Interleague interest isn't compounding

June 10, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Baseball's interleague season is upon us. Try not to get too excited.

Fans in South Florida sure haven't. The crowds for the Orioles-Marlins series at Pro Player Stadium were smaller than the crowds at the nearby dog track.

The same was true for the Tigers-Pirates series, which ended last night in front of a lot of empty seats at Tiger Stadium. And the "Battle of Canada" between the Blue Jays and Expos last weekend in Toronto? The total attendance for three games amounted to a reasonable crowd for one NFL game.

Yes, some interleague games have drawn well and created a stir, such as the annual apocalypse between the Yankees and Mets, which sold out three games at Yankee Stadium, and Mark McGwire's visit to Detroit last weekend. The Orioles' series with the Phillies at Camden Yards also was a hit.

But every series at Camden Yards is a hit at the gate, and every series at Pro Player Stadium is a bust.

That underlines the reality of interleague play in the third season since it was instituted: With a few exceptions, it's drawing well in ballparks that generally draw well, and drawing poorly in parks that generally draw poorly.

In other words, it has become just another set of games on the schedule. The novelty has worn off.

"It doesn't do anything for the game," McGwire said recently. "I think we should go back to the way baseball should be played."

Without interleague games.

That'll never happen, of course. The owners aren't going to admit a mistake or give up so soon on their precious baby.

But at the very least, they should alter the format.

Last season, the 224-game interleague schedule drew 7.8 percent above the major leagues' per-game attendance average, but much of the rise was accomplished in 15 games between in-city and in-state rivals such as the Yankees and Mets, Angels and Dodgers, and Indians and Reds.

Otherwise, the vast majority of interleague games drew crowds mirroring the rest of the season.

The trend is continuing in 1999, if not accelerating.

The owners need to do something. If interleague games aren't a draw, there's no point in having them. The whole goal, remember, was to bump attendance in the wake of the killer strike of 1994, when baseball was reeling and desperate for any sign of life.

Resorting to such an obvious gimmick, erasing almost a century of tradition, was an embarrassment to "commissioner" Bud Selig and his band of deep thinkers. Not that they were embarrassed.

What they should have done is eliminate the balanced schedule of the early '90s -- in which each team played the same number of games against all opponents -- and increase the number of games between divisional rivals. That's an idea with merit.

What would you rather see, six games between the Orioles and Phillies or six more between the Orioles and Yankees? Three with the Marlins or three more with the Red Sox?

It's no contest. A choice between a force-fed diet of mostly routine, occasionally interesting interleague games and an increase in games with divisional rivals is no choice at all. A return to an unbalanced scheduled loaded with divisional games would be terrific and popular.

Imagine important September games instead of gimmicks in June and July. Pennant races decided on the field.

But it's not going to happen. The best-case scenario is to have the owners tweak the interleague concept to make it more interesting.

How? That's easy. Instead of playing the same teams every year -- an idea that isn't generating new rivalries -- teams should play a rotating schedule of opponents from different divisions.

In the Orioles' case, three years of playing the Expos, Phillies and Marlins has made those games routine. The annual series with the Braves is interesting, but the rest of the interleague schedule is forgettable. That would change if the Orioles played National League East teams every third year, as part of a rotation including teams from the other two NL divisions.

How about the Dodgers coming to town with Davey Johnson? Talk about an apocalypse. And what about the Cubs and Sammy Sosa? That would make for a special occasion at Camden Yards.

If you're going to have interleague play, let teams have a shot at all the opponents in the opposite league. That would keep the idea fresh.

It's certainly a better idea than the same, old games every year.

Right now, the schedule is going in the opposite direction, with teams seeing more, not less, of the same, old opponents. The Orioles and Phillies play two series this year. That's a bad idea. Even the fans in New York are saying two series between the Yankees and Mets is one too many. Please, let's have some fresh opponents instead.

Yes, a few series should be scheduled every year, such as the big ones in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. That can be handled easily enough. Let's give each team one opponent to play every year.

A few teams would lose out, such as the Orioles, who don't have a natural NL rival. But most teams have one.

After that, teams should play a rotation of opponents from the other league, following the NFL model of playing different interconference opponents every year.

That'd help interleague play become the special occasion it's supposed to be, as opposed to the routine matter it has become.

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