1997 – The National League Returns to Fenway Park!

Photo Credit: The Boston Globe

Interleague Play – the very utterance of the phrase invokes strong feelings among baseball fans. Many feel that it is a welcome addition that brings the MLB schedule in line with the other major sports and where the mixing of the leagues provides an interesting strategical challenge that forces teams to be adaptable and adapt to the rules of the other league. Others however feel that it is an unnecessary disruption that spoils what makes the World Series and All-Star game truly special.

From the inception of the American League in 1901 until the summer of 1997, the two leagues had never met during the regular season. The World Series and All-Star Game were in fact the only instance in which the two leagues ever mixed and interacted. The American and National League maintained a special degree of autonomy and even had a separate set of rules. The idea of interleague play was not entirely new, it had been proposed many times over the years but the idea never really took off until Bud Selig needed a way to generate interest in baseball after the strike shortened 1994 season.

The two sides of the interleague play debate can be epitomized by quotes given by Mo Vaughn and Jim Rice to the Boston Globe in their June 19, 1997 edition:

“Actually, I think interleague play is good. You have fans who have never seen the National League. You’ve got guys who have never been in an NL ballpark. It’s good for baseball. Before, the only time you’d see an NL team is in the All-Star Game and the World Series. It’s not enough. Fans should be able to see more.” – Jim Rice

“I think it takes away from the World Series. The thing that is best about the World Series is that the two teams that are playing have probably never met. Everybody talks about how nice it is to see other players from other leagues, and it is good in a way. But the World Series match was especially coveted because the teams didn’t play during the season.” – Mo Vaughn

Philadelphia returns to Fenway Park

June 16, 1997 is an often overlooked day in Red Sox history, it was the beginning of the first interleague series at Fenway Park. It was also the return of the Philadelphia Phillies to Fenway Park for the first time since they faced the Braves there on September 11, 1914 where they lost to the Braves 6-5 after a walk-off hit in a two-run 9th inning.

The first interleague game at Fenway Park was played on in front of a scant 26,926 fans on a warm summer night. The Sox had just finished a series at Shea Stadium against the New York Mets in their first return to the stadium since the disappointment of the 1986 World Series. In some measure of revenge, the Sox took 2 out of 3.

The Sox also entered the night with only 22 men ready to play. Mo Vaughn had just gone under the knife to repair a torn meniscus that would keep him sidelined for the next month and would lead to him missing the All-Star game, infielder Wil Cordero was out due to allegations of domestic violence (to which he would later plead guilty), and catcher Bill Haselman was only available on an emergency basis due to a sore neck.

The game itself was relatively exciting. The Phillies jumped out to an early lead in the 2nd, the Sox answered back in the 3rd, the Phillies answered back in the 4th, and the Sox tied in the 5th. The teams carried a 2-2 tie into the top of the eighth inning when the Phillies would take a 4-2 lead off the strength of a Scott Rolen sac-fly followed by a Rico Brogna run-scoring single through the shortstop and third base hole.

The Sox entered the 9th inning needing the score two runs to remain in the game. After Scott Hatteburg hit a double to left, which also moved John Valentin to third, Sox skipper Jimy Williams removed Hatteburg, brought in Mike Benjamin a pinch runner and then made the decision to pinch hit Troy O’Leary for left-fielder Scott Frye. The decision to put O’Leary in would prove to be the right one as he knocked a double to deep left field and scored both Benjamin and Valentin, tying the game.

Shane Mack, who had hit a home run in the 3rd, would ground out between 2nd and 1st, which allowed O’Leary to advance to third. Nomar then drew a walk, putting runners at the corners with two out. A ground out by Darren Bragg would send the game into extra innings.

In the bottom of the 10th, O’Leary would once again play the hero, albeit in an unlikely way. With two men out and the bases loaded, he came to the plate and on the first pitch, was hit, which allowed Tim Neahring to walk home and score the winning run for the Boston Red Sox.

The Red Sox swept the three-game series and nothing notable really happened. Though, the final game did feature Curt Schilling (of future bloody sock fame) in a losing role.

And the rest of 1997

The Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves also paid visits to Fenway Park in 1997. The Braves made their first appearance at Fenway since 1914 and their World Series victory there over the Philadelphia Athletics and the Marlins made their very first appearance there.

Given the historical significance of the Braves returning to Fenway and the City of Boston, the Braves-Red Sox series from 1997 will likely be covered in a future post.

If you have any suggestions for historical events that you would like to see covered, please tell me in the comments.

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