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Fan Confidence: Inter-league Is Progress

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Every year every hackneyed writer has dust off some piece about how inter-league baseball is ruining the game, or the World Series, or America, or the writer’s own dusty memories. Baseball as a game is always looking backwards, where things become traditions and then are codified to the point it can never change. Pinstripes become the Yankees’ look, never mind the Cubs were the first team to wear the style. Teams wear grey on the road to cut costs, and now richer teams keep it up for ritual’s sake. And the National and American Leagues were always separate, until they weren’t.

It wasn’t that long ago that the two leagues that form Major League Baseball were separated in more than name or one silly rule. Each league had its own official ball, though the same company manufactured both balls (the AL’s was branded Reach for many years). Each had its own umpiring crews, and there were even separate League Presidents. If the commissioner was the federal executive, then the presidents were closer to state governors.

In the past 20 years, however, MLB has undertaken an almost state-like consolidation of power. The differences between the leagues have been eliminated almost to a point the two are indistinguishable beyond the Designated Hitter rule. That, and a peculiar dedication to separate schedules.

Free of context inter-league play has no controversy. What does it matter if the Diamondbacks play NL opponents or AL? An opponent is an opponent, and a win is a win. This isn’t NCAA football, where a team can be penalized for playing too many ‘lower division’ teams like ASU was last season for scheduling two FCS teams. MLB teams don’t play AAA teams, so it is functionally the same to play the Cardinals as it is the Yankees.

In fact, in continuously insisting on a separation, MLB encourages disparity between the leagues. It’s a commonly accepted notion that the AL is better, from hitters down. Sure, the NL has been able to keep in the past decade as far as World Series wins, but the AL dominates inter-league play nearly every year. And historically, the AL has been the better league. The Yankees are a large part of the gap, but the Junior Circuit has seemingly had the better teams and players since 1901.

Part of the problem with inter-league acceptance might be that the practice has always been half-baked. It’s used as a marketing tool (inter-city/regional rivalries!), but hoisting extra meaning to a Reds/Indians match-up seems pointless. The meaning is in the game, not the panting coverage.

Rivalry scheduling presents a natural inequity: the Mets have to play the Yankees 6 times a year, while Philadelphia and Atlanta don’t have regional rivals. The Mariners got to play the Padres this year, while the A’s had the defending champion Giants. Scheduling is inherently unfair, though, and the only way to fix it would be with a balanced schedule. Every team would have to play every other team for an equal amount of home and away games. If series were to remain 3 games, then the season would have to balloon to 174 games to fix what isn’t really problem.

An argument could be made of the unfair nature the DH places on inter-league play. AL teams feel needlessly restricted, and fear putting the bat in the hands of incompetent pitchers. If this year’s All-Star Game is any indication, though, there might be an eventual solution: the entire league will use designated hitters.

The DH argument has revolved for decades (the best argument I’ve read in favor of designated hitters is in George Will’s Men At Work), but the rule itself is beside the point. With a unified, centralized league, what use is there anymore for separate rules?

Don’t be surprised if baseball at some point in the near future breaks down the league structure completely. It’s a concept that has out lived its usefulness, anyway.