Two years ago, the Orioles strode into the exciting new realm of interleague play by facing National League teams from Atlanta, Montreal, Philadelphia, Florida and New York. Then, last season, the Orioles took on the Mets, Braves, Marlins, Phillies and Expos. Pretty thrilling, right?
Now, in the third season of interleague play, the Orioles will meet the Phillies, Marlins, Braves, Expos and Mets. Wow, wonder who we'll get to see next year?
Hold on just a minute. Those are the same teams every year.
Next season, who's coming to Camden Yards? Why, it's going to be the lousy Marlins, the mediocre Phillies and the gawdawful Expos all over again. The Braves and Mets will also be on the Orioles' schedule once more. Where's the novelty in that?
When does Mark McGwire come to Oriole Park? When does Sammy Sosa get a chance to hit the Warehouse? Will Tony Gwynn ever get to hit in Camden Yards? What about Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Craig Biggio, Larry Walker, Trevor Hoffman and Matt Williams? The NL has new stars such as Sean Casey, Luis Gonzalez and Jason Kendall. When do we see them in the flesh? We'd like to welcome back old Orioles such as Kevin Brown and Davey Johnson. Will we ever see Randy Johnson again?
In other words, when do the large majority of teams and players from one league get to face the other loop? The answer, as it stands now, is never.
Baseball says it has interleague play. But it doesn't. It has regional play. The East plays the East. The Central plays the Central and the West plays the West. That's nice. Especially for fans in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles who have natural cross-town enemies. Those Athletics-Giants and Indians-Reds contests raise cross-state hackles, too.
However, most teams, including the Orioles, lack appealing geographic rivalries. A game against the Braves or Expos must rise or fall on its own merits. There's certainly no special feeling that surrounds such matches. It's silly, for example, to exhume the '83 World Series as a reason to care about a Phillies-Orioles game. In our hyper-speed culture of instantly disposable entertainments, that's not merely ancient history. It's prehistoric.
Baseball's current fake interleague play is like one piece of candy. It's sweet and whets your appetite. It's better than nothing. But it's not enough. Especially when we can see the whole box of chocolates but can't touch it.
In a broad sense, cross-league scheduling is a clear success, both financially and aesthetically. Fox and ESPN have midseason broadcasts with a special viewing hook -- like the Mets' subway series against the Yankees last weekend that was showcased on both networks.
Fans like the new deal, too. Last season, the average attendance within leagues was 29,175, while interleague games attracted an average of 31,444 fans, a 7.8 percent increase. For any mature entertainment industry, such a one-year sales boost is huge. So far this month, interleague attendance appears to be up again, though it's too early for a full evaluation.
Despite its success, interleague play in its current form misunderstands what attracts fans to midsummer games. Rivalries matter. But, more than anything, the appeal of individual stars is what brings people to the ballpark. Especially if you believe that it's one of the few chances you'll ever have to see that legend in your own home park.
Baseball's long-term goal should be for every team in the sport to play a series in every park at least once every four years. Only one attraction is stronger than knowing Big Mac or Junior is coming to your town: knowing that he's not coming back the next year or even the season after that. In the case of walking icons like Cal Ripken, he may never return.
Whenever baseball has trouble getting its mind around a new concept it always screams "scheduling nightmare." Every new expansion or divisional realignment is greeted with dread as though Einstein, Newton and Euclid would be stumped by all the permutations. Yet each year a schedule is born.
Some in baseball love the notion of massive realignment. Blow up the American and National leagues and just divide up the sport by time zones. Fewer travel hassles. More regional rivalries. Fewer games on TV at odd times.
Before we depart so radically from baseball tradition, why not make interleague play as good as it can be? Let's not scrap the AL and NL yet.
If, for example, the Orioles simply played the NL East one season, the Central the next and the West the third year, what would be wrong with that?
Right now, interleague play runs the risk of feeling old hat. If you've seen the Marlins, Expos and Phils for three years running, isn't that a full adult dosage? On the other hand, by 2002, those same three unappealing opponents all would have changed dramatically. They'd seem fresh.
Would it be logistically annoying to have full-scale interleague play? Yes. Might schedules be slightly unbalanced? Maybe. However, in the end, the kaleidoscopic product on the field would have more variety and interest.
To its own shock, baseball has embraced heretical abominations such as lights in Wrigley Field, wild cards and a 70 home run season produced with a suspiciously juicy ball. Why not full-tilt interleague play, rather than this one-third-of-a-loaf format?
So far, we like what we've seen behind Door No. 1. Why not show us Doors No. 2 and 3, as well?