As manager of the White Sox from 1979 to '86, I was involved in a few Windy City Classics, a pair of midseason exhibition games against the crosstown-rival Cubs. Although the games didn't count in the standings, I learned quickly that they meant something to the fans. I can remember people at our spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla., telling me, "We don't care what you do during the season. Just make sure you beat the Cubs." Imagine if those games had counted.
Well, we don't have to imagine anymore. Interleague play has finally arrived—this year American League East teams play National League East clubs, Central plays Central and West plays West—and it's a fan's dream come true. Chicago will be buzzing when the Cubs, who started playing in 1876, and the White Sox, who began play in the American League in 1901, meet for the first time in a regular-season game on June 16 at Comiskey Park. The same holds true in New York ( Mets and Yankees), the Bay Area ( Giants and Athletics), Southern California ( Dodgers and Angels), Canada (Expos and Blue Jays), Ohio (Reds and Indians) and, yes, Missouri (my Cardinals and the Royals).
As with anything attempted for the first time, interleague play will be accompanied by a natural curiosity and excitement. In most cases these games will provide fans a chance to see the stars from the other league they would otherwise get to see only on television. For instance, our fans in St. Louis will see Paul Molitor and the Twins; Kenny Lofton and the Indians; and Albert Belle, Frank Thomas and the White Sox. If those players came in for an exhibition game, there would be casual interest. Now that the outcome of these games will affect the standings, more excitement will be generated.
The heart and soul of the game is the individual matchup of pitcher against hitter. Have you ever wondered how the Blue Jays' Roger Clemens would fare against the Braves' Chipper Jones? Can the Mariners' Randy Johnson throw his fastball past the Giants' Barry Bonds? Interleague play makes such dream matchups a reality.
Some people wonder whether interleague play will diminish baseball's showpiece, the World Series. On the contrary, if two teams that played each other during the regular season should meet again in the fall, the Series will be even more intriguing. You'll be able to point to outcomes, statistics and tendencies from interleague play and argue, "Hey, this is what's going to happen in the World Series."
Because baseball is looking to generate more attendance and more income, interleague play was inevitable. A team that typically draws 20,000 for a Tuesday-night game might draw 30,000 per night when a club from the other league comes in for a two- or three-game series.
Is the system perfect? Of course not. For interleague play to work best, both leagues must play by the same rules, and that means settling the designated hitter debate. (Even without interleague play, it doesn't make sense for each league to have its own set of rules.) The DH has some value because it appeals to the casual fan; the extra hitter increases the potential for more offense. But avid baseball fans know that a National League manager can be faced with some tough decisions when the pitcher's spot in the batting order comes up, especially late in games. One way or the other, I'd just like to see the DH issue resolved.
We also should not play more than 15 interleague games in a season, the number we have scheduled in 1997. Teams should earn their spots in the playoffs primarily by what they do against clubs in their league.
There are many more pluses to interleague play than minuses, and we should concentrate on the positive. Right now, though, I'm concentrating on the National League and the Central Division in particular. It's not the time of year to be thinking about interleague games. But if I were a fan, I would already have those games circled on my schedule.
Imagine that the Orioles repeated this year as the American League wild-card team, this time edging the Mariners and the White Sox by one or two games. The Orioles would have earned that postseason spot fair and square, right? Well, maybe not.