Interleague is special in its own way

BY foxsports • May 22, 2011

The game lasted nearly four hours, and it became a blowout in the end. But thousands of Chicago Cubs fans waited through the cold (and the doomsday forecasts) to see their team celebrate a win at Fenway Park for the first time since 1918.

Some 15 minutes after the Cubs sealed Saturday’s 9-3 victory, a commotion came from one pillared corridor of the ancient ballpark. The echoes grew louder as the happy mob of Cubs fans approached. At last, their melody became clear.

“GO CUBS GO! GO CUBS GO! HEY CHICAGO, WHADDAYA SAY? THE CUBS ARE GONNA WIN TODAY!”

It is the song that blares over the Wrigley Field sound system each time the Cubs win at home. This was the first such chorus at Fenway Park. One stadium employee, staying warm in a red windbreaker, was so moved by the visitors’ enthusiasm that he smiled and clapped as they passed by.

But one Red Sox fan was not as supportive. He stood near the exit and mocked the Cubs’ championship drought with a grating, sing-song chant – “1908! 1908!” – similar to the one New Englanders had heard from Yankees fans for so many years.

The scene was funny, poignant, and absolutely unique. More than anything on the field, it will be the memory I take from this weekend’s reunion of friendly rivals.

And more than any other argument, it is why baseball needs interleague play.

Interleague play has long had its critics, and they are becoming more vocal with the end of baseball’s basic agreement later this year. Perhaps they believe that change will come if they clamor for it loudly enough.

If Major League Baseball and the players’ union are smart, they will ignore those calls.

Fans like interleague play. Of equal importance, they will pay to watch it. What more evidence should the game’s guardians need?

Three capacity crowds watched the Cubs at Fenway Park, but that wasn’t surprising in a stadium where a proud sellout streak dates to 2003. More significant was the largest three-game series attendance in Cleveland since 2008; the Saturday crowd of 37,958 in Pittsburgh, the biggest there since Opening Day; and the noticeable swells at the gate in Kansas City and Arizona.

Is there a rich history between the Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros? No. But that series had to happen in order for the Cubs to go to Fenway. There is much more good than bad in that arrangement.

Sure, players change teams more frequently than even two decades ago. The advent of national television packages and the Internet have eliminated the unknown quality that The Other League once had. But at a time when many fans have less disposable income, it’s more important than ever for the best road shows to visit a ballpark near you.

And then there is this: A lot of the players like it, too.

“It’s a good change of pace,” Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “You’ve got to fill the schedule somehow, and I don’t want to play guys in the division 25 times. I’d rather play a National League team than see the same team, over and over.

“From a fan perspective, they don’t want to see the same team (all the time). They’d rather see different teams come in and enjoy the different look.”

Let’s not forget that some players are fans, too. Cubs outfielder Tony Campana, who made his major-league debut last week, appeared awestruck as he gazed up into the grandstand while stretching before Friday’s series opener.

“There were parts during the game where I’d kind of lose focus, like, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable,’” he said two days later, still shaking his head. “The part that hit me the most was the first day, when they started singing ‘Sweet Caroline.’ It gave me the chills.”

Campana contributed to Saturday’s win as a defensive replacement in left field – you know, the most famous left field anywhere the game is played.

“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to look pretty short in front of the Green Monster,’” quipped Campana, listed at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds.

I’m not suggesting that interleague play must continue exactly as it is now. In fact, I have long believed that MLB should flip-flop the rules in the American League and National League ballparks. Why not let AL fans see double switches and pitchers at the plate?

Also, interleague play can be a useful tool in realigning the sport – which needs to happen. Baseball should even its membership by moving one team from the NL to the AL, leaving the leagues with 15 teams apiece. The Houston Astros are the most obvious candidate to move, from the NL Central (which has six teams) to the AL West (which has four).

With an odd number of teams in each league, an interleague series would be ongoing most days of the season. I see no problem with that. Interleague play is one of the most anticipated features of each team’s schedule. What’s wrong with spreading out that excitement over six months, instead of a few weeks in May and June?

Besides, interleague play is a way to help MLB address the fairness issues associated with its unbalanced schedule. If the Astros move to the AL, the majors would have six divisions of five teams. That would allow every team to play the same number of interleague games, which is not currently the case.

So, let’s work with these numbers: 18 interleague games, 11 games against each team in the division (total of 44), 10 games against the other 10 teams in the league (total of 100). That’s a much more equitable road to 162 than we have now, with a fairer competition for the soon-to-be two wild-card spots.

If that sounds too idealistic, please accept my apology. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the positive vibes at the once-curmudgeonly Fenway. As I walked up to the press box on Sunday, I heard a woman behind me say, in a pitch-perfect Boston accent, “The Cubs ah ah soulmates.” It was touching. I mean, it’s hard to find a soulmate. Here’s hoping they don’t have to wait another 93 years to see each other again.



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