Interleague play worth keeping

Saturday, June 6, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The novelty has worn off, but the need remains. Interleague play fills seats that have sat empty since Opening Day. It commands space in the sports section and creates subject matter in saloons. Its benefit to baseball far outweighs the objections of grumbling ballplayers and puritanical sportswriters.

It should be saved. It can be fixed.

Interleague play began last season as a two-year experiment, a marketing test aimed at hyping attendance for a stagnant sport. Because baseball usually resists change as if it were a communicable disease, attempts at progress should be applauded. Because this one has actually worked, attempts to abandon it must be viewed as madness.

Yet when the Cleveland Indians arrived at Cinergy Field Friday night, there was no assurance they would ever be back beyond the weekend. The future of interleague play is contingent on a negotiated settlement between owners and players. Peace in Ireland was more easily arranged.

It still can be improved

The owners are threatening to dump the designated hitter. The players could counter by holding interleague play hostage. The best interests of baseball have become a bargaining chip, continually submarined by self-interest. The good of the game only goes so far.

That said, interleague play can be improved. The schedule can be adjusted to reduce the number of two-game series (which the players despise) and to enhance existing division rivalries (which remain the game's most compelling product).

But what interleague play needs most is imagination. If the concept is to fulfill all of its promise, it must do more than match geographical rivals from corresponding divisions. Reds fans should be allowed a glimpse of Ken Griffey Jr. Baltimore deserves the chance to boo Barry Bonds.

"You should be able to keep one real strong rival," Reds manager Jack McKeon said Friday. "Cleveland and Cincinnati -- they continue to play every year. Same with the two New York clubs, Chicago, Los Angeles and Anaheim, Houston and Texas, St. Louis and Kansas City. But then they should let us play two clubs from the (American League) West and two clubs from the East. All the clubs should come through town over time."

Not all foes created equal

Interleague play produced a 20 percent boost in attendance last season, but all teams' turnstiles did not benefit proportionally. The Reds drew 100,030 for a three-game visit from the Chicago White Sox last June, but only 63,493 for a three-game series with Kansas City in September.

Not all opponents are created equal, and everyone can't schedule a weekend home series with the New York Yankees, but there are ways to augment attendance that should not compromise the purity of the pennant race.

Here, baseball could follow the example of the National Football League. A scheduling formula could be devised in which opponents would be assigned based on the previous year's standings.

Under McKeon's concept, the Reds might choose Cleveland as an annual interleague opponent. The Reds' remaining interleague foes would be picked for variety and competitive balance. If the Indians were to finish first, the Reds might be matched next year with the third and fourth-place teams in the American League West and the second and fifth-place teams in the American League East. (If you're keeping score at home, that projects as Seattle, Oakland, Boston and Tampa Bay.)

The goal should be to bring every big star through every ballpark in the big leagues. Greg Maddux should be made to pitch to the Mariners. Tony Gwynn should get a shot at Fenway Park. Once a year, every fan should be forced to decide if tonight's game might be their last chance to see a Cal Ripken or a Roger Clemens. Once in a while, a Tuesday night in August ought to be an event.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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