AL-NL play on deck for '97? Executive panel backs East vs. East format


LOS ANGELES -- Coming soon to a stadium near you: The Orioles vs. the Atlanta Braves . . . and the Philadelphia Phillies . . . and the rest of the National League East. Interleague regular-season play could become a reality as soon as next year.

Major-league owners are considering a plan that would call for each team to play at least 15 interleague games in 1997, probably in a format that pits each division against its regional counterpart.

The Orioles would play a three-game series against every team in the NL East along with a balanced league schedule that includes 12 games each against their four AL East rivals and 11 games each against the other nine American League teams. The clubs in four-team West divisions would play four games apiece against their new regional rivals in the other league.

The schedule would have to be revised in 1998, when expansion teams begin play in Arizona and Tampa Bay, depending on whether they are both assigned to the same league or split up to create six five-team divisions.

Interleague play has been coming for a long time, but it emerged as a major issue at the quarterly owners meeting that began yesterday at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel. It was the predominant topic of discussion at last night's meeting of Major League Baseball's Executive Council, which unanimously endorsed the new format and will recommend it to the full ownership tomorrow.

"The Executive Council is very supportive of the concept," interim commissioner Bud Selig said. "It will now go on to the clubs, and there are other steps ahead. It's possible that there will be a vote on it. It's also possible that we won't vote on it."

It is a complicated issue that raises questions about the future of the existing divisional and league alignments and the survival of the designated hitter rule. And each of those issues -- as well as the concept of interleague play itself -- is subject to negotiation with the players union. For that reason, some owners may be hesitant to move as quickly, perhaps enough to keep the proposal from coming to a vote tomorrow.

"I haven't heard anybody come out against interleague play," said Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles, who is a prominent member of Major League Baseball's schedule and format committee. "There may be some [opposition] there, but I haven't heard any."

The Major League Baseball Players Association doesn't figure to object to the concept of limited interleague play, but the union is certain to resist any attempt to phase out the DH. That means the interleague games probably would be played under the rules of the home team, the same arrangement that is in effect during the preseason and the World Series.

If ownership moves forward with the interleague experiment, it could be the beginning of a dramatic industry reorganization. The arrival of the two expansion teams figured to force another divisional realignment in 1998, but the owners could attempt to regionalize the game even more.

"Once Phoenix and Tampa Bay arrive in '98, there is the potential of teams switching divisions and even leagues," Giles said.

No one is expressing fierce opposition to interleague play, but there is at least one good argument against the proposal. Traditionalists contend that it will diminish the mystique of the World Series, which matches two pennant winners who have never played against each other in the regular season. Pragmatists counter that it will enhance interest in a troubled sport, raising ticket revenues and TV ratings.

"I'm as pure a traditionalist as they come," said Braves general manager John Schuerholz. "But I've seen how the fans have reacted and accepted expanded division play and expanded playoff formats. Largely because of that, I'm now in favor of the concept."

It could create some new and highly marketable rivalries. The Orioles would play Philadelphia three times each year, if the owners decide to retain the parallel division format after expansion. And fans in baseball's three two-team markets -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- would be able to develop true cross-town rivalries rather than settle for an occasional exhibition series.

The owners could choose instead to rotate the interleague competition, so that every team would play a series against each team in the other league over a period of three seasons. Proponents of a rotating interleague schedule like the idea of a marquee player such as Ken Griffey or Cal Ripken getting the chance to visit every major-league city, but the limited interleague schedule makes that a minor consideration. If the divisional assignments were rotated, a team would visit a specific city in the other league once every six years.

There could be considerable diversity of opinion on the best way to proceed, but Giles says that the time is right for a dramatic change in the way the national pastime is presented to its fans.

"There definitely are a few drawbacks," he said, "but after you weigh all the pluses and minuses, I think it will be very exciting."

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