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Giving More Americans the Chance to Boo Albert Belle

January 19, 1996

It’s not the only test of a good idea, but anything baseball does that gives more Americans a chance to boo Albert Belle in person can’t be all bad.

The way things have gone, it’s a rare enough treat when the words ``baseball″ and ``good idea″ show up in the same sentence. And so the trick for the owners who made it happen Thursday by approving interleague play is to make it happen more than once every few years. Because if the strike and its aftermath taught them anything, it should have been this: Momentum is a terrible thing to waste.

Interleague play by the 1997 baseball season is an idea that can only widen the customer base. So, too, with the expanded postseason tournament the players and owners agreed upon a few years back and trotted out last fall. It doesn’t matter that the lords of basketball, football and hockey bought into both ideas a long time ago. Baseball is slow about some things. That used to be one of its greatest charms. Problem is, tradition doesn’t sell like it used to.

In an age of cable, fast food, overnight delivery and incredible shrinking attention spans, the lesson is evident: keep the customer waiting at your peril. And what the customer wants in sports is everything. Yesterday.

Interleague play means opportunity. It means the guy in San Francisco who saw Willie Mays play in person can lay those same eyes on Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr. and make the comparisons himself. It means dream matchups like Greg Maddux pitching to Frank Thomas will happen every so often outside video-game parlors. And with something real on the line.

It will add spice to long-simmering arguments in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and cause back-burner debates in St. Louis and Kansas City, or Cleveland and Cincinnati, to heat up again. It even gives the fan who went after Cubs reliever Randy Myers last season a chance to finish his sentence by the time Myers’ new employer, the Orioles, make their first pilgrimage to Wrigley Field.

Of course, not everybody likes change. Interleague play means teams that wind up in the World Series might have played each other a few times during the regular season. Big deal. The purists howled about how previous changes have made baseball too much like the other sports, which ignores several essential facts. For one thing, baseball’s competitors are trending upward in terms of interest; for a second thing, the saving grace of each sport is that its performances are unique because the performers are. That won’t change with interleague play, only play itself out before an expanded audience.

In fact, the idea is so good we should worry about its chances for survival. After the owners agreed to the proposal, union chief Don Fehr was guardedly optimistic the players’ association would go along _ even though it could wind up costing those maddening specialists known as designated hitters their jobs in a couple of years.

Right now, plans call for the DH to be used in American League parks, but not in National League parks, as in the World Series. With current plans for each team to play 15 or 16 interleague games, the DH role will either become more prominent or be abandoned altogether.

It could be put to a vote of the owners, the players or even the fans. And there’s no reason to stop there, which is where the business about momentum comes in. While they’re about deciding the question of the DH, the owners and players could put a whole host of other issues into play. The unsettled labor situation. The ridiculously late starting times for postseason games. The lack of a commissioner.

Yes, settling those things would make baseball more like the other sports. There are worse things.

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