Interleague concept, reality stand ready for test of time Advocates, opponents will be closely watching remedy for labor woes

June 12, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

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.

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