There have been numerous changes to the game of baseball since its inception. No one expects a sport more than a century old to remain forever true to its original rules and practices, and good arguments can be made for or against particular changes.
Some, like the DH rule were made to bring more excitement by keeping older hitters in the game and sparing us the sight of anemic-hitting pitchers bunting with one out. Other changes were made in a quest to even-up the ever-changing cycles, such as lowering the mound in times when pitching dominates and vice versa. Some, like the wild card were born of expansion.
However, ten years ago, in an effort to bolster popularity and regain a fan base that it was losing to other sports due in part to the resentment caused by the 1994 strike, Major League Baseball introduced interleague play. Many baseball lovers have greeted innovations like the DH with statements like, “What were they thinking about? The game will always produce great moments and players without any artificial tinkering.”
But my absolute hatred of interleague baseball is based on a much different premise. The aforementioned changes tweaked the game closer to the 21st century without altering its main allure: baseball is baseball. It is unique in its recollection of a simpler time, even as it improves itself through minor adjustments. It is still about a sun-splashed day where no time limits can intrude upon its stage; where one can view the wonderful symmetry of its composition. And this is where the conflict begins.
Among all major sports, only in baseball was the playing field truly level, especially under the balanced schedule. Uniforms, strike zones and entire teams could change, but one thing was constant: every team in a division played exactly the same schedule as everyone else. The Yankees and Red Sox played the same number of games against each other as well as all the other American League teams. Symmetry — three strikes, four balls, ninety feet, nine innings — was well served by this system.
Then came interleague play. In order to introduce phony (and unnecessary) rivalries, we have thrown that blessed symmetry to the winds. It is bad enough that MLB, with its luxury tax and other attempts at parity, is fast becoming the NFL — those who decry the DH should be glad there is still a semblance of difference between the NL and AL, since both leagues have been essentially dissolved — now we are subjected to the groans of those who claim that “strength of schedule” has doomed their teams to failure.
One of the reasons for interleague play, we are told, is that fans can see players they don’t normally get to see in their home parks. This, of course is patent nonsense. In today’s satellite TV age they can see more players than ever before. What about those who want to see opposite league players in person? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when NL fans go to their parks to see AL teams, they often miss that team’s best hitter, the DH.
It can’t be denied that in certain markets, interleague play is beneficial to the owners and some fans. But is creating artificial rivalries by ignoring real ones really good for the game? For every Detroit vs. Florida “thriller,” there is one less game for the Tigers to play the hated Yankees, a team they’ll likely be battling for the wild card spot. Rivalries will ebb and flow as team fortunes rise and fall. The Dodgers and Yankees had one of the best rivalries in baseball history and never played a single regular season game against each other.
Which leads, of course, to the World Series. No other championship can rival it for sheer grandeur, tradition and suspense; part of which is bred by the unfamiliarity of its participants. Who can forget Tony Gwynn surveying Yankee Stadium with awe for the first time on the eve of the 1998 Series? How can little boys argue league superiority — a timeless and honored baseball ritual — when both AL and NL team records are diluted by games with each other?
These kinds of quirky sentimentalities are why we love baseball. But all are quickly becoming neutered by interleague play. It’s time to declare the experiment a failure and return America’s pastime to its former and unique greatness.
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