NL vs. AL: When leagues collide

March 30, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff

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.

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