Sports Vault: Remember when interleague play was a really big deal? It was in 1997

Reds fans rarely saw AL stars play

CINCINNATI -- There are a whole lot of baseball fans for whom interleague play has always been a part of the game.

But the dawn of interleague play 20 years ago was a very big deal.

Until then, National League players faced American League players only in spring training, the All-Star Game and the World Series.

So if you were a Reds fan, there's a good chance you never saw George Brett, Kirby Puckett, Paul Molitor, Al Kaline or Reggie Jackson play.

That all changed in 1997, when the Chicago White Sox came to Cinergy Field for a three-game interleague series. It was the first time the teams had met since the infamous 1919 Black Sox World Series.

 

The White Sox were a typical AL team with a lineup full of mashers. The stars were Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, Harold Baines, Robin Ventura and Ozzie Guillen. Thomas and Ventura, however, were on the disabled list for that series.

Belle hit 50 home runs and drove in 126 in '95, and he hit 48 home runs and drove in 148 in '96. He was the prototypical AL star: Not a good defender, but he could hit.

So, how big of a deal was it to have the AL stars come to town?

The three games drew 31,682, 36,685 and 31,663 attendees. This was during a year in which Reds attendance dipped to 1.7 million -- the worst for the franchise since 1972.

 

The White Sox won the first game, 3-1. The Reds won the second game, 5-1. In the finale, the Sox broke out the big bats and pounded the Reds, 14-6.

Next, the Reds went to Cleveland for their first road interleague series. In this series, Brook Fordyce became the first Red to be used as a designated hitter since the 1976 World Series. That fact that the Reds used Fordyce -- who hit .208 with one homer -- showed how differently AL and NL rosters were constructed.

 

The Reds went to Minnesota and hosted Kansas City later in 1997. The Reds went 9-6 versus the AL; they went 7-6 the next year. 

That turned out to be an aberration. The Reds have struggled mightily in interleague play: They've had winning interleague records in four seasons since.

In interleague play overall, the Reds are 137-189, including 4-7 this year.

And the novelty has worn off.

The series with the New York Yankees, baseball's marquee franchise, drew 25,966 and 22,035 in May.

The baseball landscape is very different now than it was '97. The Houston Astros, a long-time division rival of the Reds, are in the AL West now. The league switch of the Astros put 15 teams in each league, so there are interleague games every day.

A trip to St. Petersburg to play the Tampa Bay Rays isn't viewed much differently than a trip to Miami to play the Marlins.

But it was a big deal in '97, kids. Just ask your parents.

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