Rivalries reborn with Interleague's return
First of two segments gets under way this weekend
Mets vs. Red Sox. Once upon a time it was Mookie Wilson's grounder trickling through Bill Buckner's legs, and Ray Knight dancing home with the winning run as the Mets sealed Game 6 on the way to a 1986 World Series title for New York. Friday it's Johan Santana vs. Daisuke Matuzaka at Fenway Park.
Blue Jays vs. Braves. It was 1992 at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when Dave Winfield hit a two-run double off Charlie Leibrandt in the 11th inning of Game 6, leading Toronto to a 4-3 victory and giving Canada its first World Series championship. On Friday, the Blue Jays are back in first and Roy Halladay is going for his Major League-best ninth win, against Kenshin Kawakami at Turner Field. And next month the Phillies will host and then visit Cito Gaston's Blue Jays for a series that will bring back memories of the 1993 repeat title in Toronto.
They are just some of the flashbacks many fans will have as those and other great matchups highlight the 13th season of Interleague Play. Major League Baseball's 2009 schedule features 252 Interleague games to be played in two segments: the first this weekend (Friday through Sunday) and the second from June 12-28.
This season, each Major League team will play chiefly against clubs from the corresponding division in the other league (i.e., East vs. East, Central vs. Central and West vs. West). Clubs will continue to play their prime rivals in two series.
"As long as I'm here, we will have Interleague Play. I love it," Commissioner Bud Selig said Thursday after the Owners Meetings in New York. "I think it's great. You do hear it takes away from the All-Star Game. You do hear there are some bad Interleague matchups. Well, there are some bad intraleague matchups, too -- if you look at it that way. I guess you have to change the whole schedule. Frankly it's been very successful ... It's a dimension that really helps us in many ways as a league.
"The season's a long journey. Someone will say, 'They have a little easier schedule than me.' With St. Louis, we've heard in the past, 'Well, they get to play Kansas City.' Now look. It's not so easy to play Kansas City anymore."
There are at least a couple of key storylines going into this year's Interleague Play, both having to do with well-established streaks:
The lopsided life. In 2003, the National League had a commanding 137-115 record against the American League. That seems like the Pleistocene now. In the five seasons that followed, the AL's combined advantage is a staggering 702-557. The AL has enjoyed its greatest domination over the NL in two of the last three years, including its 149-103 record last summer. Eleven of the 14 AL clubs finished over .500, led by three Central clubs: Minnesota (14-4) and Detroit and Kansas City (each 13-5).
All-time Interleague Play AL vs. NL breakdown
|The Brewers' 1997 record (8-7) is included in the American League totals. The Nationals' record includes the Montreal Expos' totals.|
The crowds. In each of the last three years, MLB has set a record for average Interleague attendance. It was 34,097 in 2006, 34,905 in 2007 and 35,587 in 2008. In addition, total Interleague attendance has risen every year from 2002-08, going from 7,741,496 over 249 dates in 2002 to a little shy of one full ballpark under 9 million in 2008.
The average 2008 Interleague attendance was 10.6 percent greater than the season's final intraleague average of 32,173. Since its inception in 1997, Interleague Play has drawn an average of 33,252 fans per game, 11.8 percent higher than the intraleague average of 29,739 during the same span. The popularity of Interleague games seems to have known no boundaries in recent years, so it will be interesting to see crowd numbers now in an economy that has required clubs to offer new value savings packages.
Somewhere out there is the 100 millionth Interleague fan, projected to walk through the gates on the first day of the second Interleague stretch, on June 12. Interleague Play has drawn a total of 97,960,247 fans since Texas' Darren Oliver threw the first Interleague pitch in 1997.
And he's still throwing. Oliver, 38, is a regular fixture in the bullpen for the Angels, who open at the Dodgers, with Jered Weaver going against Clayton Kershaw in Friday's opener at Dodger Stadium. The Angels had to hear all about the Major League-record 13-0 home start by the Dodgers, and now is a chance to see some local pride on the line.
In 2008, AL clubs compiled a .275 batting average with 276 home runs, 1,249 runs scored and a 3.69 ERA, compared to the NL's .251 average, 252 homers, 1,014 runs and 4.55 ERA. The Reds and Mets tied for the NL's best Interleague record last year at 9-6. The Yankees have the best all-time Interleague mark at 123-87 (.586) - as well as the top three all-time Interleague hit leaders (Derek Jeter at 280, Alex Rodriguez at 240 and Johnny Damon at 236), while the Marlins have the N.L.'s top record at 110-91 (.547).
All-time Interleague Play batting leaders
|Mininum 300 at-bats. Interleague Play began in 1997.|
Does Interleague success translate into success in late autumn? The evidence is inconclusive. Last year, the Phillies won it all despite going 4-11 in Interleague. Of the three teams that were over .500 in the NL -- the Reds, Mets and Braves -- none made the playoffs. The Padres were 3-15 last year and their overall season never got a whole lot better.
A year earlier, the Red Sox won it all and they played well in Interleague games: 12-6. In 2006, the Cardinals were a weak 5-10 in Interleague, but they got hot at the right time and beat Detroit for the World Series title. The season has too many hot and cold swings to possibly translate how a good Interleague team might fare in the postseason. It's just one stretch in a very long season.
But what a fun stretch it is.
"I think it will be, quote, bigger than life, an unqualified success," Selig said of Interleague Play in February 1997, months before it began.
It's an unqualified success, indeed. Based on attendance, which is pretty much gospel in these matters, it has been over-the-top. And that record attendance streak is ongoing, for those who may still be debating the subject.
New York will be Exhibit A on the scale of grandeur. Interleague Play never has seen anything like this before: A home-and-home series featuring brand-new ballparks in the same city. The second stretch of Interleague Play will begin with Mets at Yankees on June 12-14 at Yankee Stadium, and it will end with Yankees at Mets on June 26-28 at Citi Field.
Sometimes Interleague Play holds certain mysteries. For example: What's with Tampa Bay? The Rays tend to be at each end of the spectrum during Interleague stretches. They were 3-15 in 2003, 15-3 in 2004 and 3-15 again in 2005. The last two years, they have been a little less extreme. Last year's AL champs went 12-6 in Interleague games.
One of the best Interleague stretches was the 11-1 mark of the 2004 Cardinals, who kept sailing right to the World Series. Of course, they were stopped there by a truck named Boston, which reversed the Curse of the Bambino in sweeping them. Those Sox were 9-9 in Interleague Play.
All-time Interleague Play home run leaders
|Griffey, Ken Jr.||51|
|Interleague Play began in 1997.|
Manny Ramirez ranks fourth in Interleague homers with 47 (behind Jim Thome, Ken Griffey Jr. and Carlos Delgado) and third in Interleague RBIs with 143 (behind Delgado and A-Rod), but he is ineligible for any 2009 Interleague games due to the ongoing 50-game suspension. Barring any postponements, his expected return date would be July 3 against San Diego.
Delgado also will miss this year's Interleague slate. He has 153 RBIs during Interleague Play, but is on the Mets' disabled list for a projected 10 weeks due to hip surgery. His teammate, Santana, takes the mound Friday as the all-time Interleague ERA leader at 2.49.
The winningest Interleague pitcher? He's not throwing any more. Mike Mussina was 21-13 in those games and retired after last season.
As usual, Interleague Play grips us with matchups that harken back to World Series days of yore. The Yankees not only face the crosstown rival and 2000 Fall Classic foe Mets twice, but they also are paired with World Series opponents from 1950 (vs. Phillies, Friday through Sunday), 1957, 1958 and 1999 (at Braves June 23-25) and 2003 (at Marlins, June 19-21). And closing, as usual, for the Yankees is Mariano Rivera, who holds the all-time Interleague lead in saves with 55, 15 more than Troy Percival.
Other notable matchups with past World Series flavoring:
Phillies at Rays. Where have we seen this before? Oh yes, last October. They meet for three games at Tropicana Field on June 23-25, and Ryan Howard and friends can expect to hear much cowbell again. Who knows? It could be a preview of a repeat meeting.
2008 Interleague Play batting leaders
|Miles, Aaron (STL)||.463||25-54|
|Pedroia, Dustin (BOS)||.462||36-78|
|Young, Delmon (MIN)||.418||23-55|
|Granderson, Curtis (DET)||.418||28-67|
|Holliday, Matt (COL)||.408||20-49|
|Youkilis, Kevin (BOS)||.400||22-55|
|Grudzielanek, Mark (KC)||.396||21-53|
|Bartlett, Jason (TB)||.392||20-51|
|Suzuki, Kurt (OAK)||.389||21-54|
|Wright, David (NYM)||.389||21-54|
|Minimum 3.1 PA per team's games.|
Cubs at Tigers. The Cubs' last World Series appearance was 1945, and Detroit beat them in seven. One decade earlier, the Tigers beat them in six. Who did the Cubs beat for their last world championship? Yes, it was Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and the Tigers in 1908. The clubs lock horns June 23-25.
Dodgers at White Sox This is the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers' first World Series championship won on the West Coast over the Go-Go Sox. They meet again June 23-25.
Phillies at Blue Jays. Toronto is getting a full dose of nostalgia with this Interleague schedule. Not only do they open with a 1992 World Series rematch against the Braves, but they finish it June 26-28 at home against the club they beat for the 1993 repeat.
Twins at Cardinals. Shades of 1987. It was the World Series in which the home team won every game. Minnesota had the home-field advantage, unfortunately for St. Louis. That marked the Twins' first World Series championship, and even though this one will be played at Busch Stadium, there's something for Twins fans to remember in this final season of the Metrodome.
Mets at Orioles. It was 40 years ago this summer that the Amazin' Mets made their run to the World Series and then beat Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and the Orioles for their first title. Think back to lazy days of transistor radio broadcasts as you watch this 1969 World Series rematch played at Camden Yards on June 16-18.
Tigers at Cardinals. Detroit won the 1968 World Series in seven. St. Louis won the 2006 World Series in five. They meet again, this time on June 16-18 at Busch. It will be the first time the clubs have played there since that night three years ago when Adam Wainwright retired Brandon Inge and the city by the Arch celebrated again.
A's at Dodgers. Dennis Eckersley vs. Kirk Gibson. Maybe you saw it, or maybe you were told about it. It happened one night in 1988 when Gibson's miracle homer beat Eck and the heavily favored A's, starting off an easy World Series run for L.A. They're back on June 16-18 in Chavez Ravine.
Angels at Giants. The Halos won that classic seven-game series between Wild Cards in 2002. Here they are again, June 15-16 at AT&T Park, sans Barry Bonds and Troy Glaus.
The final Interleague weekend also will feature a special treat for Matt Holliday fans. The Rockies will play at Oakland the last three games, June 27-29.
Combine those elements with the fact that summer is approaching and kids are getting out of school, and it adds up to an annual stretch of the season that is always greatly anticipated and visited in record numbers. Interleague Play is curious and compelling matchups; big crowds; Albert Pujols hitting .350 lifetime; Mark Buehrle and Andy Sonnanstine each going 4-0 last year. It is back again starting this weekend.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.