October 11, 2002
The Curse of The Budbino
Passenger liners didn't customarily feature enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew until newspapers made a stink about the loss of so many well-connected people on the Titanic. The idea of trained, competent airport security workers who earned more than poverty wages, had mastery of English as a second language and had no felony convictions floundered in free-market triumphalism until 9-11. McDonald's resisted installing thermostats on coffee makers through hundreds of customer visits to burn wards until one maniacal woman took them to court over it. And Ron Gardenhire was allowed to manage a major-league team until he put on the straight sacrifice with runners on first and third and no outs in a playoff game. Oh... he's still managing.
But you get the point--usually the powers of human denial are strong enough that Ford won't recall and replace Pinto gas tanks until enough fiery explosions light up the scenery. The exploding gas tank that is interleague play just toasted one team's playoff hopes, launching a less successful team into the post-season. If you count only American League teams' games against American League opponents, the Angels (88-56) win the West, the Bosox (88-56) win the Mild Card and the A's (87-57) are out of post-season play. And if you count only National League teams' games against National League opponents, the Giants (87-56) win the West while Arizona (87-57) is relegated to the Mild Card. That's a subtle shift, but a Twilight Zone one, because in determining who Arizona would play in the first round, you have to choose two teams that played a significantly different number of league games: Atlanta (86-56) and St. Louis (89-61). It's just so 1884.
The planted turd has floated to the surface of the punch bowl, meaning it's time for MLB to deal with the ramifications. It's not like the Bosox are necessarily more deserving than the A's, but someone with a lot of money (Sox ownership, who shelled out a record amount for the franchise) just got hosed. So this is a good a time as any to consider the myriad effects of interleague play and what to do about it. The problems aren't just in wins and losses, they're in player records and accomplishments too. This season, Bonds and Sosa tied for the NL home run crown, if you count National League games against National League opponents only. Pretty exciting, but we never got to enjoy it. In fact the two human tater-factories probably never knew the late-season struggle they were engaged in.
Toss or Fix?
While I know interleague series that occur between Opening Day and the playoffs are merely a mutant marketed to harvest extra pelf for a few big-city franchises, the momentum to get rid of it isn't in place. Yet for every cure for insomnia, say a Minnesota-Pittsburgh or San Diego-Seattle match-up, there's a marquee match-up, a New York subway series or a Missouri bragging rights face-off.
As tasty as the thought of dumping interleague regular-season play is, it's not going to happen soon enough to prevent more teams from being edged for playoff spots by teams that were better equipped to face opponents from the other league, or luckier in their draw of other-league competition.
I have a compromise to propose, a win-win-win-win that provides that:
The Modest Proposal
Set aside a pair of five-day breaks in the schedule, one at the mid-point of the first half of the season, the other at the mid-point of the second half.
During those breaks, teams can choose what to do with their days off.
If they have a profitable marquee match-up (White Sox v. Cubs, Mets v. Yanks, Devil Rays v. Marlins, Astros v. Rangers) they can schedule a home-away pair of series, one for each break. For teams like the Twins, Mariners, Padres and Braves with no marquee match-up, ownership has a trio of obvious alternatives.
In all cases, the wins and losses and player stats from these games do not count as part of the championship season. To wit, they don't affect the standings, they don't affect player tables such as batting average titles, ERA lists, doubles or stolen base leader boards. interleague games get to be what they are at their best, fun exhibition games played for pride or money or both. Some advantages to MLB include simplifying scheduling (fewer games, and not having to deal with the asymmetry of scheduling interleague games between a pair of leagues that have a different number of teams) and marketing (because, for example, convincing Detroit fans to get excited over a Marlins series really is a black hole for marketing dollars).
Naysayers' obvious counter for these exhibition games would be that without the games counting in the standings or stats, the talent wouldn't play as hard, dampening the games' financial potential. Well, major-league players are a competitive bunch, and they are getting paid to play. Moreover, it wouldn't be hard for MLB to negotiate with local politicos and corporations to come up with a series of Mayor's Cups, or Governor's Cups or Global Crossing Awards with rings or trophies or cash or some combination of booty.
What This Would Clear Up
It would clear up "records". Right now we have a situation where a player can set a "record," and not be sure if he really did. It hasn't happened yet, but it's inevitable that someone will set a league mark that's ambiguous because it's partially earned in games played outside that league.
What would have happened this year if Alex Rodriguez had hit 63 homers, four of them in road games against National League opponents. It's 63, so it beats Maris' AL record. Is it the new AL homer record? He hit only 59 against American League teams, 59 in American League parks, so it doesn't even exceed the pre-asteriskified Ruth mark. How can it be an AL record against teams that aren't in the league? Should his pre-season games against Round Rock count, too?
Worse, what happens if in the same season, Jim Thome had hit 61, all against American League teams? He'd have outhomered A-Rod in American League games, and tied Maris either way.
There's one other inevitable weirdness my proposal clears up. What happens if a National League player playing against American League teams in American League parks is positioned as DH for three series and tears it up, ultimately riding those AL performances to an NL batting record of some kind? Can anyone seriously think this makes for a reasonable National League record? I don't think so, and I like the DH rule.
The leagues have lost coherence in record keeping. On the one hand, if a player is traded within a league, his record line is combined, but if he switches leagues during the season, his stats start over. Implicit message: each league has its own stat pool, separate from the other. This has been "art" before and after the scheduling of interleague games. On the other, stats earned in other-league parks against other-league opponents accumulate to your line. Implicit opposite message: Both leagues share a single stat pool. It's as though the Commissioner's father was Bizarro Superman and his mother was Ruth Steinhagen--very existential.
With this proposal, there'd only be 156 games that 'count' (162 minus (2 times 3 game series)), so some of the old records would be that much harder to beat.
Even if the proposal is rejected, I see an integrity-preserving alternative for records. Past league records through the onset of interleague play are frozen, preserved as separate entities, left intact as National and American League records. Then, start from the beginning of interleague play with a whole new set of full-season records that are just MLB-wide, not league-specific records. By the way, I'm not talking about interleague records, such as Darin Erstad's record for most hits in interleague games (though I think they're irrelevant), I'm talking about discontinuing the unnatural assumption of difference between two leagues that are combining one pool of events from which to derive stats.
The set in stone and start over approach should satisfy a majority of active and retired players and fans. Retired players can have the satisfaction that those old records will never be broken (unless baseball kills off interleague play, which is a clear, if not near, possibility). Every player playing today has an easier chance for a mention in a record book, which makes teams' marketing departments happier, too. Primitive fans can be excited about seeing more records chased and broken, and sophisticated fans can relish the (relative) sanctity of the historical record.
It would clear up "leader boards"
Under the current system, who's the hypothetical AL homer champ in the A-Rod/Thome case? I suspect that unless Sandy Alderson has been assigned to it, MLB hasn't had a single constructive thought about it--after all, this is an organization in which it never occurred to someone in power to consider the possibility of an All-Star game going into extra innings and having a contingency plan for that scenario. It should appeal to the simpler minds that wield decision-making power over rules and records, because if you don't count the interleague games in the stat pool, it simplifies record-keeping with an Occam's Razor, reducing it to its most stripped down, easy to understand core, ignoring rules differences, more extreme scheduled-opponent disparity and DH application.
All games against fellow-league opponents count. Exhibitions don't.
It would clear up "pennant races"
'Nuff said already.
...the options in deciding what to do during the two five-day breaks would give advantages to teams with effective front offices regardless of resources, because it would open up choices, and the more choices offered, the more advantages accrue to those who know how to choose well. Schedule an interleague rival for some income? Rework fundamentals and invest in some extra focused coaching time? Rest everyone and re-align the starting rotation and recharge the bullpen? For a team like Oakland, that's got to beat the heck out of being forced to host Colorado, a team that won't register local following on any Richter scale no matter how sensitive the seismograph.
So what if the Red Sox lost a playoff spot because of it? A grounder would have dribbled through Brian Daubach's wickets at some crucial juncture anyway. But let's use this moment of clarity to fix the dysfunctional, confusing, convoluted, contradictory stat and standings effects of interleague games before they make a real difference: excise interleague games from league standings and stats, and let teams opt in or out of playing interleague games.
It's a win-win-win-win.