By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
Because the novelty of interleague play in Major League Baseball has worn off, the arguments for and against it have lost their force. It’s just not worth the trouble, anymore, because we’re stuck.
But that is, by no means, a victory for interleague play, which arrives without anticipation, precisely because the novelty has worn off. Twelve years after its debut, interleague play is neither a thrill nor a menace. It’s just a chronic ache one learns to ignore while moving along with life.
The big troubles with interleague aren’t the aesthetic and pragmatic problems feared long ago by detractors, even if all those problems have, indeed, materialized. The main trouble with interleague play is simply that it no longer raises a pulse one way or the other.
Sentiments in favor of maintaining the American and National Leagues as separate, parallel universes have long ago been lost beneath geologically ordered layers of memory. The notion that interleague play contaminates the league statistics has all but disappeared from view.
On the flip side, even the worthwhile “rivalries” made possible by interleague play are so commonplace by now that they’ve lost much of their power to surprise and excite. That’s because they’re not rivalries, nor can they ever be rivalries, and now they’re not even novelties.
If we’ve gained anything from 11 years of interleague play, we’ve reaffirmed that baseball rivalries emerge from competition for a championship, and from no other source. They aren’t like football rivalries.
A football rivalry is a season unto itself. It makes and breaks coaches and programs. Whether it’s Auburn vs. Alabama, Ohio State vs. Michigan, Texas vs. Texas A&M or any of the others, that game is definitive, even when the championship isn’t at stake. Head-to-head results don’t have the same force in baseball, unless they bear directly on a championship.
It could be that generations of time will juice the interleague rivalries, but it’s not likely. No matter how many times the Reds play the Cleveland Indians, those clubs will never fight each other for a playoff spot or a division title. Their games will no more than mark the middle of summer, like relatives coming to town.
The Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers used to conduct a very heated rivalry, not because of any geographical affinity – it didn’t even make sense for the Reds to play in the NL West – but because those clubs fought each other every year for the division title. Now that the Reds and Dodgers play in different divisions, the rivalry is dead.
Those weekends when the Reds play the Indians, or the New York Mets play the New York Yankees, or the Texas Rangers play the Houston Astros, or the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Los Angeles Angels, will never even amount to bragging rights, because the fans who brag will be those with the best clubs, regardless of a few head-to-head games.
At its best, interleague play is cute. It’s cute that the Yankees and Mets play every year, but it isn’t important. It’s cute that the Reds and Indians play every year, and it even helps the Reds by nearly filling Great American Ball Park, but those fans don’t think they’re at a game that matters the way the game down the street at Paul Brown Stadium between the Bengals and Cleveland Browns matters.
Outside of the obvious regional matchups, the only big gate winners in interleague play are National League clubs visited by the Yankees or Boston Red Sox. Those clubs are baseball royalty – the Red Sox because they’ve won the most recent championships, and the Yankees because they’ve won the most championships ever.
Wherever the Yankees and Red Sox visit, the air crackles just a little bit more. The Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers have fans everywhere, but they’re not nearly as attractive.
Then you have clubs like the Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Washington Nationals, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals and many others who don’t make the air crackle anywhere, including their own towns, in some cases. They don’t bring a bit to interleague play, and they even detract from it.
Last weekend, the Yankees took their history show to Houston, where they would play he Astros at Minute Maid Park for the first time. The Astros sold out that series almost the minute it went on sale. Right off that series, though, the Astros went to Baltimore to play the Orioles for a series of meaning almost nothing but for the oddity. That’s interleague play.
Among the more disquieting elements of interleague play is that annual reminder of American League dominance. That’s not an argument against interleague play. It’s just a truth we’d rather be able to ignore.
Before interleague play, arguments might rage about which league was better. When the AL won 13 of 17 All-Star games and 11 of 17 World Series from 1933 through 1949, or when the NL won 19 of 20 All-Star games and 12 of 20 World Series from 1963 through 1982, one could say the number of games involved didn’t really establish anything.
Now that we’ve got another 250 games in the mix every year, there’s absolutely no room for doubt. Besides winning ten straight All-Star games (plus one tie) and sweeping three of the last four World Series, the American League also has won 56 percent of the interleague games in the last four years, beating the NL by comfortable margins each season.
The one remaining resonant issue is schedule fairness. Divisional races and playoff berths aren’t always decided by schedule inequities, but it remains that a club with a tougher interleague schedule faces a longer road than a competitor that doesn’t.
Like it or not, though, even that issue is easy enough to diffuse. Interleague play is not the only culprit. Wildcard races within leagues feature similar inequities, since some clubs play in tougher divisions than others. And a contender that wins against a tough interleague schedule is thereby strengthened, not weakened.
It’s still unfair, but that doesn’t matter. Interleague play is here to stay, and we can no more argue it away than we can argue away a chronic pain.Email | Print