Like it or not, interleague play good for baseball

June 21, 2011|By Peter Schmuck

Like a lot of you, I've long had mixed feelings about interleague play. I was for it at the beginning, turned against it soon thereafter and now apparently owe commissioner Bud Selig an apology for insisting that it was a get-richer-quick gimmick that eventually would lose its appeal to the masses.

Clearly, it hasn't, if the attendance numbers from the past weekend are any accurate representation of how much the nation's baseball fans like it.

Nearly 1.65 million fans showed up to watch a weekend of what was largely non-rivalry interleague play. That's the biggest attendance weekend since September 2008, and September is when everybody is playing for keeps.

Pretty impressive, considering that it was also U.S. Open weekend and the weather was finally good enough to do something outdoorsy that didn't require to you to hide your eyes every time an Oriole came up with runners in scoring position.

"Fans coming out in these remarkable numbers demonstrate the popularity of interleague play, especially given that many of our intra-city rivalries did not occur this weekend,'' Selig said in a news release Monday. "I remain optimistic that our attendance numbers will continue to climb with summer beginning tomorrow and five of the six divisions separated by 1 1/2 games or less."

It looks like the traditionalists — such as me — are just going to have to stand down, because interleague play is here to stay and might start spreading to the rest of the season if Selig and baseball owners continue pondering the possibility of another realignment.

The thought of two 15-team leagues in which the top five teams in each make the playoffs leaves me with a huge NBA-style headache, but it was just a couple of weeks ago that former Sun baseball writer Buster Olney quoted several sources in an ESPN.com article saying that just such a plan has been discussed and could be part of the sport's next labor agreement.

To make such a plan feasible, one team would have to move from the National League to the American League and — since there would be an odd number of teams in each league — there would have to be one interleague game on the schedule pretty much every day.

This would be an abomination, of course, that would probably lead to the end of the world as we know it, but you can never say never when the baseball owners get together to figure out how much more money they can squeeze out of the television networks and the fans.

Major League Baseball has grown from a $1.8 billion industry (in terms of annual revenue) at the start of the 1994-95 labor war into a $9 billion industry right now, which sounds like a lot of money until you figure out how much of it is tied up in the McCourt divorce.

Trouble is, there has been some softening of overall fan interest over the past three years, which is certain to convince some owners that they better do something before Major League Baseball turns into the NHL. So, they are reportedly considering expanded playoff formats that are more like — you guessed it — hockey and basketball.

Interleague play is only a small part of the equation, but the fact that fans are turning out for it in huge numbers will only add to an argument in favor of any plan that extends it beyond the current early season format.

I still don't like it, even though it definitely is positive for teams such as the Orioles that have disaffected fans who are looking for other reasons to show up at the ballpark. The games between the Orioles and Washington Nationals drew well at Camden Yards and even better at Nationals Park, where an average paid crowd of 35,872 showed up for the three-game series on the same weekend that Rory McIlroy was morphing into the next Tiger Woods just a few miles away at the Congressional Country Club.

No one disputes that interleague play has an uneven impact on competitive balance because of the rotating divisional matchups and geographic rivalries, but it's hard to deny that the visits from the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals to Camden Yards over the next week will add some extra intrigue to this up-and-down Orioles season.

It's a shame that O's fans will not get to see Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols — who just went on the disabled list with a broken arm — because the ability of American League fans to see the great stars of the National League in person, and vice versa, was a compelling reason for the switch to limited interleague play in the 1990s.

That's why I was in favor of it at the start, but I worried then that such a dramatic break with tradition would create a slippery slope that would eventually lead to too many playoff teams and a devaluation of the regular season.

If that's what the fans want, that's probably what they are going to get, but I don't have to be happy about it.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on "The Week in Review" on Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090 AM) and WBAL.com.

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