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June 17, 2008

Please, MLB, Expand Interleague Play!

Next week, I will be heading to Wrigley Field to see the Baltimore Orioles on the north side for their first series ever in the Friendly Confines. Many people claim that this is the beauty of interleague play... seeing teams you would not normally see. I say, what took so long?

Interleague play has been around for over a decade, yet we continue to see matchups that we have yet to see. Now in the NFL, it is somewhat understandable to not see teams for quite some time, as there are 30 teams and only 16 games a season. But even then, the longest wait to see a team in your home stadium is only 8 years. But could you imagine an NBA where the Lakers didn't visit the Celtics in Boston for a decade? Fans would be in an uproar. Yet baseball continues to coast by with its twisted system that has the Orioles on the north side once in 13 years... a system that pits the Cubs against the White Sox 6 times a year, while the Cardinals coast by against the Royals.

Unbalanced schedules, decades between matchups... This is why I like interleague play, but I don't love it.

The traditionalists argued that interleague play and the wild card would hurt baseball as we know it. If ratings and attendance are any indication, interleague play and the wild card brought excitement back to the game after the strike (with a little assist from steroids and HGH...). Yet it still seems like it's lacking to me. Why should we wait 13 years to see the Orioles play the Cubs in Chicago? Does that make sense to anybody? With 162 games a season, it seems crazy that every team can't fit into the schedule. Every year, each NBA team plays every team in the other conference twice, once in each home stadium. It's not like there are fewer teams in the NBA, and there are half as many games... Can't something similar be applied to Major League Baseball? My biggest problem with interleague play is not that it doesn't work, it's that baseball doesn't acknowledge that it can do more. To me, the problem is interleague play as it's currently implemented doesn't go far enough.

My solution? Expand interleague play to approximately a quarter of all games. This may seem like a big jump, but 4 out of 16 NFL games are across conferences and that hasn't seemed to hurt football's popularity in this country. So how would this work? Let's break it down...

162 Game Schedule
  • 48 Interleague games
  • 60 Intraleague games, non-division
  • 54 Divisional games
What does this accomplish? Well, first off, it allows each team to play a 3-game series with every team in the other league. So the Orioles and whoever else would make their way to Wrigley Field or US Cellular every other year. Still rare enough to promote ticket sales, but not the ridiculous wait of 13 years. When NBA schedules come out annually, I always look for the Western Conference teams coming to the United Center first because I know they only come once. Those games are still in higher demand, even though I know those teams are coming back next year, and I would expect the same with baseball. Second, it maintains the current home-and-home series with the 10 non-division teams in each league, so we would still see those teams each and every year. Finally, it keeps the division-heavy schedule, with 13 or 14 games against the other 4 teams within the division, but reduces the ridiculous 18-game divisional schedules that have the Cubs playing the Pirates 12 times before June. Basically, we would be borrowing games from the division for the chance to see the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Angels every couple years.

Now what about the uneven divisions of the NL Central and AL West? Well, that's the beauty of this system. With so many interleague games, there would always be at least one interleague matchup taking place, which means that there is no longer a requirement for an even number of teams in each league. It is insane that the Cubs have to knock off 5 teams to claim the division title while the Angels just need to fend off 3. Balancing the interleague schedule would allow the Brewers to move back to the AL Central, where they resided for so long. Then the Kansas City Royals could move to the AL West to even out that division. Do the Royals really belong in the AL West? Well, no, but all things considered, they don't really belong in Major League Baseball either. And it'll at least give the Rangers a team in their own timezone to compete with.

In addition, you may have noticed that 15 interleague teams times 3 does not equal the 48 I have listed above. I took into account the "natural rivalries" baseball has designated and have allowed an additional 3 games for that rival. So in Chicago, the Cubs would still play the Sox 6 times a season, with a series at each park. And if MLB was so inclined, it could have its rivalry weekend, where all 30 teams were playing their natural rivals at the same time. If that doesn't promote excitement within baseball circles, then I'm not sure anything would.

So, by expanding interleague play, not only would every fan be able to see every team every couple years, but the teams themselves would have nearly identical schedules with the other teams within their divisions. There would still be some minor differences, due to the rivalry games and the need to play two teams within the division one more time than the other two. And the potential for rainouts in these 3-game interleague season series would most likely require more doubleheaders the next day rather than down the road. Additionally, there would be some awful matchups, but it's not like people get too excited when bad teams play each other within their own league anyways. But overall, I believe that this is the next step in the evolution of interleague play, leveling the playing field for all the teams and giving fans something different to look forward to. At least, that's what I'll be telling myself when I'm sitting in the stands next week watching the Orioles take on the Cubs, wondering when the next time I will be able to see them will be...

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