Later today at Wrigley Field, the Cubs will raise a flag to honor Jackie Robinson, who played his first game at the park exactly 70 years ago. With so many stadiums razed and replaced over the last 25 years, Wrigley Field remains the only still-existing park where Robinson played and that’s kind of cool. Dodger Stadium came into existence seven years after Robinson retired, and, of course, is located in Los Angeles anyway and Robinson’s entire Dodger career was in Brooklyn. That makes Fenway Park the only other still-standing structure from Robinson’s day and he never played there because the Dodgers never met the Red Sox in the World Series during his 10-season MLB career.
And back then, and as recently as the 1996 season, the only opportunity for a National League team to play a team from the American League was in the World Series. As we all know, this is no longer the case. After last night's maddening loss, the Cardinals now have a 2-6 record this season against the American League with twelve interleague games remaining. That’s twelve games too many because baseball is better without interleague and MLB would be wise to scrap it.
Let there be no delusions, interleague play isn't going anywhere any time soon. I'm not sure where to mark the exact point of no return but it's probably somewhere close to when the decision came down for interleague play to be a thing in the first place. The concept was introduced in 1997 when the sport was still experiencing a hangover from the 1994 strike and needed some extra juice. I don’t think we can credit it like the McGwire-Sosa home run chase of 1998, but I have to think interleague still helped. It was akin to a barnstorming tour the first couple of years, with teams and fans visiting places they had never been before, and the novelty was tough to deny.
Personally, I never liked the idea but I understood the appeal. And I can’t find a recent source to back this up, but I’m guessing the ratings are typically good, too, especially (or at least) in the New York or Chicago cross-town match-ups where there existed some semblance of a rivalry amongst fans before the teams actually played each other.
It also warrants mentioning that interleague play has been good to the Cardinals, relatively speaking. They are one of only two National League teams with an overall winning record (164-159) against the American League since interleague began, with the Mets being the other. Credit a lot of that to Cardinals’ annual pairing with the Royals, which I consider a faux-rivalry but I also didn’t grow up in Central Missouri. Since 1997, the Royals have easily been the worst team in baseball (.443 winning percentage), and the Cardinals have benefited by getting to play them 90 times and winning 51 of those games, aided by a 32-19 record in Kansas City. (The Cardinals' second most interleague games have been against the Tigers, who they've only played 32 times.)
The problem with interleague, however, is that I truly believe it has watered down the World Series, even if only mildly so. This was once a worlds-colliding event, pitting two teams, two leagues with different rules against each other for just one series to decide everything. For that alone it was must-see, and it was a feature none of the other major sports had.
If it was 1986 you were watching the World Series because Darryl Strawberry was taking swings against Roger Clemens and you might not get the chance to ever see that again. Or 1987, when the Cardinals walked into the Metrodome for the first time and looked up at the white ceiling as if they were on another planet. More than anything else, interleague has destroyed the imaginary dividing line and mystique that used to exist between the two leagues.
Also, ever since the advent of the wild card, teams are left competing not just against their division-mates but the entire league. That’s fine, but it would be ideal if the schedules were as balanced as possible and interleague hinders that. This season the Cardinals could easily be battling the Rockies for a wild card berth. The Cardinals have 16 games against the highly-competitive AL East, which has an overall +78 run differential, while the Rockies get to square off against the teams in the AL Central, who are at a combined -51 runs. Who do you think has the edge?
To be fair, schedules are also imbalanced by way of 19 games against teams within the division compared to the six or seven played against the other teams in the league. And 162 games does a pretty good job of weeding out those who don’t belong regardless of which division you’re matched up with in the other league. Both fair points. But interleague still exacerbates the imbalance of schedules and it’s pretty tough to argue otherwise.
Unfortunately, here’s the current reality: So long as there’s an odd number of teams in both leagues, which has been the case since the Astros switched to the American League in 2013, interleague is a necessary daily event for a full slate of games. This is not a problem that can be rectified without expansion, which will probably happen at some point in the future, but as of right now interleague play is the law of the land and will be for some time.
Some, perhaps most, don’t consider this a problem at all. Some likely don’t care either way. I do. That’s not to say I think it’s a huge problem - obviously larger problems persist. Interleague has not ruined baseball. The game is still wonderful. The regular season is still a blast (last night notwithstanding). And the World Series remains compelling - to wit, the David Freese game in the 2011 World Series wasn’t at all diminished because the Cardinals happened to play the Rays three times in July that season. But I’ll continue to pine for how it once was, when the National League stayed on their side of the fence, and the American League stayed on their side, before a single meeting at the end for one big party.