"It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine."
This was only the beginning. You just wait. By next season,
major league teams will be handing out souvenir nose rings to
the first 10,000 youngsters through the turnstiles. Marilyn
Manson will be singing the national anthem before the All-Star
Game, and Billy the Marlin and the Phillie Phanatic will be
cavorting together on top of the dugout.
In the never-ending quest to make the game more stimulating, the
baselines will be shortened to 85 feet, the strike zone will be
shrunk to the size of Cecil Fielder's navel, and Ken Griffey Jr.
will be allowed to bat at least twice an inning.
Clearly, the radicals who are running baseball will not stop
until the balls are painted red, white and blue and the bats are
made of titanium. Look at what has happened in the last quarter
century: First they foisted the designated hitter upon us, then
they expanded the playoffs, and now they've introduced
interleague play, the latest violation of the purity and
sanctity of the game. It's an outrage. What are they going to do
next, tell us Shoeless Joe really was guilty?
Last week, for the first time in the modern era, American League
teams played National League teams during the regular season.
Self-indulgent purists everywhere wept at the passing of yet
another hallowed tradition, although their sobs were hard to
hear over all the cheering. In this case a time-honored hardball
custom didn't die of natural causes. It was stomped to death by
enthusiastic fans rushing to ballparks to catch a glimpse of
teams from the other league.
"It's a gimmick," said author Roger Angell, the patron saint of
purists, as he watched the Boston Red Sox-New York Mets game at
Shea Stadium last Friday night. "But I'm not upset. The fans
seem to like it. I was disturbed when they added a wild card to
the playoffs, but as it turned out, I like that idea. Maybe I'll
At 7:11 p.m. central time on June 12, Texas Rangers pitcher
Darren Oliver delivered a low inside fastball to San Francisco
Giants leadoff batter Darryl Hamilton, and a strange thing
happened: The Ballpark in Arlington didn't collapse. Baseball as
we know it didn't die. Babe Ruth didn't roll over in his grave.
No one came up with a compelling answer to the question that
spurred this experiment in the first place: Just why the heck not?
Will it take away from the World Series if the participants have
already played each other in the regular season? The Chicago
Bulls and the Utah Jazz met twice during the regular season.
That took all the life out of the NBA Finals, didn't it? Will it
dilute the traditional rivalries? We would hate to see anything
happen to that Milwaukee Brewers-Minnesota Twins blood feud. The
sport might not survive.
The Rangers lost that inaugural interleague game 4-3 but filled
nearly every seat in the stadium, a trend that continued around
the majors as teams got their first interleague experience
(chart). Average ticket sales for the first 46 interleague games
were 38% higher than the average intraleague sales up to that
point this season. Said American League president Gene Budig,
"Three out of four fans prefer interleague play, and I think
this is baseball's effort to be responsive to the fans."
A Harris poll found that only 20% of baseball fans disapproved
of interleague play, which would be startlingly little
opposition on any issue. Indeed, in this country you could
probably get more than one out of five people to disapprove of
the polio vaccine or child-labor laws. Interleague play, like
the two-point conversion in the NFL, was a simple, commonsense
idea whose time had come. Not long after they learned to walk
and talk and detest George Steinbrenner, preschool New York
Yankees fans would ask their fathers why the Bronx Bombers never
played the Mets. There never was a good answer.
"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
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-interleague-game logo. By the second
inning all 10,000 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
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 deja 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
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
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
You knew a little thing like interleague play wasn't going to
interrupt Albert Belle's routine. During batting practice in
Cincinnati on Friday night, the White Sox' surly slugger was
told by Chicago manager Terry Bevington that Reds owner Marge
Schott wanted Belle to pose for a photograph with her and
Schottzie 02, her St. Bernard. Uncle Albert rudely declined.
"The hell with her," he said.
Another big league tradition is dead, but let's face it: As long
as we've got heroes like Albert Belle, there will always be
poetry in baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON The Mets' Carl Everett and the Red Sox' Bill Haselman proved that both leagues can play hardball when necessary. [Collision between Bill Haselman and Carl Everett]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Cleveland Indians fan and St. Louis Cardinal fan in stands]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO The Florida fans, like Marlins shortstop Kurt Abbott, were head over heels about the Yanks' visit. [Kurt Abbott falling over opposing player]
The first week of interleague baseball proved a smash at the
gate. Here are this season's average home attendance figures
through Sunday for teams that had hosted both intra- and
TEAM INTRALEAGUE AVG. INTERLEAGUE AVG.
ANAHEIM 19,857 26,276
ATLANTA 39,418 47,922
CHICAGO CUBS 24,187 37,563
CINCINNATI 21,570 33,343
FLORIDA 28,230 42,484
HOUSTON 20,673 28,272
MONTREAL 19,251 19,998
NEW YORK METS 18,873 34,485
OAKLAND 15,117 26,477
PHILADELPHIA 16,111 26,632
PITTSBURGH 16,820 36,178
ST. LOUIS 30,986 44,920
SEATTLE 37,461 52,096
TEXAS 35,644 42,432