Has Interleague Play Outlived Its Value?

For decades, baseball discussed the concept of interleague play, and in 1997, it was finally introduced. For the first time ever, teams from the American and National Leagues played regular-season games against each other, and we were all entertained, and in the aftermath of the 1994 players' strike, that's all baseball wanted.

And so, things were fun for awhile. The big TV networks got to broadcast Yankees-Mets games and Cubs-White Sox games and Athletics-Giants games and all of the other big interleague rivalries that people seemed to be so desperate to see. That a bunch of teams didn't have a natural rival was quietly ignored; the Padres and the Mariners even attempted to manufacture a rivalry, based on the teams sharing a spring training base and a time zone.

We've now muddled along for fourteen seasons, with interleague series becoming increasingly meaningless. For example, there were a few attempts to tie the Braves' visit to Target Field in with the 1991 World Series, but had it not been for the grizzled visage of Bobby Cox and the pennants in left field, there'd be almost no connections between the franchises. Besides, Atlanta had been to Minneapolis twice since that series - in 2002 and in 2007 - and so the excitement was lost. (Strangely, the Twins haven't visited Atlanta in that same span, evidence that something's amiss with the scheduling.)

In the past few years, the only particularly exciting thing about interleague play was that the Twins were allowed to beat up on National League opposition and pad their record. In 2010, they couldn't even do that: they went 8-10, their worst interleague record in years, and lost serious ground to their division rivals. Detroit picked up three games, Chicago an astonishing seven, and the three teams have suddenly been compressed to a game and a half from each other in the standings.

This might be fine, except the three teams didn't play the same interleague schedule, or even a similar interleague schedule. The only team that Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota all played was Atlanta, which is in first place in the NL East. Credit goes to the White Sox for sweeping the Braves, but Atlanta was the only National League team that the Sox played that had a winning record. They got six with the mediocre Cubs, plus series against fourth-place Florida and last-place wonders Washington and Pittsburgh.

Detroit also got series with Washington and Pittsburgh, along with the only awful team in the West, Arizona - three series against the three last-place teams in the NL. They, unfortunately for them, also had to play the Dodgers and Mets besides Atlanta - three teams with winning records. They were 8-1 against the dregs, 3-6 against the teams with winning records.

And the Twins, if it hadn't been for their "rivalry" series with the Brewers, they would have been stuck with only series against winning teams - Atlanta, Colorado, Philadelphia, and the Mets. (Dropping four of six to the Brewers didn't help, of course.)

Should Twins fans complain? Not really; the schedule has worked out favorably in the past for Minnesota and the team's problems aren't due to the schedule-makers.  But with Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota competing for one thing - an AL Central pennant - it seems unfair to play more than a tenth of the schedule against a random set of teams from the other league.

So I wonder - is interleague play beyond its usefulness? (I'm not the only one who thinks so, either.) It was a good way to drum up interest in the late 1990s, but we are talking about two leagues with different rules, a different number of teams, and different ways of playing. And given the screwiness inherent in getting the schedules to balance, is it unfair to have teams in the same division playing different schedules?

It was entertaining for awhile - but maybe it's time to go back to the way things were.

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