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Yankees and Dodgers give rare spice back to interleague play

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

The two iconic franchises haven't met since 2010, and this year Derek Jeter is one of several hurting stars for the Yankees while Andre Ethier's Dodgers are in a slide.

Interleague play, a novelty gone stale, or worse, gets some pizzazz back for the next two nights. The Dodgers play the Yankees in the Bronx for the first time since the final game of the 1981 World Series. How long has it been? It hasn't happened in the lifetimes of Britney Spears, Andy Roddick and Dontrelle Willis, all of whom in their professional careers have come and gone from the spotlight multiple times, with the emphasis on gone.

It's been so long that a younger fan might actually think the Dodgers playing at Yankee Stadium is a real novelty, when in fact it was, for their grandparents, enough of an October staple to become one of the greatest rivalries in sports. From 1941-81, the Yankees and Dodgers met in the World Series 11 times. They played 66 games in those 11 World Series, including 32 of them at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees beat the Dodgers 22 of those 32 times in the Bronx and won eight of the 11 Fall Classic matchups.

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The Dodgers and Yankees in the Bronx gave baseball iconic games: the three home runs by Reggie Jackson in 1977, the 15 strikeouts by Sandy Koufax in 1963 when he outdueled Whitey Ford, the perfect game by Don Larsen in 1956, the Game 7 shutout by Johnny Podres in 1955 to give Brooklyn its only world championship and the walkoff single by Billy Martin to give the Yankees the 1953 World Series.

It's a good thing we have nostalgia to warm our hearts about this series. Otherwise, it's a matchup between two overpaid, underachieving, unhealthy teams that are a combined 67-70. Some of the biggest names won't be playing because of injuries: Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett for Los Angeles and Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson, to name a few, for New York.

The Yankees ($228 million) and Dodgers ($216.5 million) carry the most expensive payrolls in baseball -- by a lot. No team is within 20 percent of what New York and Los Angeles are spending. The Yankees (38-31), stung by injuries and the lack of exciting, young, homegrown players, have seen a six percent decline in attendance. The Dodgers (29-39) can't hit a lick and, since they started 7-4, are worse than every team in baseball except the Astros, Mets and Marlins, who combined spend only 60 percent of what Los Angeles spends.

It's a marquee matchup only in the minds of historians. The Yankees and Dodgers rank 21st and 27th in baseball in runs per game. They rank 29th and 30th -- that's next to last and last -- in the average age of their batters.

Yes, Yasiel Puig, the 22-year-old must-see rookie Los Angeles outfielder, at least adds some spice to the games. It's the New Yorker's view (and not without some merit) that nothing really puts a performer on the map like coming up big in New York. Yankee Stadium is baseball's Broadway. The star power of Puig dims greatly if he comes up empty in the Bronx. But keep this in mind just in case Puig stays hot and takes aim at that too-short porch in rightfield: Only three visiting players ever hit two homers in a game in the Bronx among their first 16 games in the big leagues: Brian McCall of the 1962 White Sox, Luis Medina of the 1988 Indians and Manny Ramirez of the 1993 Indians.

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Just maybe these teams need one another, with the requisite media glare when Los Angeles, New York and baseball history collide, to bring out the best in one another. The Dodgers have had two bench-clearing brawls against division rivals and one of the greatest two-week debuts of any player, and yet they gain no traction whatsoever.

The Yankees have played 35 straight games without scoring in double digits and are 3-6 in their past nine games while scoring 2.7 runs per game.

Maybe we could use a jolt, too, from the Dodgers making a visit to Yankee Stadium. Interleague play was wearing thin already, but it has grown more lackluster this year because of the realignment to create 15-team leagues, forcing interleague play upon us every day. Night after night we get non sequitur series that fall flat. The Nationals in Cleveland. The Rockies in Toronto. Ugh.

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The financial health of baseball is robust, as evidenced by its television rights fees, franchise values, increasing revenues, digital footprint and still strong (though slightly down) attendance numbers. But in these flush times an owner recently offered to me the two biggest issues facing baseball these days: getting more young fans engaged in baseball and restoring the World Series to a true national showpiece rather than a strong regional event. I agreed. The first one is very complicated to address. The second one is very confounding.

How do you get people to watch a month straight of playoff games after their favorite team was eliminated? I don't know, but I do think the droning beat of interleague play has reduced the attraction of the World Series as a jewel event. The inherit mystery of two teams facing one another for the first time and the pride and even arrogance that came along with distinct league identities are gone. The World Series to too many fans became just another series, with a lower case.

Restoring the upper case, even by a little, will be hard. One idea baseball should consider is reducing the League Championship Series to best-of-five, the way it was from 1969-84. Doing so would inject more urgency into the LCS, reduce the inventory of non-decisive playoff games, shorten the ever-lengthening postseason calendar and, best of all, set the World Series apart as the only best-of-seven series -- the true jewel of the postseason.

For now, at least we can enjoy something that feels truly fresh: the Dodgers playing the Yankees in the Bronx for the first time in 32 years. This is interleague play at its rare best: with some novelty to it -- at least for a new generation.

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