The Novelty of Interleague Games and Jackie Robinson

My first baseball game of 2015 was this past Wednesday at Dodgers Stadium, with the Seattle Mariners taking on the Los Angeles Dodgers in front of a crowd of over 51,000 fans.  The large number of fans was partially due to the event being a special Civil Rights Game honoring Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier on April 15th, 1947.  As I sat in the stands wearing my giveaway #42 Dodgers jersey, I caught myself thinking many times throughout the game that Jackie Robinson never played against an American League team in the regular season, let alone the expansion Mariners.

Admittedly, there were more important matters at hand that my mind could engage with, especially as it was the Civil Rights Game.  But it didn’t.  The fact that the Mariners were playing the Dodgers on Jackie Robinson Night kept nagging me.  It didn’t feel right.  Come to think of it, the novelty of interleague play never felt right to me.  And interleague games feel much worse ever since Major League Baseball realigned a few years ago, with the Houston Astros leaving the National League for the American League and forcing an interleague game to be played now almost every day.  Yet on this particular night, something was bothering me.

Originally introduced in 1997, interleague play was a novelty attraction designed to drive attendance.  And it worked, aided especially by natural interleague rivalries of geographical regions (e.g. White Sox-Cubs, Yankees-Mets, Dodgers-Angels).  Of course some unnatural rivalries were thrust onto the fans (like the Padres-Mariners, who, according to MLB, are rivals because they share the same Spring Training facility in Arizona) but attendance for an interleague game was up 7% in its earliest days compared to a regular intraleague game.

Eighteen years later, numbers show that the novelty has worn off, as attendance for an interleague game has been nearly flat compared to an intraleague game.  A couple years ago, a Grantland article pointed out that the drop in attendance was partially due to interleague games no longer taking place solely on weekends, which is the premium time of the week for attendance.  Also, games are no longer consistently held during the summer, which is the prime season for families with flexible schedules.

Interleague play definitely has evolved.  From 1997-2001, teams from similar divisions but different leagues (i.e. East, Central, West) played each other.  Starting in 2002, MLB decided to alternate which divisions played which divisions in a rotating manner.  From 2002-2012, interleague was played before the All-Star Break, mostly in June.  Beginning in 2005, games were scheduled as early as May.  Of course now that each league has fifteen teams, there is always an interleague series throughout the year, including Opening Day.  This year’s Opening Day series had the Boston Red Sox taking on the Philadelphia Phillies in Philadelphia.  The total number of interleague games played has jumped from 214 in 1997 to 257 last season.  At its peak, 300 games were played in 2013.

So why did interleague play on Wednesday irk me so?  With fifteen teams in each league and an interleague game being played nearly every day, interleague play is surely here to stay as the natural order of things.  Other than the AL having the Designated Hitter, the difference between the AL and NL seems rather arbitrary in the modern era.  And in case you didn’t hear, the difference of the DH between the leagues may soon be a thing of the past as rumors persist that the DH will be added to the NL to help boost offense.

Yet after understanding and accepting all this, the problem I had at the Civil Rights Game was that I began to see a similarity between the novelty of interleague play and Jackie Robinson.  I began to wonder if MLB could have introduced Robinson, just like interleague games, in order to raise attendance?  Could MLB have been motivated not by what was morally right but by profit?  Indeed, the year that Robinson debuted was also a record attendance year for the Dodgers at 1.8 million.  On the road, Robinson was an even greater attraction, drawing 1.9 million.  For me, both interleague play and Robinson were introduced by MLB as “progress” for a modern baseball era, but both were designed to help drive numbers and attendance.

I suppose the Civil Rights Game didn’t feel right to me because the money grab was on full display, with the game drawing a sell out crowd and me wearing the Robinson jersey, brought to us by Bank of America.  Somehow, all the festivities felt a little crass, as each one was sponsored by some brand or business.  As Sandy Koufax was trotted out along with the widow Robinson to help facilitate the ceremonial first pitch, I couldn’t help think they were corporate pawns.  Of course there were two first pitches thrown, one to a Dodger and one to a Mariner.  I didn’t quite catch who sponsored each throw.

Maybe many years from now, there will be an Interleague Game Night, honoring the fact that tradition was broken down and the two leagues could finally join for a game on a beautiful summer night.  Or Opening Day.  I wonder who’ll be sponsoring that game’s ceremonial first pitch.

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