Charlie Manuel. It's safe to say they didn't exactly roll off the same managerial assembly line.

Webb
• Webb Gemology: Meanwhile in the desert, Brandon Webb is still at least a month from returning. But already, there is buzzing about the possibility that Arizona could throw him out there on the market in July. One GM's assessment of that possibility: "Very unlikely," because Webb's value couldn't be lower right now, and he's signed for next season at a palatable $8.5 million. So the Diamondbacks are almost certain to keep him and either try to win next year or deal him next July if they can't.

•  Lee-way: Another team in almost an identical position is the Indians, with Cliff Lee. Clubs that have felt out the Indians about Lee's availability have come away thinking GM Mark Shapiro wants to hang on to Lee, pick up his $9 million option for next year and hope things go right around him for a change.

Shapiro hasn't told other teams he won't listen on Lee this July, or even next winter, if the Indians don't U-turn in the next few weeks. But they would almost certainly want a can't-miss, ace-waiting-to-happen young starter back, plus at least one other star-caliber prospect. And teams just don't trade away pitchers like that (think Tommy Hanson, David Price, etc.) in this day and age. So don't look for much Rumor Central action on Cliff Lee before July 2010, if ever.

• Buy-or-sell land: On that note, for all those who thought Cleveland was nearly ready to bag this season and start selling off parts … uh, guess again. Clubs that have spoken with the Indians say they're still trying to ADD pitching, to give the current group at least another month to right the ship.

Other teams report the Indians are very willing to talk about Mark DeRosa for the right pitcher, which makes the Giants a better match than the Brewers or Mets. You should also remember that this is a team overstuffed with outfield depth, with Ben Francisco, Matt LaPorta, Trevor Crowe, Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo all positioned to battle for playing time on either side of Grady Sizemore within the next year. And there are indications the Indians also would talk about dealing off some of that depth for the right arm, or arms.

• On the safe side: One more Indians rumbling: A few skeptics noticed when Shapiro said this week that Eric Wedge wasn't getting fired, the GM seemed to hedge his vote-of-confidence bet by adding a "right now." But while you can take that as an indication that Wedge isn't guaranteed to be manager for life, we haven't heard any indication that Shapiro has looked at -- or even thought about -- any other candidate. And he's told everyone who has asked he's convinced Wedge hasn't lost his team. So you can scratch Wedge off any endangered-manager lists … for "right now," anyway.

Penny
• A Penny ante move? With Daisuke Matsuzaka returning, John Smoltz not that far over the horizon and Clay Buchholz (1.60 ERA) and Michael Bowden (0.86) overmatching Triple-A hitters, we're hearing that the Red Sox are now actively listening on Brad Penny. "I don't think they'll get a ton for him," said an official of one club. "But they'll get something." Beyond that, though, the Red Sox plan to hoard their pitching depth, especially given their 5.59 rotation ERA. "I think their depth might be more valuable to them," said the same official, "than whatever they could get back for it."

• No more parking: The Phillies never particularly wanted to have Chan Ho Park be a starting pitcher. But they had to promise him a chance to start to get him to come to Philadelphia. It was Park's No. 1 demand, but he had no idea at the time how much tougher he was about to make life for himself in Philadelphia. After seven mostly ugly starts (one win, a 7.08 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP), his favorite fans are all over him. And once you get on Philadelphia's goat list, it's tough to get off.

"He'd have been better off beginning his career in Philadelphia in long relief, and then pitching well, and then working his way into the starting rotation," one scout said. "It would have been much easier for him to get off on the right foot, out of the spotlight, than to do it the way he did it. But it's too late now."

• Life doesn't begin at 40: Jamie Moyer's rope in that rotation remains a lot longer than Chan Ho's, based on track record and his new two-year contract alone. And while the Phillies have their eye on the pitching market, they have no pitcher in their system at the moment whom they'd consider a clear-cut upgrade on what Moyer has been for them since he arrived in 2006.

Nevertheless, an official of one club who spoke with the Phillies reports they're "very concerned" about Moyer, for all kinds of reasons.

"This is a far tougher issue than Chan Ho Park," said one veteran scout. "They've gone from, 'At what point is he going to turn it around?' to 'Can he turn it around?' His margin for error is almost nil right now. Teams with a lot of experience are going to give him trouble now, because he has no margin for error against a good-hitting team. And he doesn't run into enough of those inexperienced teams where you can count on him to win in double figures again. If he doesn't figure something out, they've got a real problem on their hands."

• The new Yankee arcadium: Those home runs might be flying. But we're hearing that the Yankees don't plan to make any firm judgments on the home run propensity of the new Yankee Stadium until after the summer breezes kick in and the old stadium is dismantled.

The club has been told by its engineers that when the old park is out of the way, the wind currents off the East River should hit the new stadium differently and actually reduce home runs.

In the meantime, we've studied the home run data over at hittrackeronline.com. And even though the new stadium has proved to be 55 percent easier to hit a home run in than the average park, data shows the wind effect might be less dramatic than popularly believed. For instance:

So is this just a place where pitchers make one gruesome pitch after another? Seems hard to believe that's the only explanation. But that's why all those engineers make the big bucks, right?

The Rumblings scouting bureau

More incisive opinion from baseball's finest scouting minds:

Ortiz
• The weekly David Ortiz report: "He's doing whatever he can to get his bat speed back. But with the wrist problem, I don't think he's going to get it back. A wrist problem is as bad for a hitter as a shoulder or an elbow is for a pitcher."

• On B.J. Ryan: "He's done. He's down to 86 [mph], with a little slop slider. If he's not done, he's just a second left-hander in the bullpen."

• On Dontrelle Willis: "He looked [Tuesday] like he did before he lost it -- back with that funky, cross-body motion, the old angle on his fastball and that running breaking ball away. Very encouraging."

• On Jason Bartlett: "He's your American League All-Star shortstop. I mean, who's better? I'll challenge anybody to tell me a shortstop who's better than him. He's become a real good hitter. He can drive a ball. He can bunt. He can steal a base. And he epitomizes instincts for the game. I love that kid."

List of the week

This is supposed to be a year in which East plays East, Central plays Central and West plays West. So where did these funky interleague matchups come from?

By the way, for the Rockies and Tigers, this will be their sixth series in the past seven seasons. What's up with that?

Headline of the week

This just in from our favorite comedians at The Onion:

Royals Unable To Find Themselves In Standings

Late-nighter of the week

Finally, from David Letterman: "The NYU graduation speaker is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. … She told the grads, 'Work hard. Save your money. And one day you might be able to afford to attend a Yankees game.'"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com