BOSTON — The most daring move of the 1997 baseball season has already been made - a revolutionary decision to adopt interleague play, whereby teams in the National League will be playing teams in the American League.
Some view it as a payoff pitch that will move the sport more squarely into the modern era. Others are skeptical, even concerned that interleague play might rob the World Series, and perhaps the midseason All-Star Game, of uniqueness.
"It's going to take away from the World Series," says Oakland slugger Mark McGwire, who likes the traditional format of keeping the camps apart until each league has determined its pennant-winning champion.
The fans, however, have spoken. And what many of them told the major-league brass via polls was that they welcome the interleague concept long used in the other pro sports.
Until now, baseball has only taken part in interleague play during spring training and occasional in-season exhibitions, which means that crosstown showdowns never occurred except during rare "subway" World Series, such as those between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Yankees in the early 1950s or between Oakland and San Francisco in 1989.
Now, however, fans can anticipate some alluring turf wars in New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, and greater Los Angeles, as well tantalizing skirmishes for state bragging rights in Ohio, Missouri, and Texas. In Canada, Montreal and Toronto will put a whole nation's rooting loyalties on the line. They also can look forward to star players cross-pollinating ballparks where they wouldn't appear otherwise. Interleague play was first proposed about 20 years ago, and has been discussed on and off since then.
Several calendar periods have been earmarked for interleague competition, which commences June 12 in Oakland, Seattle, Anaheim (Calif), and Arlington (Texas). Interleague games will also occur in mid-July and during a week around Labor Day.
The format is geographically restricted to teams in corresponding divisions.
In other words, American League Central clubs play only those in the National League Central. And the same goes for teams in the East and West divisions. All games count equally in the standings and designated hitters will be used only in American League parks.
Interleague games have only been approved for the 1997 season. Depending on how popular they become, their number could be expanded beyond the 15 or 16 allotted each team this year.