For about the past 10 years this space has been tireless, if also tiresome, in its complaints that Major League Baseball threatened to obliterate the blessed historical distinction between the American and National Leagues.
All of the following have contributed to the loss of distinction between leagues that once made MLB unique: interleague play, the dissolution of separate league offices, a unified umpiring office, homogenization of umpiring styles and the NL's loss of symmetrical stadiums with artificial turf in favor of AL-style classical parks with natural grass. Put them all together and there's no longer a dollar's worth of difference between the American and National leagues. The NL club will even use the DH when it can.
However, like so many arguments put forth without a tincture of humility, the case for lost differences has been disproved by events. At least one substantial difference between the American and National leagues is evident to anyone who just looks at the standings. The American League is better, a lot better, so much better that one might suggest the National League doesn't even play baseball at the same level.
It could be that we finally do have one major league, but its arrival came quite by chance and not by fusing two leagues together. The major league is the American League. The National League almost is something else, for at least the time being.
We used to wait until the All-Star Game for some small read on which league's best stars were better. Now that we have interleague play, the All-Star Game's purpose is to some degree lessened. And the mystery is solved.
AL teams crushed their NL opponents this year, winning 154 times against 98 losses. In 2005 the AL earned a 136-116 record in interleague play. With the Red Sox and White Sox sweeping the last two World Series for the American League, the National League hasn't won a single World Series game since the Florida Marlins at the end of 2003. When the All-Star Game arrives, by the way, the AL is going for its ninth win in 10 years, broken only by the infamous 2002 tie.
The American League's dominance shows from top to bottom. Of the four AL clubs in playoff position as of July 3, three of them — the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox — combined for a 45-9 interleague record. The Minnesota Twins, who are less than a .500 operation in the American League, now sit 10 games over .500 after a 16-2 performance against NL clubs. The Seattle Mariners weren't an AL West contender until fattening up on a 14-4 slate against the National League.
Put the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on the field against AL clubs and you see a bad franchise in another bad year, 24-40. But the Rays won 11 of 18 games against the NL. The Kansas City Royals were bidding to become one of the worst cubs in history before the interleague schedule began. Now that the Royals have won 10 of their 18 games against the NL, they're no longer on track to lose 115 games. They might even be a playoff contender if they played in the NL Central, rather than the AL Central.
The Colorado Rockies (11-4) and the San Francisco Giants (8-7) are the only NL clubs to finish interleague play with winning records. NL Central clubs combined for a 31-62 record against the AL. NL East clubs finished 32-51 against the AL. The Reds, Cardinals, Astros, Mets, Phillies, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks all have winning records against NL clubs and losing records against AL clubs.
The Mets are the NL's new religion, a nice mix of successful veteran pitchers and exciting, young offensive players. Plus Carlos Delgado. The Mets are 42-24 against the NL, placing six players on the league's All-Star team. But the gimpy American League club across town, the Yankees, beat the Mets four out of six. Running ahead of the Yankees in the AL East, the Boston Red Sox handled the Mets three-for-three in Boston last week.
Explanations might here be attempted, but the AL clubs are so dominant in such an encompassing way that the simplest description suffices. The AL is just better. The interleague player stats list seven, eight or nine AL players among the top 10 in almost all categories.
Joe Mauer is a wonder, batting .392 as a catcher for the Twins. But his .492 average against NL pitching is even more wondrous, as it leads all hitters in interleague play. Kenji Johjima, catching for the Seattle Mariners, has hit seven of his ten homers against NL pitchers, whom he tagged for a .446 average. He might be in the wrong league.
The Royals have no one among the top 25 in the AL batting race. But Danny DeJesus and Emil Brown are among the top 10 in interleague batting average. Does the AL have a couple young lefthanders whom NL hitters can't touch? How about 22-year-old Francisco Liriano of the Twins and 22-year-old Scott Kazmir of the Rays, the top two interleague strikeout pitchers?
Then you look at the NL pitching staff: Brandon Webb, Carlos Zambrano, Brad Penny, Jason Schmidt, etc. All good pitchers, but it's not quite like looking at the NL staff and seeing Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, etc. Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez, who've led the Mets' surge, might be headed to the Hall of Fame, but the jury is out on the rest of the NL staff.
On the NL team, only Glavine and Martinez have appeared in more than five All-Star Games. The AL has seven of those guys — Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Ivan Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki and Mariano Rivera.
One can't find a single structural reason why the AL is so much better. Back in the 1970s, when the NL dominated All-Star games, one might argue that the NL required more athletic players. Now, they play the same game. With one difference.
The Yankees always raise the bar as high as it will go. Other AL clubs must keep up with the Yankees. No NL franchise sets that level of importance on winning, including the Mets, who also are trying to keep up with the Yankees. It's just a guess, but it's the best we've got. This kind of disparity almost defies rational explanation.