Marquee matchups, like Yanks-Cubs, boost fan interest, but schedule inequities are a sore spot with some clubs
Joe Torre is normally a critic of interleague play, but last Friday, as he sat in the visitors' dugout at Wrigley Field, the Yankees manager couldn't resist the lure of the most-hyped series of the season. "O.K., time to go," he said, dismissing a band of reporters two hours before the first of three games between his team and the Cubs. "I've got to go enjoy this."
Wrigley Field was the showcase for last week's start of 2003 interleague play because the Yankees and the Cubs were meeting for the first time since the 1938 World Series and because Saturday's game pitted Roger Clemens against Kerry Wood. "I've never been in a game that was more electric," Cubs first baseman Eric Karros, a 13-year veteran, said after his team's 5-2 win, in which he smacked a three-run, go-ahead home run in the seventh inning to derail Clemens's third attempt to get his 300th victory.
Since its inception in 1997 interleague play has been a boon to major league attendance overall. Last year crowds at games between American and National League teams were 15.1% greater on average than the intraleague-game crowds. In the first week of interleague play this season, including the three sellouts at Wrigley, attendance spiked 10.1%.
But for every marquee matchup there are a half-dozen interleague pairings that have little or no attraction. The first of three weekend games between the Marlins and the world champion Angels at Pro Player Stadium drew only 171 fans more than the season average (13,017) heading into the series; the last game drew 396 below that average. "I think it's an overexaggeration that the fans like [interleague play] so much—look at the crowds we had against the Twins," says Giants first baseman J.T. Snow, pointing to the average draw of 35,272 for last week's three-game series against AL Central-leading Minnesota at Pac Bell Park, which was 3,227 below the team's season average. "I thought interleague play was kind of cool the first year, but the novelty definitely has worn off."
Like a TV series that's run out of fresh story lines, interleague play may soon run out of compelling matchups. And as more top teams in the American League play their National League counterparts, the mystique of the World Series is further diluted.
The loudest argument against interleague play is the scheduling inequity it sometimes creates with an uneven number of teams in divisions and so-called prime rivals, such as Cubs-White Sox, playing home-and-home series each year. For example, in the AL Central, which plays the NL West this season, division-leading Minnesota doesn't face the Dodgers and gets its prime rival, the Brewers, twice. Meanwhile, second-place Kansas City faces the Dodgers and its prime rival is St. Louis. "These interleague games are more exhibition," says Torre. "I don't dunk they make much baseball sense." Says Padres manager Bruce Bochy, "A bad draw can cost you the division."
Last season the A's feasted on five NL teams and went 16-2; they won the AL West by four games over the Angels, who fared 11-7 in interleague play. The two clubs had three common opponents, but Oakland went 7-2 against San Francisco and Houston while Anaheim went 4-5 against Los Angeles and St. Louis. The same repercussions were felt in the NL West. "We played Oakland six limes last war [winning twice], and Arizona played inferior teams [the Diamondbacks were 7-2 against the Tigers, Indians and Red Sox] and won the division by 2� games," says Giants shortstop Rich Aurilia. "The only thing I got out of it the last few years was being able to play in Yankee Stadium last season, after growing up [in Brooklyn]."
Rod Beck's Comeback
From RV to the Padres' Bullpen
During his two-month stint with Triple A Iowa in the Cubs' organization this season, Rod Beck lived in a 36-foot Winnebago parked beyond the rightfield wall at Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines. Beck's RV was a popular postgame hangout for fans, but as of last week the party was over. The Padres signed Beck to a prorated, one-year $400,000 deal, and he immediately reported to San Diego. (An "out" clause in his minor league contract allowed him to accept a major league offer from another organization.)