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Interleague Play

By: Aaron Booth

2011 marks the 15th year of interleague play in Major League Baseball. In that Interleague has been a source of controversy and debate amongst baseball fans, writers and analysts with many respectable figures on each side of the debate. Having heard these arguments for years I’ve been surprised at the lack of a good argument for or against it. Both sides make vehement cases that essentially boil down to sentimentality. I don’t have a problem with making a sentimental argument, but let’s be honest about what it is.

Consider the anti-interleague arguments: It’s not traditional. Inter-City/State rivalries are great, but a Royals/Rockies series is boring. It creates an unfair imbalance in the schedule

The whole anti-interleague crowd doesn’t get worked up about tradition, but those who do reminisce about the nobler, happier times when the AL only met the NL in the World Series. Could there be a more sentimental argument than this? Interleague isn’t traditional, but so what? What’s so great about the old tradition? I’m not against tradition, but I don’t see the need for baseball to be slavishly tied to it. If you prefer the old tradition, if you consider yourself a “purist” that’s fine, but at the end of the day making the tradition argument is not about facts or practicality, it’s just an argument about the way you think things should be.

The anti-interleague crowd will often acknowledge that the Subway Series or the Windy City Classic is interesting, but they are quick to point out that interleague series between the Rays and Giants or the Diamondbacks and Tigers or boring and meaningless. This is true as far as it goes, but the same can be said about the regular schedule too. The nation loves to watch the Red Sox vs. the Yankees, but does anybody outside of each team’s specific fan base care anything about the Mariners vs. the Blue Jays? I don’t think so. I took a peek at the schedule for the 4th of July. All 30 teams will play that day, and probably 3-5 of the games will be on national TV. Pretty much all of the series are boring. Reds/Cardinals looks like the most meaningful series on the slate. Even the major market teams are playing boring series – anybody up for some Yankees/Indians action? Diamondbacks/Tigers doesn’t sound so bad compared to Astros/Pirates. This argument might be worse than the one before – it boils down to preference and it’s not much more than kicking some rhetorical dust in the air.

As for the schedule, I’ll admit that I’m on an island here, but the imbalanced schedule just doesn’t make that much of a difference. The schedule is not predictable and the quality of play of just one team rises and falls month to month and even week to week.  With injuries, weather, streaks, slumps, rookie call-ups, trades, etc. the quality of a team can change dramatically in a very short period of time. If the Mariners play the Indians in early April and the Rangers play the Indians in early June, is that fair? Is it balanced? No, it’s not. In April the Indians pitching was effective and Travis Hafner was awesome. Now in June the Indians can’t pitch and Hafner is hurt. The spreadsheet says the Mariners and Rangers both played 3 games against the Indians, but in real life it looks like they’re playing two different teams. That’s not anybody’s fault – it’s just the way it is. Not to keep picking on the Indians, but I actually heard an analyst a few weeks ago complain that the Reds have to play the Indians, while the Cardinals get to play the Royals. What would Reds fans have said on March 25th? They would have said, “Check it out. We get to play the Indians twice this year.” And now that the Indians have come back to being the Indians, the Reds will be getting to play the Indians instead of having to play the Indians like they did a few weeks ago. In short, the idea of a balanced schedule in baseball is a myth. You can make it look balanced on a spreadsheet, but it just can’t be balanced in real life.

Lest the pro-interleague crowd get too puffed up, I’d like to point out that their arguments are pretty sentimental, too. It’s fun and different. It creates interesting matchups beyond just the obvious geographic rivals and it brings star players to cities they wouldn’t otherwise visit. Interleague play is wildly popular – the ratings and ticket sales show it.

The idea that interleague play is fun and different is just the counter argument to tradition. One group values tradition, the group values novelty. Just like I don’t mind if you value tradition, I also don’t mind if you prefer innovation, but it’s just preference.

The pro-interleague crowd likes to draw attention to other “interesting” matchups such as the recent Red Sox/Cubs series – a rematch of the 1918 World Series and the first time the Cubs played in Fenway since that series ended. Is that really interesting? Maybe for a minute – the broadcaster acknowledges the fact, you sit there and say to yourself, “how about that?” and then you move on. It’s not like we’re expecting Ryan Dempster to retaliate on the Red Sox for Carl Mays hitting Les Mann with a pitch in the final game of the 1918 series. This kind of sentimentality also gets trotted out when a beloved (or hated) player returns to the city of his former team. It’s interesting – for a minute – and then they have to play the new game. Interleague does let the Rockies fan base see Derek Jeter every six years or so. That’s probably the most interesting scenario of this type, not because of any connection between Jeter and Colorado, but because Jeter has always been a Yankee and would have gone to many NL ballparks without interleague play. But Jeter is not the norm. In 2011 and throughout the interleague era, players witch teams and leagues all the time. This too doesn’t amount to much more than sentimental preference.

Like the balanced schedule argument before, I’m a little more out on a limb on attendance and ratings, but I do think MLB is quick to point out better ratings/attendance for interleague with really exposing all the factors. First of all, attendance isn’t up for the Yankees, Red Sox or other big-draw teams. How is a team supposed to sell more tickets than capacity? They can’t. In fact, during the Subway Series, there are actually fewer people attending a baseball game in New York than there would be if the Yankees and Mets were both playing games in town on the same day. There are also fewer people watching baseball on TV too as the potential opponents of the Yankees and Mets would create at least a certain amount of broadcast interest. That’s not the only smoke screen here either. The interleague games are scheduled in June – a pretty good time for attending a baseball game, school is out, the weather is not yet as hot as it will be, and baseball is the only show in town – no NFL, no NBA, baseball is it. I wouldn’t say this is nothing, but there are a lot of factors involved, and the deck is stacked for somewhat higher attendance for interleague.

As I’ve considered interleague over the years my feeling (today) is that I’m for it. It creates conversation and debate amongst the die-hard fans. Over the last 15 years, this debate has stimulated arguments just like All-Star selections, post-season awards and the Hall of Fame Ballot. While I do question the significance of Chipper Jones playing visiting Detroit or a rematch on the 1993 World Series, if these things create intrigue amongst more casual fans then that’s good too. While so many arguments on interleague play boil down to sentimentality and personal preference, perhaps the best part of interleague play is that it makes more people talk about baseball, and that is objectively good for the game.

Aaron Booth lives in Monroe, LA with his wife a five children. He makes his living in the real estate world, which gives him the opportunity to listen to a lot of audio, including a fair amount of sports radio and podcasts. Aaron loves his i-devices and 24-hour sports media, but also fondly remembers the days when he calculated his fantasy standings from the newspaper. 

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