Interleague's a winner -- especially for AL

A winner -- especially for AL

Reasonable people can agree that increased parity has made baseball a better game -- competitively, commercially, aesthetically.

Now the trick would be to take the parity into one more facet of the game -- Interleague Play. What might be needed here is an additional dose of parity, not among franchises, but between leagues.

As the first round of 2008 Interleague Play opens, the track record of this concept has been, on balance, a plus for baseball. Interleague play has been a success by the commercial standard. The rivalry series have played to packed houses around the country. There is no disputing the notion that this is what the fans want to see, and the concept has not worn thin in the least over time.

Competitively, in recent years, Interleague Play has also been a big success -- for the American League. Over the last three years, the AL has, frankly, dominated Interleague Play.

The AL was 136-116 in 2005, but that was nothing compared to 2006, when it went 154-98 in Interleague Play. That year, the AL was Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the National League was Alf Landon. (The NL's honor was salvaged in the 2006 World Series by the St. Louis Cardinals, but still, that Interleague record stung for a group that still sees itself as the Senior Circuit.)

Last season, the AL also dominated Interleague Play, 137-115. While that was still a long way from 126-126, did it perhaps indicate at least some relative progress in the standing of the National League? Are there reasons to believe that a measure of parity is returning between the leagues?

Both questions can fairly be answered yes, but these are cautious affirmatives. The American League last lost an All-Star Game at the dawn of time, or in 1996, depending on your worldview. The AL representatives have won three of the last four World Series, and in each case, have swept their NL opponent. These events measure only developments at the top of the game, not the total balance between the leagues, but they are not easily dismissed, measuring as they do the relative strength of the best players and the best teams.

On the other hand, there are several encouraging developments on the NL's side of the argument. Teams with terrific young talent are emerging in the National League. The Diamondbacks, for instance, won a division with young talent last season and they're back on top this season with even more young talent. Their primary NL West challengers, the Dodgers, are succeeding because of an increased reliance on very talented young players.

And the Marlins, the most pleasantly surprising team of the early 2008 season, define the concept of playing with young, inexperienced talent. Nothing should be taken away from what, for instance, the Rays and the Twins are doing with young talent in the AL, but the development of young talent is no longer weighted as heavily toward the American League.

The emigration of big-name talent to the American League has also been reversed, at least in some notable cases. The biggest pitching prize of the winter was the Mets' acquisition of two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana from the Twins. And the AL's 2007 All-Star starting pitcher, Dan Haren, went from Oakland to Arizona.

The recent influx of talented Japanese players also had favored the American League. This season, the Cubs have landed another Japanese player with a splendidly solid fundamental game, Kosuke Fukudome. With his patience and selectivity at the plate, he has added an important dimension to the Cubs' lineup.

On balance, the National League is in a relatively better situation than it was two years ago, when it could not even play .400 baseball against the American League.

Interleague Play is not going away. This is a concept that has caught on with the baseball public, although in recent seasons, fans of AL teams have typically had reasons to be much happier about it. The purists' objections, about betraying the sanctity of the regular season schedule or undermining the worth of the World Series, are still present, but they can only faintly be heard.

Would Interleague Play be better if the two leagues finished tied at 126-126? Not if you're a fan of the Red Sox, who went 40-14 in Interleague competition the last three seasons, or the Tigers, who went 38-16. Or the Twins, who went 35-19.

But for the majority of the NL clubs, a .500 Interleague season would be a sincere step in the right direction. In general, parity, or in its more politely termed form -- competitive balance -- has gained a foothold in baseball, and this has been a positive development for the game. As 2008 Interleague Play opens, parity remains an aspiration for the National League, a more legitimate aspiration than it would have been just a few years ago, but a hope not yet transformed into fact.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.