Interleague play, like many of the changes made on Bud Selig's watch, is defined by the unintended consequences left in its wake -- in this case, serious damage to the structural and competitive integrity of the schedule. It is a cosmetic change made for short-term benefit as an alternative to addressing complicated problems. And it will be supported at all costs by Park Avenue, no matter how transparent, even innumerate, the claims need to be.
If interleague play truly drove interest, attendance and ratings, the games would be played on weeknights in April and September. That has never been the case; interleague gets four weekend slots, mostly in June, a time when people come out of the woodwork to watch baseball games. The statistics that come out every year to build the case for interleague simply ignore this fact and tout it as fact that the games were better attended than their intraleague counterparts, as if attendance had never tracked with the mercury prior to 1997.
To whatever extent gains are made, they come via the handful of games that are interleague's raison d'etre: the crosstown matchups in New York and Chicago and their slightly more distant partners in California, Texas, Ohio and the mid-Atlantic. There are eight team pairs that are geographically close enough to be considered interleague rivals, and that's giving Cleveland/Cincinnati (Pittsburgh is more a rival to the former), Baltimore/Washington (one team didn't exist six years ago) and Florida/Tampa Bay (no rivalry exists) more credit for heat than is warranted. The entire schedule is thrown into disarray, divisional and wild-card raced skewed, so that those 16 teams can play six games against one another every year. Tiger fans get to gaze upon the wonder that is the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Blue Jays get another western swing tacked onto their schedule. The Brewers and Angels get to fight for the Bob McClure Cup.
Let's just dispense with the illusion that interleague play is this fascinating exercise across 84 series, and get it down to the 16 -- 10, really -- that matter. Starting next year, let's reduce interleague play to those matchups, home-and-home, and let everyone else get on with their lives. MLB has shown no concern that interleague play screws up the schedule, so the problem of some teams always playing different schedules within their division won't matter. What we can do, though, is reduce the footprint on everyone; you can make everybody else play interleague at the same time, or you can skip it, but if we can just admit that it exists not so that the Mariners can play the Padres, or the Brewers can play the Twins, but for the six Yankees/Mets, Cubs/White Sox, Angels/Dodgers and limited other matchups that make Fox and ESPN happy, we'll be light-years ahead of where we are now.
That one change would go a long way to restoring some integrity to the schedule, which this year features the following significant competitive fairness issues:
• The Phillies play an absurd schedule, with six games against the Red Sox, and three each against the Yankees and Twins. Three rivalry series against the AL East should keep things in line, but the Phillies are paired with the Sox for reasons unknown. The Braves, with no rival, play the Royals, White Sox and Tigers in addition to two of the AL's best. If the Nationals somehow are in the race come July 1, they can thank an interleague schedule that gives them six games against the Orioles, but none against the top three AL East teams or the Twins. All other NL East teams play at least six games against that pool.
• The Reds' interleague slate is baby soft, with just three of 15 games against teams playing .400 baseball. The gap between their schedule and the Cardinals is six games: They play six against the Indians while the Cards take on the Angels and Blue Jays. Edge, Redlegs. Not that it matters, but the Astros are the only NL Central team playing the Rays and Yankees. The Brewers get the Twins twice, while the Cubs get the White Sox twice, a difference that seemed more important six weeks ago, when both were expected to be wild-card contenders.
• The Dodgers' interleague schedule is brutal. As always they play the Angels twice, plus they see the Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers. Only the last-place Diamondbacks also get the Red Sox and Yankees. The Padres and Giants get both the Jays and Orioles, while playing just one of the top three AL East teams each. That's a huge schedule edge, especially for the Padres, who get six games against the Mariners to boot.
• In the AL East, the Red Sox get stuck playing the Phillies six times while the Yankees get the Mets and the Rays get the Marlins. No disrespect intended, but that's a big gap in a week's worth of games. The nine uncommon games between the Yankees and Red Sox are a big edge for Yankees: the Sox play the Phillies and road-trip to Colorado and San Francisco, while the Yankees get the Mets twice and the Astros. The Rays get away with murder: None of the top teams in the NL are on their schedule. It's possible no NL team they face will finish above .500, and I'm aware that the Padres have stayed over that mark for six weeks.
• The Blue Jays' June is just insane. In addition to a stretch of nine games with the Rays and Yankees, they catch the Rockies, Cardinals and Phillies, and play an extra road series now that the G20 conference pushes them out of the country and into Citizens Bank Park.
• The Twins get a little hosed in the AL Central, as they're the only one of the contenders facing the Phillies, while the White Sox and Tigers catch the Pirates. That's the only scheduling quirk of note in the division.
• In the AL West, the Rangers' schedule was designed by, I don't know, Jim Sundberg or someone. They get a silly nine games against the Pirates and Astros, and they miss the Cardinals. The rest of the division combined plays nine against the Cards and three against the other two. That is a huge swing in a division that may see all four teams separated by less than eight games. The interleague schedule is going to give the Rangers an edge that they really shouldn't have in a well-designed league.
That's the unintended consequence, a scheduling gimmick that is designed to generate some extra bucks, some extra buzz, ends up putting a thumb on the scale of a pennant race. It happens every year, and it turns out that it's the Rangers' turn to hit the lottery. It's a lousy system, and if we have to have the Subway Series and the El Series and the Loma Prieta Series, let's at least cap it at the necessary ones and stop letting pennant races be influenced by what a computer spits out in November.
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