Romance is mostly gone from interleague marriages


Darren Oliver threw the first pitch in interleague history, way back in 1997, back when the prospect of mingling the two leagues in regular-season play was still exotic and enticing.


Oliver pitched for the Texas Rangers then (facing Darryl Hamilton of the San Francisco Giants) and pitches for the Los Angeles Angels now. On Thursday, the eve of the 11th go-round of interleague play, he summed up the general view of ballplayers regarding its ever-declining allure.

"I think it's died down," Oliver said. "Except for the natural rivalries, like Yankees-Mets, us and the Dodgers, the Giants-A's, White Sox-Cubs. Other than that, it's kind of died out."


Seattle Mariners manager Mike Hargrove echoed that.

"I don't think there's any anticipation," he said. "It's just part of the schedule. I think if most people were really honest with you, they'd say they'd just as soon stay in their own leagues."

Don't let commissioner Bud Selig hear that kind of talk. He'll point to statistics showing that crowds swell for interleague games, with record attendance forecast for this weekend.

He'll hype the intriguing matchups, like the Atlanta Braves' John Smoltz against the Boston Red Sox's Daisuke Matsuzaka today, the New York Yankees' Roger Clemens facing the New York Mets in June, the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds stepping into Fenway to face the Red Sox that same month.

Selig will swoon over the annual debates that are stirred about which is the superior league (the American League reigned supreme last year with a .611 winning percentage in interleague games).

But the fact is, other than the rivalries that Oliver delineated, which are still hugely appealing attractions, many interleague games have indeed become blase.

Even more troublesome, the interleague schedule has become increasingly inequitable, as Atlanta's Chipper Jones pointed out recently, and at times downright baffling.

The Braves must play two interleague series against the Red Sox, perhaps the best team in the American League, while one of their National League East rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies, play against the reeling Toronto Blue Jays this weekend. The Braves also play the Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins, while the Phillies get the Kansas City Royals along with the Chicago White Sox, Tigers and Indians.


"I don't think there's any question it's unfair - when you play the [three] best teams in the American League," Jones said Sunday. "But Major League Baseball isn't concerned about what's fair."

Take the AL West, which this year is matched against the NL Central - for the most part. Only the Athletics must venture into the NL East to play the mighty Mets at Shea Stadium. The A's and Angels face the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, while the Mariners and Rangers don't. Only Texas must play against the resurgent Milwaukee Brewers, who have emerged as a playoff contender.

Asked whether scheduling inequities bothered him, Hargrove replied, "It doesn't bother me to the extent there's nothing I can do about it. It does bother me sometimes when teams within your own division kind of skate on a tough team."

Jayson Stark of ESPN recently pointed out a host of other anomalies in the interleague schedule, such as:

The Mets play all 15 of their interleague games against teams that made the playoffs last year (six against the Yankees, plus the Tigers, Twins, and A's), while the Cubs, Dodgers and Padres don't play any teams that made the playoffs.

The Arizona Diamondbacks of the NL West play both the Yankees and Red Sox, while Los Angeles, in the same division, plays neither. But for some reason, the Dodgers play a home-and-home series against Toronto and three games with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.


The Tigers play the Mets, Braves, Cardinals and Brewers, while the White Sox, from the same division, plays none of those teams.

That's only a few head-scratchers from a long list. But Angels manager Mike Scioscia believes teams should just play their schedule and not whine about it.

"If you're a good team, you overcome challenges, and if you're a good team, whoever you play, you're going to win," Scioscia said.

I'm still a proponent of inter- league play, though not as enthusiastically as a decade ago, when the notion was still fresh.

When Ken Griffey Jr. returns to Seattle on June 22, it should be one of the great Mariners moments. The Mariners' first visit to Chicago's Wrigley Field on June 12-14 also promises to be a series to savor.

The sad truth, however, is that when it comes to interleague play, the mundane - and the mismatched - have caught up with the memorable.


Larry Stone writes for The Seattle Times.