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Benchwarmer

Interleague Play Hater

By Gabriel Wardell | Posted 6/22/2005

Baseball purists believe themselves superior for their unyielding faith in custom, foolishly rejecting the notion that change can be a good thing. It can. The most compelling case in baseball: Jackie Robinson shattering the shameful color barrier. Other less obvious examples of good change include the American League adopting the designated hitter, the lowering of the pitcher’s mound six inches to stimulate offense in 1969, and Catfish Hunter’s declaration of free agency in 1974.

Examples of bad change include the Central Division and the expanded playoff format, using the All-Star Game to determine World Series home-field advantage, and the 1997 introduction of interleague play.

When it began, pundits salivated at the prospect of a Subway Series pitting the Yankees against the Mets. Such geographical rivalries have proven the true success of this experiment, drawing sell-out crowds in most markets. Even as interleague match-ups shift from year to year, rotating each team through all three divisions in the opposite league, MLB has wisely seen fit to include each team’s “natural rival” into its annual interleague schedule. Unfortunately, for every L.A. Dodgers vs. L.A. Angels, there are plenty of nonstarters like Detroit vs. Arizona or Washington vs. Toronto. This last match-up, residue from the Nationals’ (nee Expos) time in Montreal, will certainly be corrected soon with what will be hyped as the Beltway Battle (or something like that). The Nationals will assume the role from the Phillies as the Orioles’ best natural rival. That both teams presently hold three-game first-place leads in their respective divisions, as of this writing, is something not even Dionne Warwick could have foretold.

Defenders of (and apologists for) interleague play invariably return to two arguments. The first—isn’t it fun for fans to see superstars from the other league?—is neutralized, if not rendered entirely moot, by free agency. Orioles fans saw former Yankee Andy Pettitte on the hill as Houston limped through Baltimore recently, while fans in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were treated to the familiar face of Cub-turned-Oriole Sammy Sosa. Over time, a serious baseball fan manages to see every major star in person. The devout will even sojourn to foreign territory to do so; look for Baltimoreans making a trip to RFK Stadium to see Dontrelle Willis, years in advance of his inevitable future Yankees signing.

The second argument in defense of interleague play is the nostalgia of stoking past World Series rivalries like the Orioles vs. the Pirates. These rematches boast about as much excitement as watching Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s daughters box.

During the broadcasts, the TV crews pilfer the archives to showcase old clips of the glory days. During the recent interleague series against lackluster Pittsburgh, O’s fans were invited to relive the disappointing 1979 World Series with footage of the Pirates in day-glow yellow pants, sporting flat-topped, yellow-ringed caps—a subtle reminder of how baseball fashion has improved in the last 25 years. (An observation trumped by vintage shots of Eddie Murray, all serious with his sideburns and Afro, sporting old-school stirrup socks pulled calf-high and wedgie-tight.)

Perhaps the 2005 Orioles felt the need to pay homage to the 1979 meltdown, in which the O’s squandered a 3-1 advantage and lost the series in seven, by blowing their first road series of the year. This was in large part thanks to a Game 2 choke job by Jorge Julio, in which the usually reliable setup man squandered a three-run lead in the eighth inning, putting the first two batters on board before throwing what appeared to be batting-practice fastball for the game-tying homer. Then, three batters later, Julio dished out a game-winning home run.

While allowing a winnable game to slip away to a mediocre team like the 2005 Pirates should not be nearly as painful as losing the World Series to a team that united under a song by Sister Sledge, this loss hurt more. Reminiscences of long past World Series only serve to reinforce the folly of interleague play. In the present, this loss stung not because it rubbed salt into a scarred 26-year-old wound, but because the Orioles are perched atop the division right now, clasping onto a three-game lead, and every game still counts.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Orioles have realistic postseason aspirations. If blowing an opportunity like the one in Pittsburgh costs them later, the novelty of playing in a National League park in June against a team made up of players who were 3 the last time the teams met will seem a poor substitute for the chance to play a meaningful game against a National League team in October 2005.

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Benchwarmer archives

More from Gabriel Wardell

Parting Shots (9/14/2005)
The easiest way to tell when Tim McCarver is going to be wrong about something is to note when he is speaking.

Macro and Micro (9/7/2005)
The "Oriole Way" has become synonymous with "half-assed."

Choker’s Wild (8/31/2005)
Wild Card Races Are Bullshit.

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