NL vs. AL: When leagues collide

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The great experiment begins this year. The Orioles will play the Atlanta Braves. The New York Yankees will play the cross-town Mets. The Chicago Cubs will play the Chicago White Sox. And a century's worth of baseball tradition will give way to the results of a Major League Baseball marketing survey.

Interleague play is here, and the game will never be the same. Baseball owners say it will be better - both aesthetically and economically. Baseball traditionalists say it will be sacrilege. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

It certainly will be different. The altered schedule allows for up to 16 interleague games a team (depending on the size of the division), but the game might have been better served by restructuring the schedule to include more intradivisional play. The Orioles will play the Montreal Expos three times this year. Wouldn't you rather see them play three more games against the Yankees?

Gold mine or gimmick? Time will tell, but here's a thumbnail look at what's in store when the wall between the leagues tumbles down in June.

Series to watch

World Series Preview: The Orioles visit brand-new Turner Field on June 13-15 for one of the first interleague series to bring together two of the top candidates for the Fall Classic. Braves fans obviously like the idea, because the Orioles series was the first to sell out at Atlanta's new ballpark.

World Series Preview II: The Cleveland Indians visit Busch Stadium June 13-15 to take on the St. Louis Cardinals. The Indians remain a playoff favorite despite the loss of left fielder Albert Belle. The Cardinals remain a playoff favorite because they play in the same division with only two other real teams.

World Series Preview III: The defending world champion New York Yankees travel to Miami on June 13-15 to face the off-season-spending world champion Florida Marlins in what promises to be the hottest interleague series, at least in terms of game-time temperature.

World Series Nostalgia Series: The Toronto Blue Jays visit Philadelphia for the first time since they dispatched the Phillies in six games in the 1993 World Series. The Jays have since rebuilt and are back in the hunt in the American League East. The Phillies have since plummeted into a deep, dark pit of total despair, so it should be a great series.

World Series of Golf: The Seattle Mariners visit the Colorado Rockies' Coors Stadium on Aug. 28-29 in a series that could feature baseball's first verified 200-yard drive. Just imagine how far the ball might travel if Dante Bichette gets all of a Randy Johnson fastball.

Series not to watch

Kansas City at Pittsburgh: Pirates fans might want to show up at Three Rivers Stadium June 13-15 just to say goodbye to Jay Bell and Jeff King, the last of the quality players from the Pirates' three-year NL East dynasty to be traded away. Otherwise, it is the matchup that should answer the burning question, "What if they gave an interleague series and nobody came?"

Minnesota at Houston: The Twins get the rare opportunity to play in a domed stadium even worse than their own.

Boston at New York Mets: It's been 11 years since that ball rolled through Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 World Series. The Dead Sox should be so lucky this year.

Imbalance of power

The interleague schedule smiles more on some contenders, even though each team in each division plays the same number of teams in the corresponding regional division. The reason is the wild-card derby, which could turn on a competitive imbalance among the divisions. Here is the cumulative record and winning percentage of each division in 1996.

Division.. . .. ..Record.. .. ..Pct.

AL East.. .. .. .392-418.. .. . .484

AL Central.. .. .417-391.. .. . .516

AL West.. .. .. .323-323.. .. . .500

NL East.. .. .. .402-408.. .. . .496

NL Central.. .. .400-410.. .. . .494

NL West.. .. .. .332-316.. .. . .512

Likely to benefit most: Florida

Likely to benefit least: Texas

Familiar faces

Managers who will face former teams in interleague play:

Bobby Cox: Braves skipper managed the Blue Jays in the 1980s, but has faced them before - in the 1992 World Series. The teams will meet June 16-18 at SkyDome.

Davey Johnson: Orioles manager will face the Mets, the team he led to a world title in 1986, at Camden Yards on Aug. 29-31.

Joe Torre: Yankees manager will face two NL teams he managed earlier in his career, the Mets (June 16-18) and the Braves (June 30-July 2).

Gene Lamont: New Pirates manager will face the White Sox June 30-July 2 at Three Rivers Stadium.

Tony La Russa: Cardinals skipper will face the White Sox on Sept. 1-3 in St. Louis.

Bests and worsts

The best possible interleague pitching matchup:

East divisions: Mike Mussina vs. Greg Maddux.

Central divisions: Charles Nagy vs. Andy Benes.

West divisions: Randy Johnson vs. Hideo Nomo.

Most one-sided pitcher/hitter matchup: Randy Johnson (1,709 strikeouts in nine seasons) vs. Andres Galarraga (303 strikeouts the past two seasons).

Best local argument for interleague play: Fans get to see Orioles play Braves.

Worst local argument for interleague play: Fans have to see Orioles play Phillies.

Best national argument for interleague play: Dodgers will play Yankees in '98.

Worst national argument for interleague play: Designated hitter in effect at American League parks.

The first pitches

June 12-13 (Two-game series)

Colorado Rockies at Seattle Mariners

Los Angeles Dodgers at Oakland Athletics

San Diego Padres at Anaheim Angels

San Francisco Giants at Texas Rangers

The best of the rest

2. Peace in our time

The 1997 season will be the first in five years that won't be played under a cloud of labor unrest. Owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association finally reached a collective bargaining agreement after a four-year battle that shortened two seasons and wiped out the 1994 World Series.

There are already indications that fans are willing to forgive and forget. Attendance rebounded last year, and several teams are reporting an upswing in season-ticket orders. The only question: How long can the players and owners keep from messing things up again?

3. Belle at his best

Albert Belle has been on his best behavior since he signed a five-year, $55 million contract with the Chicago White Sox, but he is never far from the headlines.

Days before he reported to spring training, Belle admitted under oath that he had lost as much as $40,000 betting with friends on golf and pro sporting events. He swears that he never bet on baseball - and there is no evidence that he did - but the revelation did further damage to his much-tarnished image.

The White Sox prefer to look at the upside potential of putting Belle into the same lineup as perennial MVP candidate Frank Thomas. They just might be the best power-hitting partners since Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle combined for 115 home runs in 1961.

4. Move over, Cal

It must seem like old news. There has been talk of Cal Ripken moving from shortstop to third base for years, and it heated up last season when manager Davey Johnson experimented with him there for a few games. The move became permanent when the Orioles signed free agent Mike Bordick to a three-year contract in December, but it doesn't really take effect until Tuesday, when the two take the field for their first regular-season game together.

Ripken clearly wasn't happy with the way the situation was handled last year, but he has gracefully welcomed Bordick.

Here's a not-so-bold prediction: He'll be the starting third baseman in the All-Star Game and a strong Gold Glove candidate.

5. Blurring the lines

The first year of interleague play is upon us. Studies have shown that the fans want to see the regular-season barrier between the two leagues torn down, so a two-year interleague experiment will begin this season.

It has created marketing opportunities for teams that play in the same city or region, but the novelty figures to wear off once fans realize how seldom they will see their favorite teams from the opposite league. If the current plan were extended beyond next year, teams would make one regular-season visit to each city in the other league every six years.

The Orioles will play each team in the National League East three times this year, though the best series - against the defending NL champion Braves - will be on the road.

6. This Bud's not for you

The labor dispute is over, so there is no longer reason to delay the search for a permanent commissioner. Everyone seems to agree on that, but look for the search committee to take its time compiling a list of candidates. The owners still are in no hurry to cede authority over the game to anyone who might act independently to protect the best interests of the game.

The eventual choice for a new generation? Speculation is beginning to focus on Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail, though acting commissioner Bud Selig remains the front-runner.

7. Rising tide

The new labor agreement was supposed to restore a degree of sanity to baseball's pay structure by imposing a stiff luxury tax on the biggest-spending teams, but there is no evidence yet that the salary spiral will be contained.

Albert Belle got a record five-year, $55 million deal in November. Roger Clemens got the highest annual salary ever paid to a pitcher ($8.25 million) in December. Barry Bonds recently surpassed Belle's record annual salary with a two-year extension worth $23 million. And Gary Sheffield is working on a deal that would pay him a record $60 million over six years.

8. Bash Brothers reunited

The Oakland Athletics needed something to spark interest in their rebuilding club, so they reacquired slugger Jose Canseco, reuniting him with first baseman Mark McGwire, who hit 51 home runs last year in just 130 games.

If the two of them can stay healthy - and that's a very big if - they could be as dangerous as Belle and Thomas. Sound crazy? Canseco and McGwire hit a total of 79 homers last year in 783 at-bats. Thomas and Belle hit 88 homers in 1,129 at-bats.

9. Still rumbling in the Bronx

The New York Yankees still are savoring last year's unlikely world title, but defending it will not be easy. They lost closer John Wetteland to the AL West champion Texas Rangers and left-hander Jimmy Key to the rival Orioles, replacing Wetteland with promising Mariano Rivera and Key with volatile former Oriole David Wells.

Meanwhile, the Orioles reconfigured their roster to be more like last year's Yankees club, and the Toronto Blue Jays waded back into the free-agent market to re-establish themselves as a legitimate contender.

10. Marlins make-over

The Florida Marlins were not satisfied with building an expansion team into a winner the old-fashioned way, so the club spent xTC lavishly to build an instant contender.

They hired premier manager Jim Leyland and signed free agents Alex Fernandez, Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou, hoping to put together a team that can unseat the two-time defending division champion Atlanta Braves.

Did they succeed?

It's time to find out.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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