Monday, June 9, 1997
Interleague play revives Past-Its-Time

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The best thing about interleague play is that it has people arguing about baseball again.

American League or National League? Designated hitter or double-switch? What sort of damage might Mark McGwire do in Denver? Is Atlanta's pitching the antidote for the deadly Baltimore Orioles?

After years of unavailing speculation, fans will find answers to some of these pressing concerns this season. Better yet, where the answers aren't obvious, there may be renewed debate. Baseball wins either way.

Desperate to reclaim its lost stature, the National Past-Its-Time has finally recognized the need to utilize its greatest untapped resource.

Interleague play has always been a tantalizing idea, but traditionalists long resisted it because it just wasn't traditional. Baseball was like Brigadoon, stuck in a time warp, oblivious to the cultural change around it. It appealed to an ever-aging audience, and it appealed less with each new labor impasse.

If there were anything gained from the 1994 strike, it was the understanding by both owners and players that they could no longer take their public for granted. They recognized the need to respond to customer demand. Interleague play was probably inevitable before the World Series was wiped out, but it was subsequently seen as urgent.

"I was a traditionalist," said Reds General Manager Jim Bowden, "but every poll that baseball took said the fans wanted interleague play. This game is for the fans. They're the ones that should control the game."

Fighting off competition

Spring training was once baseball's best promotional tool, but it can no longer compete with the NCAA Basketball Tournament for space on the sports page. September belongs as much to pro football as it does the pennant races. The NBA playoffs, which may ultimately consume the entire calendar, now stretch to mid-June.

If baseball is to reassert itself against encroaching competition, interleague play is its best bolt. This weekend, when Tiger Woods is stalking the U.S. Open and Michael Jordan may still be doing battle with Karl Malone, baseball will counterattack with a World Series preview (Baltimore at Atlanta).

Then there's the Cubs and White Sox at Comiskey Park, the Mets at Yankee Stadium, the Reds in Cleveland. If these heretofore unrealized rivalries fail to fuel fan interest, baseball may be as irreversibly antiquated as jousting.

Early returns have been encouraging. Though some matchups have little going for them except novelty - Pittsburgh vs. Minnesota; Detroit vs. Montreal - many teams report a meaningful buzz at the box office. The Kansas City Royals, as anonymous as any team in baseball, expect their cross-state series with the St. Louis Cardinals to be sold out. Rob Butcher, the Reds director of media relations, says more than 94,000 seats have been sold for next weekend's three-game visit by the Chicago White Sox.

I bought tickets for the Sunday game because decorum prevents me from booing Albert Belle from the press box. It is one of those rare opportunities in life that ought not be wasted.

Keeping it compelling

Interleague baseball begins as an experiment, and it is bound to become a permanent addition to the schedule. Yet it should never become so routine that fans will figure they can catch a compelling player on his next trip into town. The current format calls for National and American League teams from corresponding divisions to meet this year and next, alternating home fields. Assuming that the three-division format survives expansion and realignment, a given player would likely make no more than one trip to a given town every six years.

That makes each interleague series, however mundane, a little more of an event. The San Diego Padres don't stir Cincinnati after all these years, but Bostonians might turn out for a first glimpse of Tony Gwynn. Wouldn't Minnesotans show up to see Greg Maddux? If baseball in Pittsburgh is on life-support, could an appearance by Ken Griffey, Jr. quicken its pulse?

It has always been easy to imagine the possibilities of interleague play. This week, baseball begins to feel its impact.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.