CINCINNATI — While the Ohio Cup carries some extra meaning this season, Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker wishes his bags weren’t being sent to Cleveland.
Send them to Pittsburgh or New York or Arizona, anywhere but an American League city.
Going to Cleveland means interleague play and Baker likes interleague play about as much as he likes a cortisone shot in the kneecap.
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For fans, the three-game series in Cleveland this week has some added spice — both teams have spent most of the season in first place.
But for Baker and the Reds, it means facing a bunch of players who are not familiar to them, even though the two teams met four times in exhibition games at their shared spring training home, Goodyear Ballpark.
“We’re facing three kid pitchers who we didn’t even face this spring (Alex White, Josh Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco),” said Baker. “Those are some surprises for them in pitching, some guys they didn’t know about.”
Cleveland aside, Baker says while he dislikes interleague play, it is ultra-important to focus and win, even though they sometimes take on an exhibition-like atmosphere.
“Interleague games are about one-tenth of our schedule and that’s a lot,” he said. “That’s big and a very important time. I always stress to my teams to be the best interleague team possible because they can make a lot of difference in the standings.”
Baker said he does enjoy visiting cities and ballparks he doesn’t normally see and said, “I’ve never been to the Tampa Bay ballpark, so I’m looking forward to going there.” The Reds also play in Baltimore this year, their first visit ever to Camden Yards.
But overall? Baker would prefer interleague be trashed and burned.
“They ask me about it every year, and every year I have the same answer,” he said. “Do I like it? Not really.
“It is never going to be 100 percent right, there is no way to get it right by having every team play the same teams the same number of times. Can’t be done,” he said. “So it is not fair. And they throw in the geographical and historic rivalries so that every team plays the same team six times every year. Depending upon whom you play and where, well, that’s not fair, either.
“For example, we play the New York Yankees here and we don’t play Boston,” said Baker. “I’m sure the Cardinals or Brewers play Boston and probably one of them gets the Yankees at home and the other on the road. It’s just not balanced, so it isn’t a fair situation.”
Fair? How is this for fair?
The Cardinals play neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox. They have six against Kansas City, three at home against Toronto, three at Baltimore and three at Tampa Bay.
The Brewers get hit hard. They have six against Minnesota, three at home against Tampa Bay and play three at Boston and three at New York.
The Reds have six against Cleveland, three at Baltimore, three at Tampa Bay, three at home against Toronto and three at home against the Yankees.
For managers on both sides, it means a big change because the designated hitter is used in American League parks and not used in National League parks.
“That doesn’t bother me too much,” said Baker. “They lose a DH coming here and we have to create a DH going there. And their pitcher has to hit in our park.”
Second baseman Brandon Phillips, who had a brief and unpleasant stop in Cleveland to wear an Indians uniform before he was traded to the Reds, likes interleague play and would love to torment the Tribe.
“I think interleague is cool in that you get to see different teams, and players get a chance to play in different stadiums where they haven’t played before,” he said. “I mean I haven’t played in Baltimore since 2003 or in Tampa Bay. It’s good for baseball for the fans to see players and teams they don’t normally see.
“But for some teams it is not very good,” he added. “Some bad teams have to play good teams, but it is good for fans from the other league to see teams they don’t normally see. You get to see some pitchers who can hit and some pitchers who can’t hit, stuff like that.”
Third baseman Scott Rolen is not a fan and answers the question if he likes interleague play with one word:
And why is that?
“Where do I start? The easy one is disruptive travel and schedule. And the competition on the field because it is very difficult to face a team you’ve never faced before, to not know anything about about that team, to not have ever seen the pitchers. You might see one guy for one pitch in a big situation and it might be a case where it is their whole bullpen that you’ve never seen.
“And it’s the same for pitchers facing the hitters,” he said. “Also, if there is going to be a wild card team, we all should play the same schedule. It’s not fair. If a team like the New York Mets are battling for the wild card, they have to play the New York Yankees six times. Is that fair? It all depends on which teams you draw in interleague and where you play. In the end, that wild card is all about wins and losses and those interleague games are big and they depend so much on the schedule, which is unbalanced.”
Interleague play began in 1997 and was supposed to be a one-year trial. After the season, it was put to a vote of the players if they wanted to keep it. Ownership saw it as a cash cow and wanted to keep it.
Said one coach, who was a player in 1997, “The team I was on voted 24 to 1. Against. Yet, the players association said it was approved almost unanimously. I asked a couple of other players on other teams how their team voted and they said they voted it down.”
But it’s still here, still unbalanced, still unfair and still disliked by most managers and players.