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Love It or Hate It, Interleague Play Is Now a Reality

Baseball: Let the great debate rage right up to the historic first National League/American League regular-season game on June 12, San Francisco at Texas.

March 23, 1997|BEN WALKER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tom Glavine circled the date as soon as he saw the schedule.

A National Leaguer his whole career, Glavine finally gets to test the Green Monster in late August. That's when his Atlanta Braves visit Boston, and the one-time schoolboy star from Massachusetts can't wait.

"I've seen an awful lot of games at Fenway Park and never got a chance to play there," the pitcher said. "I'm really excited."

If he's pumped, just imagine how Mark McGwire must feel. That same weekend, he can try to crush a ball 800 feet when his Oakland Athletics play Colorado at Coors Field.

What about it, Mark? Are you juiced, or what?

"Why are they trying to change the game of baseball?" he snapped. "For what? Revenue? Money?

"It's going to take away from the World Series," he said. "That's what makes baseball so unique. You've got two leagues and nobody plays each other and then you get together for the World Series."

And there you have it, fans. Even the game's best players cannot agree on what surely will be the game's most resisted move ever.

Interleague play.

Let the great debate rage right up to that historic first NL-AL regular-season game on June 12, when the San Francisco Giants play at the Texas Rangers. Four days later, the real rivalries begin when the New York Mets travel across town to Yankee Stadium, the Chicago Cubs take on the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds (with Deion Sanders back from the NFL) face the Cleveland Indians for bragging rights in Ohio.

In the meantime, there's plenty else worth watching.

A season dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier will feature a new ballpark--Turner Field in Atlanta--and a new team, sort of--the Anaheim Angels.

Lots of players are in new places, and umpires are bringing a new, get-tough attitude in the aftermath of the Roberto Alomar spitting incident. And this is really new--there's labor peace, at last, between owners and players, meaning no more strikes or lockouts at least until 2001.

For those who didn't read the transactions wire on a daily basis, Albert Belle got $55 million to sign with the White Sox, Roger Clemens moved to Toronto, Matt Williams was traded to Cleveland and Jose Canseco was reunited with McGwire as the Bash Brothers in Oakland.

The Florida Marlins spent nearly $90 million to sign several top free agents, hoping they can stop the Braves' run of five straight division titles. They also hired Jim Leyland, one of six managers with new jobs.

The New York Yankees, meanwhile, found out how hard it is to stay on top. Shortly after Joe Torre's team rallied for the World Series championship, key contributors John Wetteland, Jimmy Key and Jim Leyritz bolted.

"I really didn't get much chance to enjoy it," Torre said this spring. "That's baseball in the '90s, I guess."

Cal Ripken changed places, too. Baltimore's shortstop since 1982, he shifted to become the Orioles' full-time third baseman, with his consecutive games streak intact at 2,316 (for those counting, the second-longest active string belongs to Craig Biggio at 219).

At 36, maybe it was time for Ripken to move over. There's a new breed of young shortstops who are redefining the job, with the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter putting some pop into the position.

Of course, anyone who walked up to the plate last year seemed to be in scoring position.

Leadoff man Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs and three teams, including his Orioles, broke the record of 240 homers set by the 1961 Yankees with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. McGwire led with 52 and the Rockies had three guys with at least 40.

In all, there were 4,962 home runs, shattering the record of 4,458 in 1987. How crazy did the homer binge become? In the annual Hall of Fame exhibition game, Angels bullpen catcher Mick Billmeyer stepped into a batter's box for the first time in three years and promptly cleared the bleachers in right field.

It got so out of whack that baseball's rulers--remember, there's been no commissioner since September 1992--thought about raising the mound, just to give the poor pitchers a chance. Hard to say what will happen in 1998 when the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks join the majors and further dilute the pitching pool.

Also hard to say how umpires and players will get along once the season opens on April 1.

Upset that Alomar did not draw more than a five-game suspension for spitting in John Hirschbeck's face last September, umpires vowed to get tougher this season. They said they wouldn't take any lip, and showed what they meant with several rare spring training ejections.

Alomar and Hirschbeck will meet up for the first time since the incident on April 22 when the Orioles are home against Chicago. Hirschbeck does not plan to shake Alomar's hand or make any special goodwill gesture.

"I'll just treat it like another game," Hirschbeck said.

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