Time to Pull The Plug On MLB Interleague Play
Jim Leyland rattled cages when he called for an end to Major League Baseball’s interleague play. But maybe the highly respected manager of the Detroit Tigers hit a verbal home run with his typically outspoken opinion.
A novel attraction that drew good crowds back when it was started in 1997, interleague play no longer has that bright shine of newness to it. It is now almost a “so what” part of the season except for the few true MLB rivalries such as the Yankees vs. the Mets in New York, the White Sox vs. the Cubs in Chicago, and the Indians vs. the Reds in Ohio.
During an interview with the Detroit Free Press, May 16, and four days before the Tigers opened a weekend series against the Pirates in Pittsburgh, Leyland said, “I think this (interleague play) was something that was certainly a brilliant idea to start with. But I think it has run its course. It’s not really doing what it was supposed to do. There’re no rivalries for most of the teams.”
Speaking about Detroit’s two consecutive three-game series at National League cities in June, Leyland said, “Six straight days, that’s ridiculous. Totally ridiculous. We play with the DH (designated hitter) rules. The American League gets penalized even though the record’s been decent over the years. We get penalized. Their pitchers are hitting and bunting all year.”
Complaining that the Tigers and all AL teams can’t use their DH players in NL parks, Leyland added, “You’ve got to get baseball back to the same set of rules.”
NL teams, players and managers counter Leyland’s point by saying that their teams are not designed with a DH on the roster. Therefore, when they play at an AL ballpark they are at a big disadvantage because they don’t have a player such as Boston’s David Ortiz, who only goes to bat to hit home runs without ever playing in the field.
This argument has been going on since the inception of the AL designated hitter in 1973, because that rule impacts the World Series and All-Star game each year.
Bud Selig, MLB Commissioner, did not dream up the idea of interleague play although he likes to take credit for it. Interleague play was discussed back in the 1930s and strongly advocated by the Cleveland Indians’ general manager, Hank Greenberg, in 1958.
Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ Hall of Fame first baseman, proposed an interleague system much like the one currently in use. It was discussed by MLB owners over half a century ago but voted down at the time.
A prime argument against interleague play is the imbalance involved due to the fact that the NL has 16 teams while the AL has 14. As a result, all AL teams play 18 interleague games while the NL schedule has two formulas.
One year the senior circuit may have five teams play 18 games; 10 teams play 15 games and one team play 12 games. In another season the NL will have four teams play 18 games and 12 teams play 15 games. The second NL schedule is in use this season.
This is how MLB has scheduled 252 interleague games each year since the current formula was established in 2005. There is little in balance there for the NL teams.
Interleague play does not allow a team to take full advantage of a victory as it does in intraleague games. By defeating an intraleague rival a team not only enhances its own chances for post season play but seriously impacts the opponents’ post season outlook. A team’s victory over an interleague rival has no detrimental impact on any other team in its own league.
A big argument favoring interleague play is that baseball fans in NL cities might get to see Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays or Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and fans in an AL city might get to see Albert Pujols of the Cardinals or Roy (Doc) Halladay of the Phillies.
But with modern day cable and satellite television, most baseball fans get to see all these stars time and time again during the season. And they get to see them for a lot less money than if they purchased a ticket at the current exorbitant prices. A single ticket at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park can cost considerably more than an entire season’s package of MLB games on cable or satellite TV.
The primary reason for interleague play was to boost attendance following the loss of fan interest after the 1994-95 MLB players strike. It helped quite a bit at first.
But with the current economic problems and unemployment throughout the country, even interleague play has not created a great increase in ticket sales. The Yankees filled the Stadium against the Mets last weekend. But the Yankees have been playing before sellout crowds against all comers for some time.
The same is true for the Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston and the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
The Phils and Yanks are No. 1 and No. 2 in MLB attendance so far this season even though the Yanks are down slightly from a year ago.
But the Cleveland Indians, with the best won-lost record in MLB, and the Cincinnati Reds, who are doing well in the NL Central, were unable to attract a full house to Cleveland’s Progressive Field for any one of their three games last weekend, including little more than a half-filled stadium last Sunday.
MLB attendance is down a bit this year. But that is to be expected considering the economy.
Interleague play is not going to jack up attendance greatly if the rather average numbers across the board last weekend are any indication of the next 15 days of interleague play coming in late June and early July.
Selig and friends should rid MLB of interleague play so that all games have more importance from start to finish of the season. Attendance will always be good when games mean something.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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