Season-long format gives Interleague new twist

Season-long format gives Interleague new twist

Jerry Hairston Jr. did a bit of a double take when he checked the Dodgers' 2013 schedule for the first time.

Sure, he was well versed in baseball's new, season-long Interleague Play format, but something about an April flight from LAX to Baltimore seemed a bit off in the eyes of a 16-year veteran.

"That's definitely a little different for me," the Dodgers utilityman said. "That's weird. Me being an Oriole for a long time, that never happened. It's still a little strange, but I think in the end it's good for the game."

Hairston and many other baseball lifers have noticed a continued congruence between the National League and the American League over the past decade or two. The leagues were once completely separate entities, but the addition of Interleague Play in 1997 has made them closer than ever before.

That much they all can agree on. But what some of baseball's old guard disagree about is the effect of the change. Many tout its benefits, while traditionalists yearn for the old days.

"It doesn't affect you as a player, but I liked it when we had the only true World Series in all sports," said former Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda. "You didn't play the other teams in the American League. That was a true sports spectacle -- the World Series. You never played those American League teams during the regular season. That's the thing that I miss."

Few of this generation's managers share Lasorda's sentiment, however.

Padres skipper Bud Black, who played at a time when there were separate offices and separate umpiring staffs, disagreed. He sees the consistent merging of the two leagues as beneficial to the sport.

"Baseball's always progressing," Black said. "Change is inevitable, and this is another one that we've become conditioned to. I've been a proponent of Interleague Play. I think it's been great for the fans, and it's been enjoyable for the most part for the players -- to be able to go to new cities and play against players who you're not used to playing against."

A season-long Interleague schedule -- which has already seen the Angels in Cincinnati, the Royals in Philadelphia and the White Sox in Washington -- was a by-product of the Houston Astros' move from the NL to the AL, resulting in each league housing 15 teams. It adds a "new twist" on managing, Black said. In some critical September games, a select few managers from the AL will have to adapt to life without a DH and vice versa.

But for the players, Black said, nothing changes.

"Players are told what to do, and you know what? They do it," he said. "Obviously, it goes a little deeper than that. The Player's Association signed off on this, and it's been a good thing."

Black's most experienced player, outfielder Mark Kotsay, was a rookie during the first season of Interleague Play. He said he's noticed the divide between the two leagues shrink, but not by much, given the difference a designated hitter makes.

"I still think the DH in the American League changes the dynamic of the game a lot," Kotsay said. "Just look at the scheduling now, with the consistent play of Interleague, and how it changes the way teams will plan later in the season."

Kotsay was quick to note that the biggest difference between the leagues -- the ability of AL teams to employ sluggers simply to stash as hitters -- not only exists, but is as apparent as ever. Over the past few seasons, teams have been signing position players to long-term deals, knowing that by the end of them, they'll likely be used primarily at DH.

Hairston, meanwhile, noted that even with the obvious differences, the philosophical disparities between the two leagues are "definitely shrinking."

"It was a big deal when it first came into play," Hairston said. "Basically different leagues had different philosophies. Obviously things have changed."

He's been a proponent all along, specifically for the fans' sake. If fans in Baltimore want to see Matt Kemp play or fans in Pittsburgh want to see Mike Trout play, in Hairston's eyes it's wrong to deny them that chance.

He's also noticed that with the broadening reach of the media, the scope of the fans is no longer such that their only access to another team is when they come to town.

Inside the clubhouse, Hairston has also noticed another trend. While he's marveling at how the game has evolved as a result of Interleague games, few of the youngsters around him are taking notice.

"For the players now, it's really just common," Hairston said. "It's a thing that's been happening for years, and guys are just used to playing Interleague. Playing it year-round doesn't really change it much for them."

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.