Yanks-Braves is Selig's dream

World Series rematch is what he envisioned with interleague play

June 02, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

No doubt, the Atlanta Braves still are smarting from the way they were dismissed from last year's World Series without so much as a single victory, but they didn't have to wait long for a rematch.

Through the miracle of interleague play, the 1999 World Series will be played out in miniature this weekend when the Yankees return to Turner Field for another battle of baseball's reigning titans.

The roles will be slightly reversed. The Braves clearly are the dominant team in baseball at the moment, owning the best record (35-17)and holding a 6 1/2 -gamelead over the New York Mets in the National League East. The Yankees (28-21)are in second place in the American League East, though they still have to be considered the favorite to represent the AL in the World Series again this year.

The series is everything that commissioner Bud Selig and his fellow owners envisioned when they finally turned the long-debated notion of interleague play into a still-debated reality in 1997.

And it isn't the only possible World Series preview that will play out this weekend.

The Cleveland Indians visit Busch Stadium for three games against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Arizona Diamondbacks will meet the Texas Rangers in Arlington and - if you want to stretch the point a little - the surprising Chicago White Sox will visit Enron Field to take on the struggling, three-time defending NL Central champion Houston Astros.

There will be no such drama when the Orioles head north of the border to face the Montreal Expos, but even that series will give Expos fans a chance to see Cal Ripken in person for what might be the last time and Orioles fans a closer look - albeit on television - at budding superstar Vladimir Guerrero."[Interleague play] is everything I thought it would be from the time Hank Greenberg and Bill Veeck talked about it back in 1948," Selig said by telephone from his Milwaukee office yesterday.

"I think it's really wonderful. I really do."

But it is not perfect.

Troubling questions

More than three years into the interleague era, some troubling questions persist:

Does a series such as the one that opens in Atlanta tonight remove some of the grandeur and mystery from the World Series?

Does the integrity of the regular-season schedule suffer for what essentially is a marketing gimmick?

Does the current interleague system meet the stated goal of putting the game's best players in front of the widest possible audience?

The concept of interleague play had been debated for decades before Selig helped push through the current plan, which went into effect for the 1997 season. The economic impact has been positive - and average attendance for interleague play outpaced regular season play by nearly 25 percent last year - but complaints persist about the negative impact on travel and scheduling, as well as the regionalization of the interleague matchups.

The way interleague play originally was envisioned, every team would play every other team over a span of several seasons. Through the first four years of interleague play - including the 2000 season - teams face only the teams from the parallel regional division of the other league.

That appears likely to change soon. Baseball owners are pondering new scheduling options that would assure that each team appears in every city from the opposite league at least once in a specified period - either six years or eight.

The change would be imperative if baseball goes through with a realignment plan that would create an uneven number of divisions. (The plan currently under consideration would break the National League into four divisions while leaving the American League with three.) But it's also important to keep the faith with fans who expected a more wide-ranging interleague schedule.

"We're going to start rotating the divisions because we promised the fans we would do that," Selig said. "I'm hoping we can do something by next year, but 2002 at the latest."

Selig hopes to complete baseball's divisional realignment next year, which will set the stage for sweeping scheduling changes that may dramatically alter the face of the game. The interleague rotation could go into effect at the same time baseball switches to an imbalanced schedule that increases the number of games between divisional rivals.`The primary issue for me is getting to an imbalanced schedule," Selig said.

"In 1976, we couldn't settle on an imbalanced schedule, and the American League talked us into a one-year hiatus. Twenty-four years later, it has become - for me - an obsession to get back to an imbalanced schedule."

It is a complicated process, especially as it relates to interleague play, because teams do not want to rotate away from their most popular interleague rivalries. The new plan likely will create a rotation through the other divisions while retaining key matchups like the immensely popular home-and-home Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets.

"I think it's important to see the other teams," Braves president Stan Kasten said.

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