Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Interleague action rates a good grade in first year of play

by Wayne Graczyk

Japan pro baseball’s fist interleague season will wrap up this weekend, as soon as they can make up a few games previously rained out.

So, what do you think?

Was it an “incredibly boring experiment,” as one Japan Times subscriber expressed his opinion on June 12 in the “Readers in Council” section?

Or an exciting and interesting innovation, as I called it in the “Baseball Bullet-in” last week?

Throughout the six-week period when Central League teams played official games against Pacific League opponents, I asked about 25 players, coaches and managers what they thought of interleague play, and all said they liked it, except for Hanshin Tigers outfielder Shane Spencer, a veteran of Major League Baseball’s biggest interleague rivalry, New York’s Subway Series, in which he played on both sides for the Yankees and Mets.

I think Spencer was joking, though. He said the reason he is not crazy about the format in Japan is because, as a first-year position player, he is trying to learn the opposing pitchers, and it seemed as if he was facing a new hurler every day. He rarely got to see the same pitcher twice.

But that is precisely the reason most players favor interleague play in Japan; they get to see other teams, cities, ballparks and players they would not visit under the old system.

‘You get tired of seeing the same five teams in your league all season long,” was a typical comment in years past.

Some of the foreigners offered advice as to how the interleague system here could be changed to make it better.

There was the “reverse designated hitter” idea thought up by Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine and mentioned here June 5. That’s the one where the DH rule would be used in Central League parks, and the pitchers would bat in the Pacific League stadiums.

Nippon Ham Fighters skipper Trey Hillman said he thought it would be better if, instead of playing the entire 36-game schedule in one fell swoop, the interleague games were broken into two blocks of 18 games each.

In other words, Hillman says to start the season with regular Central-vs.-Central and Pacific-vs.-Pacific contests, then do half the inter-league thing, go back to playing your own league, then complete the remaining 18 games against the opposite league and finish the season with intraleague play.

Yomiuri Giants outfielder Tuffy Rhodes agreed this would be a better way to go.

Seibu Lions infielder Jose Fernandez said he would like to see interleague play again next season but offered one suggestion for a change.

“Rather than play the series on Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday and Friday-Saturday-Sunday, the day off should be Thursday, not Monday. The weekday series should be Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday.”

His reasoning is that most teams are playing day games on Sunday, so it would make more sense to travel to the next city on Sunday night, get a good night’s sleep and be rested for a Monday game. Then Thursday would be the next travel day which would eliminate having to travel on Friday and playing a game on the same night.

Got that?

It sounds logical to me.

In any event, scheduling would be easier if the two leagues would open and close their regular seasons on the same day, and if the Central League would adopt a post-season playoff plan similar to the Pacific League.

The PL Opening Day is a week earlier than the Central lid-lifters, and the Pa League shuts down its regular campaign before the CL in order to make time for the two stages of playoff games in October.

As it stands, the schedule-makers did the best they could, although there were a few disappointments that apparently could not be helped. They tried to put teams against each other, alternating on weekdays and weekends, but could not accommodate every team.

For example, both Yomiuri Giants vs. Chiba Lotte Marines series were played Tuesday through Thursday, and the two Giants vs. Seibu Lions sets were slated Friday through Sunday.

Since ace pitchers Koji Uehara of the Giants and Daisuke Matsuzaka of Seibu were in their teams’ starting rotation each Tuesday, the Lions did not see Uehara, and Yomiuri hitters did not face the “Boy Wonder.”

As for the criticism of bad draws and poor attendance; sure, there were less-than-spectacular crowds on weeknights when two second-division teams faced each other, but that would have happened with intraleague play as well.

On the other hand, there were some great attendances and sellouts.

On Sunday, June 12, the Tigers and Fighters played before 47,279 spectators at Koshien Stadium, while the Giants and Lions drew 44,021 at Tokyo Dome.

The Dragons and Marines played before 32,800 at Nagoya Dome, and the crowd at Fukuoka’s Yahoo Dome was 33,279 for the Hawks-Swallows game.

Also interesting were ideas such as having former star players perform the shikyu shiki first-pitch ceremony, pitching to ex-rival batters from days gone by, and the throw-back uniforms used by the Hanshin club.

I am told the Tigers home jerseys, replicas of those worn in the late 1970s and early ’80s, will be sold now that their interleague season has concluded, with proceeds going to charity.

All things considered, I am giving Japan pro ball’s first interleague campaign a B+. I liked it a lot, found it interesting and hope it will continue for years to come, with a few fixes as mentioned above.

Chiba Lotte Marines promotions director Larry Rocca has asked me to remind you that Tuesday, June 21, will be Ladies Night at the Marines-Fighters game at Chiba Marine Stadium.

Ladies will be admitted at reduced ticket prices and be eligible for a variety of gifts and door prizes to be given away.

Also, on June 22, the University of Southern California Marching Band will perform prior to the Lotte-Nippon Ham game.

“Play Ball” time both nights is 6:15 p.m.