Pondering Interleague Play and its effects
The other night, outgoing Astros owner Drayton McLane visited the Astros' radio booth during a game with the Braves. Broadcaster Milo Hamilton asked him if there was anything to the story of the team moving to the American League West to balance the leagues with 15 teams each, creating a rivalry between the Astros and the Rangers.
Said Drayton: "Absolutely not."
Then on Tuesday, I was on my way to the game listening to a local sports talk show, and the host opined that it would be a good move for the Astros, because they could develop a rivalry and play a more exciting brand of baseball.
"Who the heck wants to see a pitcher hit anyway?" he asked.
And so do most real baseball fans. If you like muscle-bound pachyderms slugging home runs in wholesale lots, take in a high-level, slow-pitch softball game.
I prefer baseball, the national pastime.
- 131 wins
- 121 wins
When I was managing and we played Interleague games, I often visited with American League managers. Every time I asked one of them whether he liked baseball with or without the designated hitter, he said he'd rather manage in the National League since it was challenging and because he'd be able to use all of his players. That's what Joe Torre said, and he managed more than a few games in both leagues.
I have to admit, a lot of newbie fans like the DH. They order their hot-fudge sundaes with whipped cream and a cherry on top. They watch all the highlights on TV, and check up on their fantasy-league players on their cell phones with compulsive fervor. In other words, they want their baseball delivered at a fast and furious pace. They don't get it and probably never will.
If they looked up the word pastime, they would find it to mean something that amuses and serves to make time pass agreeably: a diversion.
Baseball is not a fast and furious game by and large, although it gets that way from time to time, especially when there is a rivalry.
Yet, from what I can gather, the folks at the Major League office don't want heated rivalries. They want the game to be gentlemanly. They abhor fracases. Pitting the Astros against the Rangers could indeed turn into a rivalry, which would be good for attendance since the modern high-tech fans like heated action, and the old-school fans like rivalries, too.
It will be interesting to see what comes down. Even though managers prefer old-style baseball, owners prefer revenue. That's how we got into this mess to begin with -- expansion.
Expanding the leagues in the '60s made some sense. New York and Los Angeles were big enough for two teams. Dallas and Houston were almost big enough and growing. Kansas City, Seattle, San Diego and Montreal were too small, but San Diego was growing fast. Local television wasn't the cash cow it is today, and there was no Internet revenue. Adding enough teams to create four six-team divisions made sense. Existing owners got an infusion of revenue from the expansion teams and yet another opportunity to cash in with an additional round of playoffs.
But beyond 24 teams, there aren't enough Major League-caliber players to go around. The Expos had a great scouting and development system. For many years, they produced more young stars than any other team. The big-market teams snapped up the Expos' young players as soon as arbitration and free agency made them available. Now the same thing is happening to the Rays.
At the risk of seeming cynical, it seems to me that the recent expansions have been mostly designed to placate small-market owners. The franchise fees for getting in the game increased dramatically with each round of growth, even though the financial viability of the new cities was marginal.
If you want the whole story of the steroid-era home run binge, you have to consider expansion. Most homers are hit off pitches that are down the middle of the strike zone. And a disproportionate number of these homers were hit against pitchers who wouldn't even be in the Major Leagues if there were only 24 teams.
I was dismayed at first when baseball adopted Interleague Play. As a manager back then, I wanted an equal opportunity to win. But we had to play more games with the Rangers, while our closest competitor, the Cardinals, played more games against the lowly Royals. It didn't seem fair.
Now, I have come to grips with this inequity. It's just not a big factor in the end, because there are so many games and any baseball team can beat any other club at least 35 percent of the time. Interleague Play has increased attendance long enough to justify its existence. It generates more revenue, and the fans like it. Still, it does create some strength of schedule issues. In college football, this factor is accounted for in the rankings.
But football is not the national pastime. And it bothers me to think that we are trying to be more like football. Ironically, football is trying to become more gentlemanly, too. I suppose it's just a sign of the times.
When the last expansion occurred in 1998, the Phoenix team was slated to join the AL West. But Jerry Colangelo pitched such a fit that the Commissioner allow Phoenix to join the NL West. This is a good spot for the team, because it allows the D-backs to play the unbalanced part of their intradivisional schedule in a time zone that is only one hour earlier than the other teams in the division, making their local TV package more valuable.
If the Astros were forced into playing in the NL West, they would start West Coast night games at 9 p.m. local time, which would inhibit revenue. Neither McLane nor new incoming owner Jim Crane would stand for that.
I don't think the Commissioner has the power to force a team to switch leagues. And I don't think any NL team would volunteer to switch. Fact is, many AL teams would like to join the NL, not out of the goodness of their heart or hatred of the DH, but because having a DH tends to increase payroll.
So, as always, it's all about the money.
But from a purist point of view, the best thing the Commissioner doesn't have the power to do is contract the leagues to 24 teams in 24 viable markets. That would create a certain elegance in the schedule and in postseason play.
Larry Dierker is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.