It is a new development, but it is not a new concept. Interleague play was proposed five decades ago by baseball showman Bill Veeck. It came up again in the 1970s, when a young baseball owner named Bud Selig helped devise a limited interleague proposal that was blocked by the National League. And it finally was adopted a year ago as an elixir for baseball's post-labor public relations problems.
Now, it is upon us. The Orioles play the Atlanta Braves in a showdown of the two best teams in baseball this weekend. The New York Mets play the Boston Red Sox in a rematch of the 1986 World Series. Every team will play a team it never has played in the regular season. The wall between the American League and National League has come tumbling down.
"I've dreamed about this for a long time," said Selig, who as acting commissioner had a lot to do with making his interleague dream come true. "It's hard to believe it's finally here. People are excited about it, and I think that excitement is only going to grow."
That remains to be seen, of course. For every Orioles-Braves series, there is a less-intriguing matchup. The television rights- holders aren't exactly fighting over the series between the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates, and the impact of interleague play on the master schedule has called into question the wisdom of baseball's latest break with tradition.
Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris was a supporter of the plan, but his club has been saddled with 27 two-game series this season, at least in part to accommodate its 16-game interleague schedule.
Orioles manager Davey Johnson probably will enjoy playing the New York Mets in late August, but the price is an uneven Orioles travel schedule that was complicated by a rash of early-season rainouts.
"We have some people who are unhappy with the two-game series," Selig said. "I understand that, and we'll work like heck to try and change that next year."
The interleague experiment only was approved for two seasons, so the Major League Baseball Players Association will have a lot to say about the configuration of the schedule in future years. But there is little chance that the interleague concept will be abandoned.
Union officials have received many complaints from players who are unhappy with the marked increase in two-day travel turnarounds and three-day homestands, but union director Donald Fehr said this week that the MLPBA and ownership already are working to improve the situation for next year.
"We've had a series of background conversations on the schedule," Fehr said, "and I think there is general agreement on all sides that the number of two-game series is causing a lot of incidental difficulties. I expect that will be addressed quite substantially in the 1998 schedule.
"I don't detect much interest from anybody in continuing with the present number of two-game series."
One of the major complaints about interleague play is that it puts a premium on the novelty of unfamiliar competition at the expense of traditional division rivalries, but the scheduling problems of 1997 apparently have become the catalyst for a movement toward an unbalanced schedule in 1998.
Selig confirmed that support for a schedule more weighted toward intradivisional competition has grown to the point where ownership could move quickly this winter to implement a plan that calls for both interleague play and more games between division rivals.
"I think everybody in baseball wants to go to more divisional play rather than play more games outside your division," Selig said. "By next year, we have to pass it."
Of course, that raises an obvious question: If everybody wants that, why did the game abandon division-weighted scheduling years ago in favor of a system that called for each club to play just one more game per year (13) against division rivals than against nondivisional opponents?
That decision was made to accommodate expansion in 1977, when the American League grew from 12 teams to 14 with the addition of the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays.
"In 1977, we couldn't make it imbalanced the schedule didn't work," Selig said, "so Lee MacPhail suggested that we experiment with a balanced schedule for a year. Unfortunately, that one-year experiment lasted 20 years."
The players union appears to be favorably inclined toward both interleague play and an imbalanced schedule, but union officials figure to take a hard look at next year's schedule before approving the continuation of the two-year interleague experiment.
"I will be surprised if any problems come up," Fehr said, "but you have to wait to see what happens. Something can look good in theory, but you still have to see how it works."
In the meantime, Fehr and Selig actually agree on something. Both are looking forward to the first week of competition between the two leagues and both are enjoying the first major-league season in five years to be played outside the shadow of labor unrest.
"I'm looking forward to the weekend, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season," Fehr said. "With all the home runs, the guys hitting .400 and the interesting races, we have the possibility right now of some extraordinary things happening this year."
Baseball fans clearly have embraced interleague play, at least in the short term. Selig quoted a New York Times survey that indicated ticket sales for interleague games were running 35 percent ahead of sales for the rest of the regular season.
Major League Baseball depended heavily on marketing surveys to determine whether the fans really wanted to bring down the traditional barrier between the two leagues -- and booming ticket sales appear to validate the decision -- but the industry will have to wait at least a couple of years to find out if interleague competition was a grand experiment or just a grandstand play.
Interleague facts and figures
Games: Teams in East and Central divisions each will play 15 interleague games. West clubs will play 16.
Format: It will be AL East vs. NL East, AL Central vs. NL Central and AL West vs. NL West. Each East and Central team will play three games against every team in the corresponding division; West teams will face each other four times, with two games in each city.
Schedule: All interleague games will be played during three periods -- today to June 18, June 30-July 3 and Aug. 28-Sept. 3.
Opener: San Francisco at Texas tonight (8: 35 EDT). Later tonight, it will be Colorado at Seattle, Los Angeles at Oakland and San Diego at Anaheim.
DH: Same rules as the World Series. Designated hitter used in games at AL parks; pitchers must bat at NL parks.
Umpires: Not the same as the World Series. No split crews. Only AL umpires will work at AL parks and only NL umps at NL parks. Will there be disputes about different strike zones? Sure, it happens every October.
Balls: AL balls at AL parks and NL balls at NL parks. Only one difference between them -- the writing on AL balls is blue and the print on NL balls is black. But Rawlings, which makes all major-league balls, is considering a special interleague ball for the future.
Statistics: They all count. If Mark McGwire homers off Hideo Nomo, it becomes part of their cumulative records. No special category for statistics compiled in games against the other league.
Ever before?: Not since the first major league was formed -- the National Association in 1871 -- have teams from different leagues played each other. Some teams have met -- the Royals and Cardinals play in spring training and met in the 1985 World Series -- but never in the regular season.
Ticket sales: Brisk in most places. The three Mets-Yankees games at Yankee Stadium are nearly sold out, and the Orioles' visit to Atlanta was a hot seller. Even matchups that don't sound as attractive are doing well, including Kansas City at Pittsburgh.
Players' opinion: A split decision. Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine loves it -- born and raised in Massachusetts, he can't wait to play at Fenway Park. Mark McGwire hates it -- he claims to have no interest in seeing how far he can hit a ball at Coors Field.
Advantage?: NL players say they've got it. In addition to AL teams losing their DH at NL parks, they claim AL players and managers are not as accustomed to bunting, base-running and double-switch strategies. Maybe, but AL teams have won four of the last five World Series.
Next year: Two plans being talked about for 1998. The most likely has teams playing 16 interleague games, the other calls for 18. In either case, it will remain East vs. East, Central vs. Central and West vs. West. In the East and Central, all matchups will flip sites (as in the Cubs, who play at Comiskey Park this year, will play the White Sox at Wrigley Field in 1998). z zTC Future: For 1999 and beyond, players and owners must both agree to continue the experiment.
Pub Date: 6/12/97