Interleague Play Becomes Universal

We all knew that this day would come sooner or later when, in 1997, Major League Baseball introduced interleague play during the regular season.

In 1997, both leagues played an oft-criticized "balanced schedule" in which teams played their division rivals 12 times each and the teams in the other two divisions within the same league 11 times each, with the remaining 15 or 16 games played as interleague games, matched up by division — East vs. East, Central vs. Central, and West vs. West — until 2002, when these matchups were no longer automatically repeated.

(In 1977 and 1978 only, when the American League had two seven-team divisions because of Toronto and Seattle entering that league as expansion teams, division rivals met 15 times, while teams not in the same division had either 10 or 11 meetings. This caused numerous complaints — chief among them that there were too many two-game series — so in 1979 the AL went to a "balanced schedule," with 13 meetings between division opponents and 12 between non-division opponents).

Minor changes in the pattern occurred when Tampa Bay and Arizona entered MLB as American League and National League expansion teams, respectively, with Milwaukee concomitantly switching from the American League to the National League in 1998 — and when the Astros switched from the National League to the American League in 2013.

Once both leagues had 15 teams in 2013, the number of interleague games was increased to 20 games for each team.

A more significant change occurred in 2001, when the dreaded "balanced schedule" was abolished and from then on teams played their division rivals 16 to 20 times, depending on the number of teams in a division, because from 2001 through 2012 the AL West had only four teams, the NL Central had six, and the other four divisions had five.

From 2006 onward, divisions have met in interleague play every three years — as the NFL did in its interconference games from 1978 through 2001 (and every four years ever since).

But starting in 2023, interleague play will be universal — meaning that every team will now play 46 interleague games, 14 of the 15 teams in the other league three times, and (in most cases at least) the geographically closest team in the other league four times, twice at home and twice away, with this pair of two-game series often held consecutively.

Virtually all of the 26 additional interleague games will be taken from games within the same division, such teams henceforth meeting only 13 times instead of 19. Two games will come from interdivision games within the same league; instead of a team playing six such teams 7 times and four 6 times, those numbers will be reversed, with teams playing four of their 10 interdivision opponents within the same league 7 times and the other six 6 times.

The total number of interleague games in a season — 214 games in 1997, 224 games in 1998, 252 games from 1999 through 2012 (although in both 1999 and 2000 one interleague game was rained out and never made up), and 300 games from 2013 through 2022 (although two interleague games in 2020 were canceled due to COVID) will now rise to 690 — or nearly one out of seven (14.2%) of all games.

The major virtue of having every team in the other league play each other — and an odd number of times at that — is that the result of the season series will always decide which team gets home field advantage in the World Series if the two teams that get there had finished with the same regular-season record (and since division rivals will continue to play an odd number of games, any tie within a division will always be decided by the result of season series between those two teams, as well).

But baseball should add a provision that in no case can a wild card team have home field advantage over a division champion in the World Series (it is already impossible in all of the earlier rounds of the postseason) — even if the wild card team had finished with a better regular-season record. After all, as our "purist" friends would be happy to point out, prior to 1995 a second-place team couldn't even make the playoffs — let alone get four out of seven games at home in the World Series.

The principal drawback is that too many rained-out interleague games could wreak havoc with the schedule, and baseball cannot count on all or most of such games becoming meaningless at the end of the regular season, which could lead to a sizable number of these games needing to be made up.

Interleague play: more, more, more — how do you like it, how do you like it?

More than a few baseball fans will say that they don't like it.

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