Two weeks ago, the Cubs and White Sox played their now-annual four-game series, split between the two parks, two on the North Side, two on the South Side.
The games didn't draw well. The two Wrigley games drew the seventh- and eighth-largest crowds of the season to date (of 21 games; those rankings will likely drop). At the Cell, the two games drew the smallest two crowds in the 98-game history of the series. We've discussed some of the reasons for that -- early in the season weeknights and high ticket prices, and the small crowds happened in spite of two warm evenings, rare for that early in the year.
But the Cubs and Sox are not the only teams suffering "natural rivals" fatigue. The Mets and Yankees played a similar four-game set, two at Yankee Stadium followed by two at Citi Field, last week. As happened in Chicago, none of the four games sold out. The Yankee Stadium games drew 46,517 and 45,958. Those are good numbers, to be sure, but below the stadium's listed capacity of 50,291. At Citi Field the teams drew 35,577 and 40,133, again, decent houses, but below Citi Field's listed capacity of 45,000.
Frankly, I think people in most cities are tired of these matchups. They're certainly not "new" any more -- this is the 18th year of interleague play. I suppose if the Cubs and White Sox were both good teams, they'd draw better against each other -- but then, you could say that regarding just about anyone the Cubs played if they were a better team.
The "natural rivals" thing has been taken a bit too far, too, in making certain matchups. The matchups fall into three categories -- let's have a look.
First are the two-team cities or matchups in one large "metro" area:
Cubs/White Sox Mets/Yankees Angels/Dodgers Athletics/Giants Orioles/Nationals
Fans of those teams can get to either park (relatively) easily, and there's no travel issues for the players, as they can stay in the same city or general area for all four games.
Then there's the cross-state (or "near-state") bunch:
Rays/Marlins Cardinals/Royals Reds/Indians Brewers/Twins
Those teams are fairly close regionally, but now we're talking about a flight between two cities in between the two-game sets. Even though they'd be short flights, less than an hour in all those cases, that still means a bus trip to the airport, possible weather delays, and a bus trip to a hotel -- just like any other road trip.
That takes care of 18 of the 30 teams. Those "rivalries," though they did not exist before interleague play (except Brewers/Twins, since they were once both American League teams), have had some meaning over the last 18 years, though probably less than Bud Selig might think.
The other 12 teams have been shoehorned into "rivalry" matchups that make from little to no sense:
Blue Jays/Phillies: Scratching my head trying to figure out this one. The Philadelphia N.L. team was known as "Blue Jays", unofficially, in 1944 and 1945, even coming up with this logo, but it never caught on and was scrapped. And that's 70 years ago -- how many living Phillies fans even remember that?
Tigers/Pirates: The cities are 209 miles apart. You can drive that in a little more than three hours. That's about all I've got.
Diamondbacks/Astros: The Astros used to have a better natural interleague rival in the Rangers, but when Houston became an A.L. city, the Rangers transmogrified into a divisional rival for the Astros. The Diamondbacks and Astros played 106 times between 1998 and 1012 as N.L. teams, and now somehow they're "natural rivals?" It appears the Astros get the Diamondbacks because...
Rangers/Rockies: ... the Rangers get the Rockies. Denver is 664 miles from Dallas. Houston is 1,014 miles from Phoenix and only 880 miles from Denver. Looks like the Astros drew the short straw here.
Braves/Red Sox: Well, the Braves used to play in Boston. The last Braves home game in Boston was September 21, 1952 and the total home attendance for the Braves in 1952 was 281,278, last in the major leagues that year by a huge margin. If there's anyone in Boston who still cares about the Braves, 62 years after their last game there, they're probably in the witness-protection program.
And that leaves...
Padres/Mariners: ... who are 1,062 miles apart, and who are about as much "natural rivals" as any two teams whose names could have been drawn out of a hat. The Mariners and Padres have to play the same four-game, home-and-home series that the Cubs and White Sox do... except they have a two-hour flight in the middle of the four games. How is that fair?
The "natural rivals" thing, to me, is something that's played out. I'd just as soon see the White Sox play the Cubs as often as any other American League team -- forcing this rivalry, with the "Crosstown Cup" that almost no one cares about, is silly. Major League Baseball could adopt this schedule sometime in the future:
18 games vs. teams in your division: 72 games 6 games vs. teams in the other divisions in your league: 60 games 3 games vs. teams in two divisions in the other league: 30 games
This would increase the number of interleague games, but rotate them so each team would play 10 of the 15 teams in the other league every year. The Cubs and White Sox would play two series every three years, which would be plenty for me. This schedule would also eliminate any complaints about "fairness of schedule," because every team would play 24 of the other 29 teams every year. It would be much more balanced. It would eliminate silly things like last year's two-game Cubs road trip to Anaheim.
Having said all this, the schedule-makers did do one smart thing this year -- in fact, that begins tonight. The Yankees, after playing the two-game set at Wrigley, will play a four-game series against the White Sox at the Cell. This type of scheduling, as opposed to the forced "natural rivalries," ought to draw fans -- Yankee fans who travel could come to Chicago this week knowing they could see their team six straight days. They ought to do this more often in two-team markets. To my recollection it's happened just one other time in Chicago since interleague play began, in 2009 when the Pirates visited the White Sox and then the Cubs in a single week. (I do know it's been done elsewhere -- the Giants visited the Mets and Yankees back-to-back in New York just last year.)
Changing the schedule as I've proposed above, though, probably can't be done until after the next CBA is signed, which would take effect in 2017. Not a moment too soon, in my view. Bud Selig is retiring after this year (presumably). Let's retire "natural rivals" along with him.