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Interleague Play Revives Classics

Dodgers-Yankees next weekend is among great rivalries rekindled through format adopted in 1997.

June 08, 2004|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

For the first time since the Dodgers called Brooklyn home and Babe Ruth played for the Boston Red Sox, the Dodgers visit Fenway Park this weekend. And, for the first time since Fernando Valenzuela bested Reggie Jackson in the 1981 World Series, the New York Yankees visit Dodger Stadium next weekend.

No sport celebrates its history better than baseball, and the introduction of interleague play in 1997 has revived stories of classic heroes and October classics. With those historic rivalries reborn in June and again in summers to come, Commissioner Bud Selig insists that the popularity of interleague play will not fade even as the novelty does.

"That's not something that is going to wear off," Selig said. "It has been stunningly popular. It's not a gimmick. It's something that should have been done 40 or 50 years ago."

Even major league players, largely uneasy with the concept of interleague play at first, have accepted if not embraced it.

"The main thing is, it's for the fans," Angel shortstop David Eckstein said. "As players, you play the schedule. If fans like it, and it drives interest, it's good."

In a study commissioned by Major League Baseball, Selig said, more than 90% of fans approved of interleague play.

"Our customers love it," he said.

Major league officials boost attendance by giving customers what they want when they want it, stacking weekends with the best matchups. The Dodgers, for example, play the Angels, Red Sox and Yankees on weekends and play the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles during the week. In addition to the Dodger-Angel rivalry, major league officials reserve weekends for the Yankees vs. New York Mets, Chicago Cubs vs. Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants vs. Oakland Athletics.

After several years, officials made good on their promise to rotate divisions during interleague play. The Angels faced National League East teams last season, play the NL Central this season and will draw the NL West next season.

Over a six-year period, Selig said, every team should play in every stadium. Fans in NL cities should have had the chance to see Baltimore star Cal Ripken Jr., and fans in American League cities should have had the chance to see San Diego star Tony Gwynn.

"That's the way to keep the popularity up," Selig said.

Not every interleague matchup is a jewel. There is nothing special about this week's series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers, or for that matter the one between the Angels and Milwaukee Brewers.

"People say there are some series that don't matter and don't draw," Selig said. "There are some intraleague series that don't matter and don't draw. Overall, it has been a remarkable success."

While players enjoy visiting new ballparks, they express concern about the fairness of the schedule. With the Dodgers and Padres jousting for the NL West title this season, the Dodgers play six games against the first-place Angels but the Padres play three against two last-place teams, the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals.

Angel closer Troy Percival said he misses the mystique that surrounded the World Series when NL and AL teams never played between spring training and October.

"I've never been a huge fan of interleague play, but the fans like it," Percival said. "Back in the day when we didn't fill the stadium, at least we did for interleague play. It's definitely ingrained itself now. The fans took hold of it. That's why we're here."

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