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Power to the people

As long as fans dig interleague play, it's worth keeping

Posted: Monday June 7, 2004 12:54PM; Updated: Monday June 7, 2004 12:54PM
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Carlos Delgado
Carlos Delgado is the all-time leader in interleague home runs.
Winslow Townson/SI

Ask players, ask managers, ask anybody in baseball about interleague play and the same tired answers invariably come tumbling out. Some say it stinks. Some say it's all right. Most don't like what it does to the schedule.

But all of them will acknowledge maybe the most important byproduct of this grand experiment that is known as interleague play, now entering its eighth season.

The fans seem to like the thing.

The fans, of course, do more than that. Fans love interleague play. Well, maybe they don't love it like they used to. Maybe now, they just like it a whole lot. They "loke" it. That's what they do.

Whenever American League and National League teams get together on the same field, fans turn out in great gobs of numbers. Though, again, not like they used to.

Evidently, interleague play is still sufficiently weird enough that people flock to these games more than they do for your run-of-the-mill, regular-season matchup. After all these years, there are still interleague matchups that tweak the ol' curiosity bone, beyond the Yankees-Mets or White Sox-Cubs. This year, interleague play -- which begins Monday -- features the NL East vs. the AL Central; the NL Central against the AL West; and the NL West meeting the AL East.

What that means, for fans, is a Yankees-Diamondbacks series (June 15-17 in Arizona) in a rematch of the 2001 World Series. The Reds and A's will stage a rematch of the 1990 World Series from June 7-9. The Dodgers and Red Sox (June 11-13) will meet for the first time since the less-than-memorable 1916 Series (when the Dodgers were the Brooklyn Robins and Babe Ruth still played for the Sox; Boston won in five games).

Will those kinds of series bring out the fans again? Well, they have for the past seven seasons.

You know, the Dodgers don't need this. The Dodgers have enough to deal with, and now Milton Bradley is going berserk, getting suspended and taking good-guy manager Jim Tracy with him. Bradley was a great shot in the arm when he got to L.A., but he hasn't been very good lately and now he's becoming a pain in the back pocket. His tantrum last week, no matter how provoked, was completely unprofessional (a shock coming from this guy). Worse than that, it hurt his team. The folks in Cleveland know. Now L.A. is finding out the hard way.
Vladimir Guerrero is quickly gaining the superstar status he deserves. Last Tuesday, Vlad drove in nine runs in a 10-7 win against Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox. It was hard for him to crack MVP status in the NL because of Barry Bonds, but even with A-Rod around in the junior circuit, Guerrero should be a front-runner for the award this year.
"People have been very critical of him. Now, the same people are jumping on the bandwagon. I get more enjoyment out of that than anything."
-- Reds shortstop Barry Larkin on Ken Griffey Jr.

In 2001, 33,703 fans a game came to interleague games, which was 15.2 percent more than the other, non-fancy games. In 2002, average attendance dipped to 31,962 fans a game, but that was still a 19.7 percent increase over the regular fare. Last year, average attendance for interleague games dropped even further, to 31,034. But that was 20 percent more than the common contests.

So fewer fans are seeing interleague games at the ballpark now compared to a few years ago. But that's because overall attendance has been dropping every season since 2000.

That could change -- it probably will -- this season. Average attendance is up in baseball, and Commissioner Bud Selig is crowing about setting a record. He's expecting baseball to break the all-time attendance mark, bringing in somewhere more than 73 million fans this season.

If that turns out to be true, we may be in for the most-watched interleague session ever.

It's remarkable, really, that after seven seasons, almost 1,700 games, nearly 4,000 home runs and more than 16,000 runs, fans simply have not tired of interleague play. What many dismissed as gimmick has turned into much more. Fans have embraced interleague play in the ballpark and on the tube.

Ratings on FOX last season for interleague games were somewhere around 12 percent above the 2002 numbers. The combined ratings for local over-the-air and local cable interleague games were somewhere around 16 percent higher than regular games. In fact, half of the U.S.-based teams drew their best numbers of the first-half of the season for interleague telecasts.

In a national survey conducted last July, just after the conclusion of interleague games, 82 percent of surveyed fans said that interleague play was an "excellent/good idea."

Yeah, interleague play skewers the schedule and takes some of the mystery out of the World Series. Yeah, there are some lame-o matchups. There always are.

But fans love it. Or like it a lot. And that ought to mean something.

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Chipper Jones at first base may well be a fine idea for the Braves. But if he thinks he's going to save his sore hamstrings by playing first instead of the outfield, maybe he ought to check with Anaheim's Darin Erstad first. If Jones really wants to keep his hammies from popping, his best bet is to hire a ghost runner while he's batting.

• Sometimes, I can't figure out these rules. When Angels pitcher John Lackey gets tossed from the game and suspended for five more for throwing inside to a No. 9 hitter in a one-run game -- he grazed his uniform shirt -- something's screwy.

Nomar Garciaparra is the kind of player who can inject energy into a team. And with the Yankees being the Yankees, the Red Sox need a boost from Nomar as soon as possible.

• First it was hamstrings, then Achilles, and now blisters. Pitchers fighting with blister problems include Boston's Derek Lowe, Florida's Josh Beckett (again) and Pittsburgh's Kip Wells.

Ken Griffey Jr. can be awfully touchy at times, but you have to have a stone for a heart not to appreciate what he's doing so far this season.

• You know, the baseball draft isn't anywhere close to the NFL Draft in importance. On the other hand, there's no Mel Kiper Jr. in baseball.

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The regular E-Bag runs on Friday. Here's a taste of what's to come.

The one piece of sports writing that can be assured to consistently piss me off is the annual race to pooh-pooh fan's choices for the All-Star Game. Every year, fans can be counted on to elect the brightest stars in the baseball constellation, while baseball writers can be counted on to jump at the first opportunity to tell them who they should have selected. Though some of the fans' selections can be far from deserved, I would guess that by the end of the season their choices more often prove out over "the experts'" choices of first-half wonders. I'll make you a deal. You take Sean Casey (admittedly a nice player, but...) and I'll take Albert Pujols. At the end of September, let's take a look back at the All-Star selections and see who really was right.
 
-- Mike Lang, San Leandro, Calif.

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No way I'm taking that sucker bet, Mike. Pujols will have a better year than Casey. I'd be stunned if he doesn't (as long as that hammie doesn't affect him too much). But will he have a better first half? That, to me, is the point. That is what should weigh heavily in voting for the All-Star team. The All-Star starters, to me, should be those players that are playing best at the time of the voting. I could see Pujols tearing up the rest of this month, Casey cooling off, and Pujols getting the nod. And I'm fine with that. I may even vote for him. All I'm saying is if you're going to vote based on first-half performance -- which is what I'd do -- you have to look at Casey.

Why do you writers in the media always kiss the Yankees' ass? It seems to me that all of you fail to realize that baseball in today's economics is a total joke. I would love for a salary cap in this sport to really show what coaching is about and then you will find out who the real teams are. Give me a break. Look at the Patriots, for instance, what they have done in the last few years. I am a huge Red Sox fan but I am tired of the Yankees, Red Sox, all the so-called big market teams winning all the time.
 
-- Tim Stefopoulos, Tampa

Whoaaa. Settle down there, Tim. I'm a Yankee hater, remember, not a Yankee kisser. Listen, we all know the economics of this game are messed up. They're getting better, but they're still messed up. And, yeah, it hacks me off, too, that the rich guys always end up with the best players. A salary cap might settle things, but that's just not going to happen. So, if that bugs you, root for the little guys and revel in the Marlins of the baseball world. Or watch the NFL.

Say Griffey stays healthy for a couple of seasons and ends up flirting with 600 home runs by the time he's finished. Do you think he'll be viewed as the greatest "non-suspicious" home run hitter of his generation?
 
-- J.D. Clark, White Bluff, Tenn.

You're right. I've never been suspicious of Junior using performance-enhancing drugs, even with all his injuries. Maybe I'm just a trusting soul. All I can say is, if we have to sort the sluggers of this era into "suspicious" and "safe," that's a pretty sad state of affairs, isn't it?

It's hard to feel sorry for these men [the Expos] who earn their living playing a game. Instead of whining about excessive travel and lack of home games they could be standing behind a counter asking, "Would you like to supersize that order?"
 
-- Douglas Stevens, Columbus, Ohio

Wow. The sympathy for the Expos' plight, expressed by Douglas and several other e-mailers, is absolutely underwhelming. The point is, the Expos are treated much differently than everyone else in their industry. And that has to be hard to take.

John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.

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