Red Sox

Interleague play needs to die

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  June 30, 2011 09:34 AM

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David Ortiz gets a rare start at first base as he holds Placido Polanco of the Philadelphia Phillies close to the bag. (Len Redkoles / Getty Images)

It’s been said ad nauseum, but it needs to be said again: Interleague play needs to go the way of Old Yeller. It just so happens that the Red Sox proved that last night against the Philadelphia Phillies.

How so, you ask? Because part-time players David Ortiz and John Lackey showed they can play full-time. Let me explain.

Of all people, Big Papi is having another one of his stellar seasons. Despite the doubts of his place in Red Sox kingdom, he keeps on trucking, batting .311 (.391 OBP and .581 SLG) with 17 homers and 48 RBIs. Nobody is questioning whether or not the man should get at-bats. They just want to know at what cost, especially with injuries and interleague play forcing an awkward scenario into Terry Francona’s hand. On one side, to have a player of Ortiz’s talent on the bench is a waste. But on the other, experimenting with players out of position can be dangerous. Not because of injuries, but because of errors that can be costly to the game. The brouhaha yesterday over inserting Ortiz at first base -- in which he played only four times in 2010 and 17 times in the last 5 years -- while moving Adrian Gonzalez to right field inevitably starts the chatterboxes.

But that same chatter drowns out the larger issue at hand. When guys like Ortiz and Gonzalez show up and perform their jobs at par no matter where they stand on the diamond, nobody thinks “of course, they’re professional athletes.” Instead, they breathe a sigh of relief and clamor for Theo Epstein to find another suitable outfielder for 15 days. And while Ortiz played flawlessly at first base, Lackey doubled in a run to left center off of Vance Worley (later working the count admirably on his counterpart). Between the three, you could say they played more than ably in the field and at the plate.

You know why? Because they’re baseball players. And despite the label of a P, DH or 1B, they all know this game more than the average schmuck and can honorably man any number of positions outside of stepping on the mound. It’s a stance I’ve argued for years and what I believe is the fallacy of the American League. The players need to play both phases of the game, for sanity’s sake as much as integrating the leagues.

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John Lackey reacts after hitting an RBI-double off Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Vance Worley Wednesday. (Matt Slocum / AP photo)

History bears a large part of the blame. The competition of the NL and the AL (and its former incarnations) predate the last two centuries. From the beginning, the differences in price, rules and level of competition have fueled this ever idiotic debate of the National League vs. the American League. And that was the selling point for the first Major League Baseball agreement that would feature a “World Series” to determine a champion. When the DH came along in the 70s, it revolutionized the game in favor of the AL. It’s an advantage that has tipped the scales in the debate, allowing for AL teams to post higher batting averages every year since 1973. (Between 1973 and 2010, the NL has batted an average of .258 and the AL has batted an average of .265). I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say the argument of which league is better has ever ended. But we all really know the answer.

However, now we must worry if the luster of the DH has worn off and, presumably, the core difference between the two leagues. I think so. The whole notion of two separate leagues with two separate sets of rules is practically archaic in modern sport. Baseball fans don’t want nor need that. They want the best competition possible and a level playing field. In essence, they want conferences and uniform rule play. Think of the NBA, NFL or NHL. A reversion to the rules prior to 1973 would help balance the argument. And I believe Ortiz as well as Lackey exemplified last night what it means to play full-time, earning their stripes in both phases of play.

But what’s more, there is a strong sentiment that baseball is an east coast sport, as if there aren’t 12 teams west of the Mississippi River. As the invention of the commercial airplane allowed the advent of baseball west, the ease of travel should also bury the notion of a regional game in which clusters of teams are forced to play each other 11 to 20 times a year and a measly three or four interleague series. Where’s the balance in that? There’s something admirable about taking a west coast swing. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Colorado are all worthy opponents and nice trips to boot.

Baseball doesn’t need interleague play. It needs league play and conferences to sustain its historical differences. Teams should play their interleague counterparts more frequently -- not less. Just as designated hitters should play the field more and pitchers should take more cuts in the box. (If you’re man enough to throw a 90 mph fastball high and inside, you should be man enough to see one coming at you.)

So instead of Red Sox fans concerning themselves over a possible rusty first baseman, they should be concerned about their slugger’s 0 for 4 outing, Lackey’s pitching and getting a chance to see how Cole Hamels, Tim Lincecum and other young studs of the NL fare against their beloved Sox. There’s no reason to keep the status quo for the sake of the status quo. It didn’t make sense in 1973 and it doesn’t make sense now.

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