INTERLEAGUE PLAY, STILL

It’s just past 10 p.m. (edt) and I begin toggling through the channels looking for the New York Mets and Seattle Mariners game. I pass by the short schedule of West Coast games — the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres, Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics — before I reach my destination.

Welcome to Safeco Park.

As I lean back on the sofa, I think to myself: How many baseball fans are interested in this game? I mean, really, outside the hardcore Mets and Mariners fan bases. Is this what former MLB commissioner Bud Selig had in mind when he convinced every major league team owner that interleague play was good for the game? Was he envisioning a late-July Mets/Mariners showdown to generate new fans and higher attendance?

I think not.

Interleague play is celebrating it’s 20-year anniversary this season. Have you seen the results? Of course not. Major League Baseball’s marketing arm is not that anxious to share those stats. So, with an assist from The Ringer, I will.

Initially, attendance increased. But in recent years, interest in interleague play has diminished significantly. From 2013-2016 attendance at interleague games that pair “rivals” (i.e. Mets/Yankees, Cubs/White Sox) has decreased 8.7%, attendance for interleague games on weekends has fallen 31.8% and attendance at interleague weekend series pairing “rivals” has dropped 64.9%.

Of course, MLB will put a positive spin on its decision, suggesting the annual 20-game interleague schedule is “full of opportunities” for compelling matchups that make for a unique and interesting baseball experience. May be, but the numbers tell a different story.

In an interview last month, former commissioner Selig confessed some interleague matchups are “boring” and “dull.”

There was a time when baseball needed interleague play; the concept was promising. But that was 25 years ago when baseball attendance was waning. The game was perceived as being too traditional, too nostalgic. The game was getting old and stale.

To compound problems, Major League Baseball took a public beating after the 1994 strike that eventually led to canceling the World Series. When baseball resumed, attendance dropped. Selig knew he would never win fans back with creative promotions. He would have to change the conversation. Put the focus back on the game.

So, he expanded post-season play to keep fans interested in coming to the ballpark longer and deeper into the season. He led the charge on revenue-sharing to create balance between small and large market teams. He encouraged franchises when they wanted to build new ballparks, using technology and “retro-chic” environments which married nostalgia and modern amentites.

“I just knew this was the kind of thing baseball should be doing,” Selig says. “We did a lot of things traditionalists didn’t like [during my tenure as commissioner]. At some point, you’ve got to what you’ve got to do.”

It was the kind of thing baseball needed — at the time. Now, what baseball has to do is change, again. Eliminating interleague play is not an admission of failure, but a response to an ever-changing game.

Washington Post political columnist and baseball fan George Will said:

“The game’s changing all the time. Whether we want it to or not.”

Don’t expect change. MLB will never admit the interleague experiment, despite initial success, is outdated and unnecessary.

Ironic, isn’t it? When the game desperately needs to change, it doesn’t.

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