Interleague play spikes attendance with rarely scheduled matchups
Grainy black-and-white clips of Dodgers-Yankees World Series games flashed on the outfield video screen at Dodger Stadium last Friday, and a crowd of 55,207—the largest to watch a regular-season game there—packed the ballpark for the first game between the teams in 23 years. At Wrigley Field the next day Mark Prior and Mark Mulder, young aces of the Cubs and the A's, respectively, dueled in the first series between those clubs since the 1929 World Series. And at San Francisco's SBC Park, good seats to a weekend series between the Red Sox and the Giants (the first between the teams since the '12 World Series) were being scalped for $800 a pair.
Nothing juices up June baseball better man a good interleague series. Boosted by the history-rich matchups in L.A., Chicago and San Francisco, attendance through Sunday was up 13% compared with me same point of the season last year. Even one-time critics of the interleague games have grown to welcome their arrival each June. "I wasn't a proponent at the beginning," says Braves manager Bobby Cox "[Now] I like it because we get to see different places. You get sick of the same teams. This is a breath of fresh air."
It has been seven years since baseball purists' worst nightmare was introduced. By the end of next season interleague play will have come full circle—each AL team will have played every NL team, thanks to a rotating schedule, which was first used in 2002. (Previously, AL East teams played NL East teams, AL Central faced NL Central and AL West played NL West—a format that is slated to return in '06.)
As a fan attraction interleague play has been a hit—average attendance for those games from 1997 through '03 was 143% higher than average attendance for intraleague games—but tweaks could be made to improve the concept. The rotating schedule provides gems like Dodgers-Yankees but magnifies interleague play's main shortcoming: the scheduling inequities that arise because of an unequal number of teams in matched divisions coupled with the so-called prime rivalries, in which teams like the Cubs and the White Sox play home-and-home series each year. This season the inequities of interleague play could have a profound effect on the NL East and NL Central races. Because they don't have a prime rival, the Cardinals have a less competitive schedule than the Cubs, who must play the White Sox six times. St. Louis, meanwhile, plays the last-place Royals and Mariners three times each.
One way to reduce the inequity would be to eliminate one series in the matchups between prime rivals so teams would have more common interleague opponents with their divisional foes. Another change that might fuel fan interest would be to reverse the designated-hitter rule so that teams use the DH in NL parks and pitchers hit in AL parks. "You want to play interleague games so fans see the other league," says Marlins manager Jack McKeon. "Well, let's let them see the other style of baseball, too."
In its present form, though, interleague still works. Even the game's purists would be hard-pressed to deny the lure of a series such as the one at Dodger Stadium. On Friday, Fernando Valenzuela, a starter for L.A. in the 1981 World Series against the Yankees, threw out the first pitch, while former greats Reggie Jackson of the Yanks and Steve Garvey and Ron Cey of the Dodgers looked on. After his team's 6-3 win, L.A. catcher Paul Lo Duca exclaimed, "This is electric, the loudest I've ever heard this stadium."
Not bad for a game in mid-June.
Major Players At the CWS
Forty-six players selected in the amateur draft earlier this month reached the College World Series, which started last Friday and will produce a champion by Monday. Here are four players on the fast track to the majors.