Inter-esting Interleague play spikes attendance with rarely scheduled matchups

June 27, 2004

Grainy black-and-white clips of Dodgers-Yankees World Series
games flashed on the outfield video screen at Dodger Stadium last
Friday, and a crowd of 55,207--the largest to watch a
regular-season game there--packed the ballpark for the first game
between the teams in 23 years. At Wrigley Field the next day Mark
Prior and Mark Mulder, young aces of the Cubs and the A's,
respectively, dueled in the first series between those clubs
since the 1929 World Series. And at San Francisco's SBC Park,
good seats to a weekend series between the Red Sox and the Giants
(the first between the teams since the '12 World Series) were
being scalped for $800 a pair.

Nothing juices up June baseball better than a good interleague
series. Boosted by the history-rich matchups in L.A., Chicago and
San Francisco, attendance through Sunday was up 13% compared with
the same point of the season last year. Even onetime critics of
the interleague games have grown to welcome their arrival each
June. "I wasn't a proponent at the beginning," says Braves
manager Bobby Cox. "[Now] I like it because we get to see
different places. You get sick of the same teams. This is a
breath of fresh air."

It has been seven years since baseball purists' worst nightmare
was introduced. By the end of next season interleague play will
have come full circle--each AL team will have played every NL
team, thanks to a rotating schedule, which was first used in
2002. (Previously, AL East teams played NL East teams, AL Central
faced NL Central and AL West played NL West--a format that is
slated to return in '06.)

As a fan attraction interleague play has been a hit--average
attendance for those games from 1997 through '03 was 14.3% higher
than average attendance for intraleague games--but tweaks could
be made to improve the concept. The rotating schedule provides
gems like Dodgers-Yankees but magnifies interleague play's main
shortcoming: the scheduling inequities that arise because of an
unequal number of teams in matched divisions coupled with the
so-called prime rivalries, in which teams like the Cubs and the
White Sox play home-and-home series each year. This season the
inequities of interleague play could have a profound effect on
the NL East and NL Central races. Because they don't have a prime
rival, the Cardinals have a less competitive schedule than the
Cubs, who must play the White Sox six times. St. Louis,
meanwhile, plays the last-place Royals and Mariners three times

One way to reduce the inequity would be to eliminate one series
in the matchups between prime rivals so teams would have more
common interleague opponents with their divisional foes. Another
change that might fuel fan interest would be to reverse the
designated-hitter rule so that teams use the DH in NL parks and
pitchers hit in AL parks. "You want to play interleague games so
fans see the other league," says Marlins manager Jack McKeon.
"Well, let's let them see the other style of baseball, too."

In its present form, though, interleague still works. Even the
game's purists would be hard-pressed to deny the lure of a series
such as the one at Dodger Stadium. On Friday, Fernando
Valenzuela, a starter for L.A. in the 1981 World Series against
the Yankees, threw out the first pitch, while former greats
Reggie Jackson of the Yanks and Steve Garvey and Ron Cey of the
Dodgers looked on. After his team's 6-3 win, L.A. catcher Paul Lo
Duca exclaimed, "This is electric, the loudest I've ever heard
this stadium."

Not bad for a game in mid-June.

COLOR PHOTO: JON SOOHOO/EPA Jose Hernandez of the Dodgers slaps a tag on the Yankees' Derek Jeter in a meeting between former World Series foes.


Jason Schmidt, RHP, Giants
Third in the majors in ERA (2.26), he won his ninth straight
decision on Sunday, throwing his second one-hitter of the year in
a 4-0 victory over Boston.

Chris Carpenter, RHP, Cardinals
After not having pitched since 2002 because of shoulder injuries,
he was St. Louis's best starter (7-2, 3.95 ERA).

Scott Hatteberg, 1B, A's
From May 1 through Sunday he batted .354 with a .424 on-base
percentage. For the season he ranked first in RBIs (42) and
second in slugging (.519) among AL first

Three Down

Octavio Dotel, RHP, Astros
Promoted to closer in the off-season, he had blown three of his
last 10 save chances and could lose his job to setup man Brad
Lidge (63 K's in 40 1/3 innings).

Josh Beckett, RHP, Marlins
The MVP of the 2003 World Series was 4-4 with a 3.86 ERA and has
been nagged by injuries, the latest a strained back.

Pirates offense
On May 29 Pittsburgh was 23-22 but at week's end had lost 17 of
its last 20 largely because the club had scored more than four
runs in a game just five times during the tailspin.