Tomorrow, Jim Leyland’s Tigers will commence their interleague play this year with a visit to Pittsburgh, Leyland’s old employer. And Leyland doesn’t want any part of it. He doesn’t have any use for AL-NL games any more, and the reason he gives is a 38-year old elephant in the room. Baseball’s two leagues have different rules, and teams built to take advantage of different rules — yet teams in each league play games against each other, playing 15-18 games a year by a different rulebook than they play the other 140-odd games of the season. Leyland is quite vehement:
I think this was something that was certainly a brilliant idea to start with. But I think it has run its course… It’s not really doing what it was supposed to — there’s no rivalries for most of the teams…
We play with the DH rules. The American League gets penalized, even though the record’s been decent over the years. We get penalized. Their pitchers are hitting and bunting all year, and they get the advantage of letting their pitchers rest and using the DH when they come here, and we gotta use guys six straight days without Victor Martinez or Alex Avila or somebody. That’s ridiculous. Totally ridiculous, and they ought to look into it…
At some point, I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it, but at some point you’ve got to get baseball back to the same set of rules.
Leyland’s making two separate points, one of which I agree with more than the other. First, while it is deeply strange for the leagues to have different sets of rules, it isn’t necessarily unfair. As long as every team plays the same number of games away from their comfort zone, it more or less all evens out. However, it absolutely is unfair when an NL division race can be decided by which team had to face the Red Sox and which team got to face the Royals, or an AL race can be decided by who got the Pirates and who got the Phillies.*
* In my column two weeks ago, I argued that the Pirates’ owners have been stealing revenue sharing money to line their pockets while putting a terrible team on the field for 20 years, and therefore the major leagues should consider drastic punitive action like relegation. So some readers started to accuse me of having it in for the Pirates. I don’t. I feel awful for their fans that the team has been terrible for so long. Their owners — and the general managers they hired, the dreadful Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield — are to blame.
Of course, it seems a bit strange for Leyland to be the one to raise the complaint. First of all, writes Baseball Nation’s Grant Brisbee, “While he makes sense, part of me wonders if he should just clam up and be thankful that he gets to play the Pirates.” Beyond that, the American League’s record in interleague play has been a lot better than just “decent over the years.” The Tigers in particular and the American League in general have dominated the National League in interleague play. Since the beginning of interleague play in 1997, the Tigers are 134-113 against National League teams, a crisp .543 winning percentage; overall, AL teams are 1806-1652, a .522 winning percentage.
Leyland’s two points raise somewhat separate concerns. The first is about rules, and the second is about fairness. Playing by different sets of rules is not inherently unfair, just as playing in different ballparks is not inherently unfair, as long as each team faces the same number of games outside of its comfort zone. A team can be built to take advantage of its home ballpark just as well as a team can be built to take advantage of the DH.
Indeed, the home ballpark can arguably be more well-tailored to the team and the specific opponent, especially in the days when infields were not as primly manicured as they are now, and teams could instruct their grounds crews to water the hell out of the dirt between first and second base to slow down someone like Maury Wills. Decades before that, teams would move the outfield walls in and out on a dime, depending on what kind of hitters were coming to town. That doesn’t happen any more. But each ballpark plays slightly differently. Baseball is the only major American sport whose leagues play by different rulebooks — but it’s also the only major American sport whose arenas are nonstandard. The DH disparity is weird, but it isn’t any weirder than having differently-shaped ballparks.
On the other hand, unbalanced schedules — of which interleague play, with its forced “rivalries,” is definitely a part — are absolutely unfair. It’s unfair for the Blue Jays to have to play nearly 55-60 games against the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees, while the Rangers get to play 55-60 games against the Angels, Athletics, and Mariners. (It’s also unfair for the AL West teams to play in a four-team division while the NL Central teams play in a six-team division and everyone else plays in a five-team division, but that won’t get fixed without more expansion, which isn’t happening in a struggling economy — so we’ll leave that aside for now.) Frankly, it’s unfair for Leyland to get to play the Pirates while the Indians have to play the Reds.
Baseball scheduling is still more fair than other sports, like college football, in which strength of schedule is almost as much a determinant of wins and losses as strength of team. But it’s not as fair as it used to be, when there were eight teams in every league and they all played each other an equal number of times. Moreover, at least in college football, strength of schedule actually factors into consideration for the championship — in baseball, facing a tough schedule gets you no more than the smallest violin in the world.
Jim Leyland’s right that he probably won’t be around to see the end of interleague play or the DH — the former is simply worth too much money to baseball, and the latter is just too entrenched in culture. He’s also right that the current state of affairs is deeply unfair. He’s only wrong about one thing. His team is benefiting.