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BATTER UP!

There is no way to know yet whether interleague play is going to be a success. The first game won't be played for 11 weeks, and it may take a full season, or even two, before any serious evaluations can be made.

But we do know this _ it is going to be discussed, debated and dissected all season.

The idea is revolutionary, yet it is basic. Rather than playing games only against the other teams in their league (as they have since the start of major-league play), teams this year will play a limited number of games (15 or 16) against teams from the corresponding geographic division of the other league.

It is done like this in the other three major sports, but there the groupings are called conferences. It is only in baseball, where they are called leagues, that a fuss is created.

Some players and officials like it, others hate it. Some contend it will diminish the impact of the World Series, others say it will enhance it. Some say there are too many games, others not enough. Some like the limit of playing the geographic opponents, others want to expand it. Some say it will increase excitement around baseball, others say it will detract from the pennant races _ and may skew them since teams battling for the wild-card spot could be playing interleague opponents of different quality.

"I think it's going to be pretty good," Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry said. "I'm pretty excited about it."

"I don't like it all," Marlins outfielder Gary Sheffield said. "I really don't."

See what we mean.

The idea to enact interleague play was business-driven. Still trying to win back fans alienated by the labor pains of 1994-95, the owners and officials seized on interleague play as a marketing tool. In some cases, it has been a smash. The Marlins have sold out their three home dates with the Yankees, and there is tremendous appeal to the natural-rivalry games, such as Cubs-White Sox, Mets-Yankees, Dodgers-Angels. However, that Friday night Aug. 29 Brewers-Pirates game in Milwaukee may not be quite as sexy.

"I think it's going to be great for the fans," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "It's an attempt to give the fans something back and I think it's going to be exciting."

"I think it's just a trick for the owners to lure the fans back to the game and say, "We forgive you for your wrongdoing,'

" Sheffield said. "That's something I don't agree with."

See what we mean.

Because baseball can't agree on one set of rules (which is another story) or one of set of umpires (and another) or one set of statistics (and yet another), some tinkering obviously was required to make the interleague games possible.

The designated hitter will be in effect for games in AL parks, but not in NL stadiums. All-AL umpiring crews (with their supposedly unique strike zone) will work the AL games, and all-NL crews will work the NL games. All statistics will count toward a player's league totals, with no separate interleague statistics kept.

"I don't like it, the more I think about it," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "To think that somebody could win an AL batting title by going lights-out against NL teams, that's weird. Or that you could win an RBI title against NL teams. There's a lot of crappy things, though I understand why they did it that way."

"As long as the leagues are playing by different rules, they're doing the best they can," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "You give me any one scenario and I'll point out the minuses to it. There's no perfect situation. It just depends on how you want to take it."

The most talked-about point this spring seems to be whether interleague play diminishes the World Series, since there is now the possibility the teams will have played during the regular season.

"I've always felt that the one thing baseball had was that when you played the World Series you had two teams who had never played," Florida manager Jim Leyland said. "That made us different than the NBA, the NFL, the NHL. I guess I'm from the old school."

"I think it enhances it," countered La Russa. "There's no doubt in my mind it enhances it. A lot of interesting things will happen that will whet your appetite for the two survivors to play seven games against one another."

Some don't see it as a big deal at all.

"In pro basketball the finals are the big thing and they play against each other during the season," Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. "In pro football the Super Bowl is always a big spectacle and those teams play against each other during the course of the season.

"They always talk about the purist aspect of baseball. Baseball is probably the most impure of all the sports _ there's different strike zones, there's the DH in one league and not the other, there's artificial surfaces and natural grass fields. There's nothing pure about the game of baseball."

There has been plenty of conversation about interleague play around the batting cages this spring, along with a fair amount of comedy as some of the AL teams have allowed their pitchers to try hitting.

The DH issue, and the resulting strategy, begs an interesting question: To whose advantage is it? The AL teams, who get to use their regular lineup in their park while NL teams thrust a bench player into the DH role? Or the NL teams, who have pitchers that may not be good hitters but at least are used to having a bat in their hands?

"Obviously when the AL teams play at the NL parks the NL will be favored," said current Yankees and former Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. "Both pitchers are going to be hitting and the NL pitchers are more experienced. But in the AL parks, it will be pretty much straight up. The difference is the DH for the AL team is one of their top hitters. For the NL team it's a guy backing up."

And what about the managers? The AL managers must deal with that dastardly double switch. The NL managers might actually have to decide whether a pitcher should come out based on his performance rather than his spot in the batting order.

"You can bend that and twist it however you want to," White Sox manager Terry Bevington said. "I don't think there's a great advantage one way or the other."

See what we mean?

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