Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

New interleague format divides opinion

by Wayne Graczyk

We’re already more than halfway through Japan’s interleague season, and I overheard a member of the Japanese media say last week, “The interleague games are not interesting.”

Say what?

Many of the games have been close and just as exciting as non-interleague contests throughout the season.

It would seem to me the schedule planners made a good decision with this, the third format for games between the Central and Pacific League teams. The 18-game schedule is, to me, the perfect compromise in this, the 11th year of interleague play. It’s not too much, not too little; not too short and not too long. Attendance has been pretty good and, hopefully, this system will continue for many seasons to come.

Interleague play began in 2005 as part of Japanese baseball’s re-organization following the crisis during the summer of 2004. That is when the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes franchises announced their intention to merge, and the 12-team, two-league system was maintained when the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles joined as an expansion team after it had appeared two — or maybe four — clubs might be eliminated.

The first interleague schedule 10 years ago consisted of 36 games with teams playing six games against each team in the opposite league in three-game home-and-away series. It lasted six weeks and seemed to drag on as most players were itching to get back to playing rivals in their own league and resume the respective pennant races.

Two years later, in 2007, the interleague portion of the schedule was reduced to 24 games, and that lasted for eight years. Schedule-makers always had difficulty planning the necessary two-game series, and the teams’ traveling and off-days routines were often chaotic, but at least all clubs still visited everyone else’s town and stadium.

In 2015, the 18-game interleague season has each CL and PL entry playing a three-game series at home against half the teams in the opposite league and a three-game set on the road against the other half. In 2016, they will switch home-and-away roles.

There are sellout crowds at most of the ball parks on Saturdays and Sundays. On several week nights, as they also do outside the interleague period, the home teams offer promotions and giveaways of items such as T-shirts and replica jerseys that have helped keep attendance figures reasonably high.

Not everyone prefers the current format, however. In fact, several players have indicated a preference for the way the interleague schedule ran last year.

Yomiuri Giants outfielder Hisayoshi Chono said last week at Tokyo Dome, “I liked the two-game series because they broke up the sameness of the three-game series and gave us days off on different days of the week, rather than playing Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday series, then another team on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with Monday off every week.

“Also, it was nice to visit all six Pacific League cities and stadiums which we are not doing this year,” Chono said.

Teammate Leslie Anderson, however, looks forward to playing Central League rivals again. “The shorter, the better,” the first baseman said of the interleague portion of the NPB schedule.

Giants relief pitcher Scott Mathieson said he would not mind playing the original 36-game interleague format of a decade ago. “We play too many games against the teams in our own league,” said Mathieson.

Orix Buffaloes hurler Brandon Dickson agreed. “Before the interleague began (on May 26), I pitched against the (Hokkaido) Nippon Ham Fighters three times, and it is good to see some other teams for a change,” said Dickson.

Fellow Buffaloes starting rotation pitcher Yuki Nishi said, “I liked last year’s interleague system. It seemed easier for the starters to adjust and prepare with the two-game series and the way the schedule was set up, and I think it was better for the relievers too.”

Orix outfielder Takahiro Okada also expressed a preference for the 2007-2014 format. “I think all teams should visit all the cities and ball parks in the opposite league every year,” said Okada.

The Japanese interleague system differs from the North American majors where, because of the odd-numbered 15-team American and National Leagues, at least one interleague game is played every day throughout the year.

Under the NPB banner, the interleague games have a separate “season” with a specific beginning and ending date, a sponsor (Nihon Seimei) and a logo. There has also been an MVP selected and a champion team with prize money awarded.

It should also be pointed out that, unlike the major leagues, Japan has no huge interleague same-city rivalries such as the Yankees-Mets in New York, Cubs-White Sox in Chicago and Dodgers-Angels in Los Angeles. The closest thing here would be the Hanshin Tigers and Buffaloes in the Osaka area.

Whether the Japanese schedule calls for 36, 24 or 18 games, interleague play offers a refreshing break from the monotony of same-league play where teams play the same five clubs over and over.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com