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Friday, June 19, 2009

Interleague Play Brings Back Both Good and Bad Memories

It has been a walk down memory lane for the Baltimore Orioles this week as Interleague play has allowed a renewal of rivalries with two one-time World Series opponents.

Now in its 13th year, some of the sparkle has rubbed off the notion of teams from the two leagues mixing for regular season contests. However, Interleague play still provides an annual opportunity to reminisce about past match-ups and debate whether it is a good idea or another example of the cheapening of the game.

On the field, Interleague play has been an unquestioned disaster for the Baltimore Orioles. Entering this season, the Orioles have the worst record among American League teams in Interleague play with a mark of 90-121 (.427).

Only the Pittsburgh Pirates have a worse overall record against the other league (63-103, .380).

Those records stand in great contrast to those of the two best teams in Interleague play, the New York Yankees (123-87, .586) and Oakland A’s (123-89, .580).

As a life-long fan of the Orioles who grew up during their glory years and has stuck by them through the rough road of the last decade, I actually see Interleague play as a refreshing opportunity to remember past glory and watch the Orioles face different competition.

While the memories from the 1969 World Series against the New York Mets are certainly quite painful, it was nice to get a measure of revenge (albeit a very small measure) with a come-from-behind victory in the rubber game of the three game series.

The past memories against the opponent for this weekend’s series are much more pleasant.

It is hard to believe that 26 years have passed since Rick Dempsey, Eddie Murray and a young Cal Ripken, Jr. led the Orioles to their last World Series title against the Phillies.

In past years, the Orioles have had chances to relive World Series moments against the Reds, Dodgers and Pirates.

Across the majors, this weekend includes three series between teams that have competed against each other for World Series glory.

In addition to the Orioles and Phillies, the New York Yankees are taking on their opponents from the 2003 World Series, the Florida Marlins. The other series features a rematch of the thrilling 1985 series between the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals.

By the time Interleague play for 2009 ends later this month, there will have been 12 match-ups between teams that once met on baseball’s grandest stage.

In addition to offering the opportunity for World Series rematches, Interleague play also provides an annual excuse for teams within close proximity to meet in “rivalry” games.

There is little doubt that this element of Interleague play has much more appeal in places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where there are actually two teams, than it does for teams like the Rockies, Pirates or Braves who have no natural local rival in the other league.

In fact, baseball has designated “rivalry series” for only 18 teams, which means the other teams mix among themselves for the six games when the Yankees are playing the Mets, the Cubs are battling the White Sox and the Orioles are playing the hated Nationals.

One problem that many players, executives and fans have with Interleague play is that it is inheritably unfair.

While division rivals play the same number of games against each other and all the other teams in their own league, schedules against Interleague opponents vary in their degree of difficulty.

The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angeles are currently competing for first place in the AL West with the Rangers holding a one and a half game advantage.

Because of the “rivalry” component of Interleague play, the Angels are playing six games against the team with the best record in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Conversely, the Rangers are playing their six rivalry games are against a Houston team that is currently four games under .500.

While the system certainly isn’t perfect, there is little argument that Interleague play is an important reason for the resurgence of baseball attendance in recent years.

Since Interleague play started in 1997, average attendance for these games has been 11.8 percent higher than for the rest of the regular season schedule.

In 2008, the average attendance for Interleague play topped 35,000 for the first time ever and the league recently recognized the “100 millionth fan to see an Interleague game.”

Whether it is Interleague play, the designated hitter, or the wild card playoff round, baseball has made a number of changes over the years to improve the game and spark fan interest.

While baseball “purists” may not like the changes, they can’t argue with the fact that watching the Orioles against the Braves, Yankees against the Mets or Cubs against the White Sox is inherently more compelling than another series between the Marlins and Padres or Royals and Mariners.

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