Interleague play back for another spin

The 14th season of interleague play in the major leagues begins Friday, which means great natural rivalries, American League pitchers having to bat, National League teams searching for a DH and Ozzie Guillen telling us again how much he hates Wrigley Field.

Interleague play has lost some pizzazz, and it has its share of inequities, but it still seems to work well: The average attendance for the 14 years of interleague play is 33,245 per game.

"I like it,'' Nationals closer Matt Capps said of interleague play. "It gives fans the chance to see different teams.''

Here are five storylines to watch in interleague play, which will take place in May and June.

New York MetsNew York Yankees

Yankees vs. Mets

We start here because this series begins this weekend. And because it features a great pitching matchup on Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN: CC Sabathia against Johan Santana, two of the best pitchers in the game, two pitchers with a shot someday to make it into the Hall of Fame. The Mets haven't yet sold out Citi Field for all three games -- which is rare for this interleague series -- but it's still Mets-Yankees, it's the Subway Series and, as all devoted Mets fans truly believe, a day is not perfect unless the Mets win and the Yankees lose.

"It's the first one for me, I really get to experience the zoo,'' said Mets right fielder Jeff Francoeur. "I'm looking forward to it. And I'm looking forward to playing at Yankee Stadium.''

The Mets have had a perplexing season. They became the fourth team in history to be five games out in April, yet finish the month in first place in their division or league. Then, they became the second team ever to go from first in their division or league to last -- at least five games out -- in as little as 15 days. This is definitely an important series for the Mets. If they get swept by the injury-torn Yankees at home, manager Jerry Manuel will be under fire again. When Mets brass went to Atlanta to meet with Manuel about the team earlier this week, it seemed that he was being given more time to turn things around. But a sweep by the Yankees could change all of that.

Boston Red SoxLos Angeles Dodgers

Dodgers vs. Red Sox

On June 18, Manny Ramirez will return to Fenway Park for the first time since he played himself out of Boston in 2008, and forced a trade to the Dodgers. Ramirez played almost eight full seasons with the Red Sox, hit 274 home runs while with the team and won a batting title and two World Series rings. But he quit on his teammates at the end, necessitating a deal.

There has never been a departure quite like it in baseball history, and therefore, the booing that Ramirez will receive from angry, yet sophisticated, Red Sox fans might be unprecedented. Roger Clemens was booed at Fenway when he returned as a Blue Jay, but his exit from Boston was partly orchestrated by then-GM Dan Duquette. Alex Rodriguez engineered a deal from the Rangers to the Yankees, but even though he was booed mercilessly at The Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, he played hard in Texas, which separates him from Ramirez. Reggie Jackson held out in 1976 while with the Orioles, then left for the Yankees after one year; he returned to Baltimore amid thunderous boos, but again, he played hard. Most fans can forgive poor play, and some can understand a player leaving for a better situation. But when you stop trying, when you quit on your team, it is unforgivable.

Los Angeles DodgersNew York Yankees

Yankees vs. Dodgers

On June 25, the Yankees will visit Dodger Stadium, marking the first time in 29 years as a major league manager that Joe Torre has managed a game against the Yankees. Torre managed 1,942 games while with the Yankees. The only other time in modern major league history (1900-present) that a manager managed that many games for one team, then managed against that team for the first time, was in 1948 when Joe McCarthy managed the Red Sox against the Yankees, for whom he had managed 2,348 games.

This series would have even more cache if it was played in New York, or in the postseason, which is possible again this year. But having Torre on the other side of the field from Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada certainly will make three nights in June in L.A. a little livelier. That scenario alone makes interleague play worthwhile.

Toronto Blue JaysPhiladelphia Phillies

Phillies vs. Blue Jays

It was supposed to be the Phillies at the Blue Jays June 25-27, but because of a scheduling conflict at the Rogers Centre, the series will be played in Philadelphia, with the Phillies as the visiting team. So, the Phillies essentially will get three extra home games this season.

"That doesn't seem fair,'' one NL GM said. "Home-field advantage means a lot, especially playing in their park. There were no games in Detroit that weekend. Why couldn't they play in a neutral park like when the Indians had to play games in Milwaukee a few years ago? The Phillies beat the Mets by one game and three games (in 2007-08). What if the Phillies win by one game this year with three more home games?''

The week earlier, the Phillies will play a real road series, in New York, against the Yankees in a rematch of the 2009 World Series. Several Phillies have said that they don't just want to get back to the World Series this year, they want to get back against the Yankees. Several months in advance of the World Series, they will get another shot at the Yankees. This time without Cliff Lee, but they will have Roy Halladay, who since 2000 has gone 18-5 in 32 starts against the Yankees. A Halladay-A.J. Burnett matchup would make things even better considering that Burnett credits Halladay, a former teammate with Toronto, for making him better. And we can only hope that Halladay pitches against the Blue Jays in Philadelphia.

National LeagueAmerican League

American League vs. National League

Is this the year the NL wins in interleague play? The AL has won six years in a row. In the last five years, the AL has gone 713-546 against the NL, a .566 winning percentage. But this year, the NL has scored at the same rate (4.5 runs per game) as the AL. The DH spot in the AL has been relatively unproductive: the .242 average by the DH is the lowest by any position in the AL. And there has been some dominant individual pitching in the NL this year: Through Wednesday, four starting pitchers in the NL have an ERA under 2.00.

Maybe this year, led by Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Lincecum and Halladay, the NL will end its six-year losing streak. And, Stephen Strasburg will very likely be a member of the Nationals for the second segment of interleague play, which will start June 11.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.