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AL vs. NL

Good or bad, interleague play returns this weekend

Posted: Thursday June 06, 2002 1:47 PM
  Roberto Alomar Roberto Alomar will face his old team, the Cleveland Indians, to start interleague play. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

By John Donovan,

ATLANTA -- Things used to be so simple in baseball. You had the National League and you had the American League. Each league did its own thing. It kept its own statistics and kept to itself, mostly, until the big showdown in the World Series.

Then along came 1997 and interleague play, a brainchild of the owners to boost interest in the game. Not to mention boosting the bottom line.

Suddenly, for the first time in history, teams from the AL and NL played in the regular season. The Cubs played the White Sox. The Yankees played the Mets. The Canadian teams played each other. There was the Battle of Ohio.

There was plenty of good, and a good deal of bad. And here we are, a full five years after interleague play began, with nothing settled. No clear-cut winners. Certainly no clear-cut answers.

The records
Interleague play wins
Year  AL  NL 
1997  97  117 
1998  114  110 
1999  116  135 
2000  136  115 
2001  132  120 
Total  595  597 

Is interleague play good? Bad? Middling?

Well, it depends on who is asked.

"I hate it," says the Mets' Mo Vaughn, in his first year in the National League after a decade with Boston and Anaheim over on the other side. "I always thought that was the best thing about the World Series. That was the intrigue. Now that's gone."

Interleague play fact: After five years of games, the NL leads the AL, 597-595.

Baseball purists don't like the idea. Never have. Even if interleague play piques fan interest, as it clearly does in a lot of cities, they don't like the notion of the two leagues mingling outside the World Series.

They also don't like the fact that all these interleague games screw up the real schedule. When you add 18 interleague games (the NL Central plays only 12) to a schedule heavy with in-division games -- the so-called "unbalanced" schedule -- what you get are a lot fewer chances to see teams in your own league.

"I never liked the idea," says the Braves' Julio Franco. "I don't see the purpose of it."

Interleague play fact: The average attendance for interleague games last season was the highest in the five years the games have been played.

The draw
Interleague attendance
Yr.  Gms.  Avg. 
1997  214  33,409 
1998  224  31,447 
1999  248  33,482 
2000  251  33,213 
2001  252  33,703 
Total  1,189  33,075 

Chicago loves the Cubs-White Sox series. The Subway Series in New York is huge, even when it's not the World Series. The Bay Area series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's is a good draw.

That's reason enough for many to pronounce interleague worth the price.

"I don't know. I think it's interesting," says Mets catcher Mike Piazza, who was the best hitter in interleague play before last season and still sports a .325 interleague average. "From a fan's perspective, it's fun. As long as they keep it in perspective. Obviously, it's something that gets over-hyped. But that's just part of it."

Yes, things can get out of hand with interleague play, and not just in the big cities. In Cleveland, for instance, many are looking forward to this weekend when the Mets come to Jacob's Field.

It's The Return of Roberto Alomar.

"I've been hearing about this since spring training," says Alomar, who was dealt from the Indians to the Mets in the biggest trade of the offseason. "This is the business. This is baseball. Sometimes you have to face your former team."

Still, Alomar's for interleague play. Even interleague play against Cleveland, where he spent three All-Star seasons and was considered one of the cornerstones of the team.

"I like it," Alomar says. "I think it's good for the fans."

Interleague play fact: The A's are the best team in interleague play, at 50-36 (.625). The Colorado Rockies are worst, at 25-41 (.390).

Believe in interleague or not, there are some undeniable attractions.

This weekend, Curt Schilling of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the best right-hander in the NL (and maybe in baseball) goes up against Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez, the best right-hander in the AL (and maybe in baseball). That's scheduled for Saturday.

There's been a lot of hoopla already about a showdown in Shea Stadium between whoever pitches for the Mets and Yankees' right-hander Roger Clemens, who will have to take his bat (and maybe his life) into his own hands. There will be no designated hitter in NL parks for interleague play.

Early next week (Monday-Wednesday) at Yankee Stadium, the Diamondbacks and Yankees meet to restage last season's thrilling World Series, won by the Diamondbacks in seven games.

There's a new format this year, too. For the first five years, the Easts played each other, as did the Centrals and Wests. This year, the NL East plays the AL Central, the NL Central plays the AL West and the NL West will play the AL East.

There are a few scheduling wrinkles, of course --the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds don't play -- and quite a few dud series, too.

There's never anything simple about interleague play.

Especially, it seems, answers.

Interleague play fact: The entire interleague schedule will be completed before July 1 this season. It will be played in two segments, June 7-23, and June 28-30.

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