Interleague Play is Good for Baseball

As the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox close their three game series I read my friend Steve’s Facebook and this is what he had to say.

“Why would anyone want to get rid of inter-league play? It’s only a few weeks a year and everyone gets excited about a series like this. So much better than [the Phillies] playing the Nationals and Marlins 40 times”

It’s a good point.  With a 162-game season and only five teams in each division it equates to a team playing everyone in their division 18 times a year. For example, in the National League East, the Phillies play the Florida Marlins, Washington Nationals, New York Mets, and Atlanta Braves 18 times each.  It’s a pro because fans can gauge how their team stacks up against the division or how strong division itself is. It creates rivalries that attract fans to the stadiums and creates a disdain for the opposing teams that causes excitement and passion.  But, the con is that they play each team 18 times usually in three or four game sets.  Think about it, do you really want the Phillies playing the Marlins or the Red Sox playing the Toronto Blue Jays 18 times a year? Interleague play breaks that up the mold that baseball has held onto for 150 years and refuses to budge on (but that’s a whole other story). 

Major League Baseball started interleague play in 1997 meaning before then, the only times the American and National Leagues met were during spring training, the All-Star game, exhibitions, and the World Series.  It was enjoyable as a National League and baseball fan to see the headlines on a newspaper of a guy named “Ted Williams” hitting .400 or Joe DiMaggio hitting for his 56th consecutive game.  There was purity and a beauty to finally catching a glimpse of these players and fans truly flocked to games they played in.   But, in the age of the Internet and absolute exposure to all things there are no surprises anymore.  You know what Josh Hamilton or Albert Pujols did AS they did it. You know what their swings are like, where they hit the ball, and what they look like.  You know how nasty Cliff Lee’s curveball and the streak that he is on  and you can watch the Phillies pitching staff without just reading about them. (Think about it, how much less exciting would Stephen Strasburg’s debut have been if it wasn’t during the age of the internet.  You would’ve had to read it in the newspaper the next day, completely missing out on the energy and electricity.) Until things like Williams hitting .400 or Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs in a season (granted on steroids) happen and bring a lot of attention, the MLB needs to adapt and save itself.  Interleague play is the first step to that.

Every year the NFL schedules a division from the National Football Conference to play a division against American Football Conference.  So over a span of four years, the Philadelphia Eagles will play the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, and Baltimore Ravens.  What’s that mean?  The best teams from the NFC will eventually play the best teams from the AFC and when the best play then what happens? The best games, the best advertisements, the best ratings, and the best players.  If the NFL didn’t have their own version of interleague play then that would mean another division game and three is too many. So is 18.  If the Red Sox and Yankees played nine times or even eight, it would be a better rivalry (Is there any more overrated rivalry in sports? It’s a rivalry deep rooted in tradition, but only for those who are either baseball purists or those from Boston or New York. They play 18 times a year, how many times can ESPN say “The Best Rivalry in Sports” before we all say, “Wait this will be the 12th,13th,and 14th time they’ll be playing? It’s only July!” Spare me the forced drama.).  Interleague play allows for an increase in potential rivalry games and more important divisional games. For example, the New Yankee Stadium is about forty miles from Citi Field, but the Mets and Yankees would have only played in the 2000 World Series if it wasn’t for Interleague play.  That just doesn’t make sense.

There are arguments against interleague play with one side saying that no one wants to see a team ranked in the bottom of one division of the NL play against the bottom ranked team in one division of the AL.  Well there’s no parity in baseball as it is, the bad teams are always bad so why force the Phillies to play the Nationals 18 times when they can play the Texas Rangers six of those times. It’s a part of the damage control; the MLB should accept the losses that bad teams don’t raise attendance so let the best teams play the best more often. Why do you think the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics play every Christmas? The other part of that argument is that why teams would be interested in playing another that they don’t share any historical or geographical data with?  Again now that the internet is available, does that even matter? It becomes more about what players are in the game, not the city they play for.  In today’s age, would someone be angry that the San Francisco Giants are playing the Tampa Bay Rays because they’re so far apart or would someone be excited that Tim Lincecum is pitching against David Price?

The MLB has to learn how to adjust to a more hungry and growing sports market.  By limiting the times the best teams from both leagues are able to play each other, they are limiting their best product. The NFL has adjusted to the market and is by far the fastest growing and most popular sport in American culture.  The MLB has more purists and traditional fans, but they don’t make ratings, the casual fan does. (I call it the Tiger Woods effect, which I’ll expand on in the coming weeks, but every sport has a set fan base, but it’s those who don’t normally watch that determine if a sport will become popular.)  So having said all that, interleague baseball is meant to be enjoyed.

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