Nations: Warming up to new baseball matchups

By Jeff Nations

I hate to think of myself as old school as my years continue to advance, the sort of curmudgeonly sports fan who still despises the designated hitter, refuses to refer to the NHL’s conferences as anything other than Campbell and Prince of Wales, and still believes the NCAA tournament should be capped at 32 teams (or less).

No, the idea is to be a forward-thinker, an embracer of change — youthful in outlook, if not so much anymore in body. I spend much of my time combating that dreaded phrase — “set in my ways” — that invites inertia and the inevitable bitterness that results when society in all its facets just keeps on humming right along.

That disclaimer duly noted, I now profess — I have never been able to stand Major League Baseball’s interleague “experiment” (quotes included for heightened crankiness). I’m of an age that witnessed baseball’s highest level in its purest, non-interleague form — yes, I’m talking about 1996 … and even earlier! Back in those days — the early to mid 90s, that is — the concept of teams from the American and National leagues meeting up in the regular season was simply unfathomable. It just wasn’t done — Ron Guidry didn’t face Mike Schmidt in June, prototypical DH Harold Baines wasn’t relegated to pinch-hitting duties and (mercifully) I never had to witness Jim Palmer taking his hacks.

There were exceptions, of course — Spring Training games, which didn’t really count anyway, the odd exhibition (ditto), and the annual All-Star Game (back when it didn’t count for anything, either). Then of course, we had the World Series, the supreme exception to that otherwise fairly ironclad rule. That’s when we saw American League teams struggling to pull off double switches, and National League squads trotting out utility infielders to fill out a lineup. It was novel, and it was special.

Now, not so much. This season, with the unbalanced league alignments, baseball fans are subjected to an interleague series throughout the season. From its early beginnings matching natural rivals like the Oakland A’s against the San Francisco Giants, or the Yankees against the Mets, we’ve mushroomed into daily matchups featuring the likes of the Brewers against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Interleague presents other problems, as well, mainly dealing with competitive balance. Take those natural rivalries, for example — for several years, the Houston Astros have been downright abysmal. That has been great news for the Texas Rangers, who obviously rated as the Stros’ natural rivals and therefore could count on extra games against their wretched Lone Star neighbors. Great deal for the Rangers, terrible for the rest of the AL West who didn’t get those “bonus” games.

So that was my thinking, my entrenched establishment point of view. Interleague stinks, end of story.

This year’s edition of the annual “Beltway Series” might just finally be enough to break me out of that good-old-days mode of thinking. For years, the annual matchups between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals really didn’t amount to much more than an exercise in determining which team was worse. Both were bad, year after year, but at least the interleague games allowed one of them to claim some dubious bragging rights.

Things changed last year, although it wasn’t even that apparent when it was happening. The Washington Nationals were the up-and-coming franchise, loaded with young talent. The Orioles were still the Orioles, featuring a roster dotted with a few marquee players, a pack of untested rookies and a steady stream of retreads.

It turned out, of course, that the Orioles were on the rise just as surely as the Nats last season. Maybe they did catch a few breaks with their suspect pitching and penchant for rallies, but it worked all season long. So far this year, it seems that last year was no mirage. Baltimore is in the thick of the AL East race, and even a slow start by the Nats doesn’t have anyone counting them out as real contenders for the NL East title.

So when I watch this year’s edition of “The Beltway Series,” it isn’t so very difficult to imagine I might be seeing a preview of a later, much more important matchup. That would take place in October and early November, with a World Series championship at stake. These games are exciting and intriguing, and of course they do matter to both teams in what promises to be a long, bitter summer of battling for a playoff spot.

If you’ve been an interleague holdout like me, the time has come to let it go and enjoy the show. Baseball is blooming in Baltimore and Washington once more, and it’s great to see some head-to-head matchups that really do count for something.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>