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Richard Justice

Selig had it right on Interleague Play

Justice: Selig had it right on Interleague Play

Selig had it right on Interleague Play
Commissioner Bud Selig can laugh about the whole thing now because the numbers are on his side. Fifteen years ago, Interleague Play was a much tougher sell.

"Some thought we'd ruined the game," he said.

Indeed, that was the thinking in some corners. After all, baseball had gotten along just fine without Interleague Play for 100 years. In other developments, the earth remained flat, and Henry Ford's original motorized buggy was all the car anyone should ever need.

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No, seriously.

When Selig first became a proponent of Interleague Play, his primary opposition came from people who couldn't get their minds around such a dramatic change. They didn't have any specific objection to it except that it hadn't been done before. Was baseball being respectful of its past, or chained to it?

During one memorable exchange, the Commissioner reminded a reporter that legendary former Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had passed away and wouldn't be coming back. His point was that things do change and tradition alone might not be the best reason against trying something new.

2012 INTERLEAGUE PLAY PREVIEW
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These days, when Selig hears the occasional complaint about Interleague Play, he has an answer: "I believe the fans disagree with you."

In a big way.

Interleague Play has added a twist to the regular season, and it's a twist fans love. Since it began in 1997, Interleague games have drawn an average of 33,285. That number is 12 percent higher than baseball's average in other contests.

Last season, Interleague Play drew an average of 33,606. That was an 18.2 percent jump over what regular-season games had drawn to that point. Even when warmer weather, weekend dates and school being out and are factored in, there's no arguing the popularity of Interleague Play.

First, it's a chance for National League fans to see the American League's biggest stars, and vice versa. For instance, Astros fans will get a chance to see Josh Hamilton this weekend after hearing about his exploits the past several weeks.

Likewise, Rays fans will have a chance to give Chipper Jones a fitting sendoff this weekend when he and the Braves are at The Trop for three games.

How about AL fans who've heard about but never seen Tim Lincecum, David Wright or Joey Votto, or NL fans having a chance to welcome Derek Jeter to their ballpark?

Regardless of what it means in the standings, it's a rare opportunity to welcome teams, players, etc.

It's a big deal when baseball's iconic franchises visit your town, moreso when it's a team that hasn't been there very often. Whether you love the Yankees or love to hate the Yankees, it's a series you mark on your calendar.

It's the same for the Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, etc. The Phillies have been in our living rooms so much the past few Octobers that getting a real, live visit from them is special.

Finally, there's the other part of Interleague Play that's special, and in a lot of places, it's the best part of the story.

It's those geographic rivalries. Ah, bragging rights. Mets-Yankees. White Sox-Cubs. A's-Giants. Dodgers-Angels. Astros-Rangers.

Not every team has a natural geographic rival, but in places that have one, the games are some of the most important on the calendar.

If you've ever walked through the stands for a Yankees-Mets game, you'll get it. Even if the rivalries don't extend down to the two clubhouses, the players can't help but feed off the intensity. It's not just another day on the schedule. When the ballpark is filled, when the crowds are louder than normal, the players get it.

This first round of games has some interesting matchups. Could the Orioles and Nationals be offering us a preview of an I-95 World Series?

For the first time since the Expos moved to Washington in 2005, both the Nationals and Orioles are competitive, and fans of both teams can daydream of another matchup in October.

Can you envision a Braves-Rays World Series? Of course. Reds-Yankees? Absolutely. These games are a chance to compare the teams, and to either keep, or establish, some early season momentum. While the overall importance of the games may not be huge, it'll have fans of the teams paying particular attention.

Interleague Play isn't perfect, and plenty of general managers, managers, etc., have complained about it through the years. Some teams play tougher schedules than other teams in their own division, and this part of it sometimes drives managers crazy.

In addition, AL and NL teams are constructed fundamentally differently because of the designated hitter rule.

In the end, though, none of the negatives can outweigh the enormous positives. Even plenty of the people who opposed Interleague Play in the beginning now acknowledge than the games add something to the regular season.

It changed the game, and not in a small way, by adding a new element. It's different -- way different -- than before, and better.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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