"I love the whole idea of interleague play and wouldn't miss this for anything," said Tracy DeCrescenzo, a New York City bus driver who attended the Red Sox-Mets game last Friday. "I drive a bus nearly every day, and interleague play is all people are talking about." Maybe plans to get a real commissioner should be scrapped—just poll the fans before making any decisions. In no time we would see the return of World Series games in the afternoon and called strikes at the waist.
"I really think this was something that had to be done," Boston third baseman Tim Naehring said of interleague play. "We needed a major change to bring people back to the ballpark. This industry has had enough strikes and work stoppages and lockouts. No one wants to hear those words again. We needed something to make the fans feel good about baseball, and I think that's what this does."
When the schedule was released, it seemed the lords of baseball had screwed up another free lunch. While the concept of interleague play was universally endorsed by fans, everyone was particularly excited about a couple of marquee matchups—namely, the Mets-Yankees and Chicago Cubs-Chicago White Sox. So how did baseball kick off its much-anticipated interleague schedule? With the NFC title game: San Francisco at Texas.
Apparently, baseball's schedule makers had enough difficulty meshing the two leagues without worrying about a made-for-TV opening act, so they settled for the American League West versus the National League West on the first night. While the Rangers couldn't sell a natural rivalry, they offered something more alluring in these collectibles-crazed times: the first of everything. They sold caps, T-shirts, pins and baseballs, all featuring a special first-inter-league-game logo. By the second inning all 100,000 souvenir programs had been sold, and the interleague merchandise was flying off the shelves. "Our fans are just going crazy over the stuff," said Texas public relations director John Blake. "We've already sold 30,000 tickets to each of the interleague games, including the ones against the Dodgers, and they're not coming until Labor Day."
The story line was similar at most of the interleague series. The Mets, despite their surprising success this season, were averaging just 18,873 fans at home until last Friday night when Boston, the last-place team in the American League East, came to town. A crowd of 44,443 saw the Red Sox, in their first meaningful visit to Shea since losing to New York in the '86 World Series, beat the Mets 8-4. In Cincinnati the Reds hosted the White Sox on Friday night—the first matchup between those two teams since the 1919 World Series—and sold more than 30,000 tickets for only the second time this season. The Oakland A's were averaging just 15,117 before the Los Angeles Dodgers came to town; the teams drew 28,201 on Friday night, at least half of whom were rooting for L.A. The Yankees also had plenty of support on the road as they visited the Florida Marlins for three games, all of which sold out in March. The first Yankees-Marlins game, on Friday night, drew 42,555, Florida's largest crowd in nearly three years. "They should have done this 10 years ago," Yankees coach Don Zimmer said before the game as he glanced at the exuberant crowd at Pro Player Stadium. "It's good for the fans. Look at this place. It has a World Series atmosphere."
The first-time regular-season matchups allowed the teams' promotions people to explore innovative ways to lure fans into the ballpark. When Philadelphia Phillies vice president of marketing Dennis Mannion found out that the Toronto Blue Jays would be the Phils' first American League visitor, he attempted to find footage of new Jays ace Roger Clemens. He had no luck, so he tried a different approach to hype the series. He used highlights of the '93 Philadelphia-Toronto World Series—including the Series-clinching home run hit by the Blue Jays' Joe Carter—in TV advertisements, drawing the ire of many Phillies fans. "Hey, we can't hide from it," said Mannion. "It's part of our history. We may not have liked it, but at least we were in the Show." On Saturday it was déjà vu for the Philadelphia faithful as Carter blasted a two-run homer that lifted Toronto to a 3-2 victory.
Hideo Nomo appeared in the Dodgers' series at Oakland, and it's a good thing, too. The A's, last in the majors in attendance in 1996 (14,355 per game), came up with their "Nomo Promo," guaranteeing that Nomo would pitch in the series opener last Thursday or the fans would receive a free ticket to a future game. He pitched. Oakland won 5-4, capping a glorious day at the ballpark. The A's retired Jackie Robinson's number 42 and drew their largest weeknight crowd of the year. "Plus," said 13-year-old Oakland fan Kyle Brown, "today was the last day of school."
The Red Sox expected to be reminded of their '86 World Series disaster when they returned to the scene of the crime last weekend. They just didn't think they would have to take so much grief. Mookie Wilson, whose ground ball rolled through first baseman Bill Buckner's legs to spark New York's improbable comeback victory in Game 6, threw out the first pitch. Video flashbacks of the '86 Series were shown on the centerfield scoreboard between half innings, and somehow Wilson's grounder made its way onto the screen several times, as the crowd roared with delight.
Most players put on a happy face when asked about the interleague experiment, but the truth is, it presented two of their least favorite things: a distraction and an unfamiliar opponent. For the most part, players strut purposefully through life with blinders on. They focus on the next game, the next at bat, the next pitch. History? To a player it means the last time he faced tonight's starting pitcher. Players like the excitement that comes with a sold-out stadium but detest the numerous two-game series that the interleague schedule has wrought. (The Seattle Mariners have 28 such series this season.) "It's funny to see how a double-switch works," said Boston slugger Mo Vaughn after the Sox' Friday night game against the Mets. "And it's weird to see them intentionally walk the eighth hitter to get to the pitcher. But once the game starts, it's just a game. These games count like all the others."
When Hamilton stepped into the batter's box in Texas, the umpire told him and Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez that the ball used for the first pitch was earmarked for Cooperstown. "I wasn't sure what to do," said Hamilton later. "Did that mean I wasn't supposed to swing?" He laid off the pitch, and Rodriguez handed the ball to the ump. Three pitches later Hamilton swatted a single, the first interleague hit. In the ninth inning he caught a fly ball to end the game. That ball was supposed to go to Cooperstown as well, but Hamilton unwittingly flipped it to a fan. "Hey, it was just another game," he said. "We can't let ourselves get caught up in this. We've got to stay focused on the game."