Mariners manager Eric Wedge says he's "noncommittal" about interleague play, which makes him a rarity these days.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge says he’s “noncommittal” about interleague play, which makes him a rarity these days. Many of his colleagues have become committed to the notion that playing the opposite league is a royal pain.
With each passing year, it seems, the anti-interleague sentiment is growing. What was wildly popular when instigated by commissioner Bud Selig in 1997 has gradually become a prime source of grousing and whining.
Now, as the 15th season of interleague play commenced this weekend, you have Detroit manager Jim Leyland using words like “ridiculous” to critique the format and concluding, “I think it was something that was certainly a brilliant idea to start with. But I think it’s run its course.”
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You have Chipper Jones telling USA Today, “I hate it. To say it screws up the schedule is an understatement.”
You have players and managers throughout baseball expressing an increasing number of similar grievances.
Even Wedge, as he continued to talk about interleague play on Thursday, expressed some reservations.
“If I had to put a vote, I think to have the home-and-home rivalry, some of which are real, some of which are not, I think that’s fine,” he said. “You get the fans a taste of interleague. The fact we have to take it as far as we take it, I don’t know if that’s necessary.”
Wedge hastened to add, “If the fans like it, it’s going to happen. I’m all for it.”
Indeed, interleague isn’t going anywhere, because fans do like it, even if they do their own share of grousing and whining.
And that means Selig loves it. At a time when flagging attendance is a growing concern, the fact that the 250 or so interleague games each year have drawn, on average, 11.8 percent more fans than intraleague games, means it’s here to stay.
That’s a good thing, by the way. Despite all the complaints about the manufactured rivalries (topped by the Mariners and Padres, but we’re calling a moratorium on the lame jokes about that), the DH inconsistencies and, especially, the scheduling inequities, there’s still much to like about interleague play.
The “real” rivalries to which Wedge referred are still a source of great excitement. Every year, it seems, there are matchups that capture the imagination, such as the current Red Sox-Cubs series at Fenway. And there are always intriguing reunions, such as Ken Griffey Jr. returning to Safeco Field in 2007, and Cliff Lee starting against the Rangers on Saturday.
Leyland was particularly upset that the Tigers have to play six straight games at National League parks, costing them their DH. That means Angels manager Mike Scioscia really has a complaint — his team plays nine straight games in NL parks.
“The American League gets penalized,” Leyland told the Detroit Free Press. “Their pitchers are hitting and bunting all year, and they get the advantage of letting their pitchers rest and using the DH when they come here, and we gotta use guys six straight days without Victor Martinez or Alex Avila or somebody. That’s ridiculous. Totally ridiculous, and they ought to look into it.”
It’s a valid concern, and always will be so long as the two leagues have different rules. Personally, I’d love to try a proposal that’s been around almost since the advent of interleague play: Use National League rules in American League parks, and vice versa.
That would give fans a taste of what they’ve been missing — something we’ll get in Seattle on June 24-26. That’s when the Florida Marlins, because of a scheduling conflict at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, will play three games in Safeco as the home team.
The biggest gripe about interleague play, and the toughest to solve, is the grossly unequal scheduling. Since everyone in a particular division is not playing the same teams, one’s path to the playoffs can be — and has been, on many occasions — greatly affected by the luck of the interleague draw.
That could become an even more controversial point next year if MLB adds another wild-card team in each league, as Selig is pushing. With the two wild cards in each league facing a possible one-game elimination showdown to advance in the playoffs, it won’t be taken lightly if a rival wins the division (and a first-round bye) because it had an easier interleague road.
Just looking at the AL West this year, the Mariners, Rangers and Angels all play their six “rivalry” games against teams with losing records (the Padres, Astros and Dodgers, respectively). But the A’s have to play six games against the defending World Series champion Giants.
You could find numerous other such inequities throughout MLB. In the NL Central, the Cardinals escape playing the Red Sox and Yankees, while the Brewers have to play not only those two teams but also the tough Tampa Bay Rays.
In the AL Central, the Tigers and Indians both have to play the Giants, while the White Sox don’t — but they get six against the mediocre Cubs. And so it goes.
The only way to get around this, it seems, is to reduce the number of interleague games — perhaps cutting them from 18 to 12, as SI’s Tom Verducci proposed this week. Maybe nine games is the operable number.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it would allow the rivalries to remain in play, and cut down the effect of divisional teams playing disparate opponents.
The anti-interleague coalition would be appeased, while the proponents would still get a taste of it. To put it in Wedge-speak, it would be a first step in keeping interleague from taking it too far.