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Interleague play adds some intrigue

| Friday, June 7, 2002

Roberto Alomar can hardly wait for his New York Mets teammates to get a whiff of Jacobs Field.

"I think it will be fun for the players who have never been there," the All-Star second baseman said. "The fans, the atmosphere. <#201> It smells like a ballpark. You know what I mean• The grass, the hot dogs and hamburgers, the popcorn."

Baseball fans, too, will soon enjoy a lot of tasty treats, thanks to this year's revamped interleague schedule.

Barry Bonds visiting Yankee Stadium for the first time. Curt Schilling dueling Pedro Martinez. Alomar returning to Cleveland after being traded away last December.

"A lot of guys are excited about having the opportunity to play in Yankee Stadium," Bonds said. "It's just history in New York."

That's only this weekend.

Later, there will be a World Series rematch, A-Rod makes his first trip to Wrigley Field, and the home-run crazy New York Yankees take their swings at Coors Field.

"You hear a lot about how the ball flies there, but you don't believe it until you get there," said Yankees reliever Steve Karsay, who pitched for the Braves last year.

All these tempting scenarios because interleague opponents finally will rotate. Following five seasons of the same old East vs. East, Central vs. Central and West vs. West, there's a new plan.

Starting tonight, it'll be — for the most part — American League East vs. National League West, AL Central vs. NL East and AL West vs. NL Central.

"This is the way it was supposed to be all along," Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz said.

Most of the traditional rivalries remain.

Cubs-White Sox, Athletics-Giants and Yankees-Mets — with the possibility of Roger Clemens again pitching to Mike Piazza at revved-up Shea Stadium.

Plus, a couple of scheduling quirks. Cincinnati and Cleveland will not meet in the all-Ohio series, while Atlanta will take on teams from all three AL divisions.

"How can you talk about balance and competitive balance when not everybody is playing the same teams?" Smoltz said. "I just wish everyone in our division was playing all the same teams."

So far, the interleague games have been incredibly balanced. The NL leads 597-595.

There will be 252 interleague games this year, played between June 7-23 and June 28-30.

Bonds, in fourth place on baseball's career list with 587 home runs, gets to aim at the 314-foot mark in right field when San Francisco plays at Yankee Stadium for the first time since the 1962 World Series.

Last winter, Bonds was eagerly anticipating the trip and kidded Joe Torre, trying to get the Yankees' manager to guarantee that Clemens would pitch in the series. Bonds is scheduled to hit against Clemens on Saturday.

The two stars faced each other, by the way, in the 1998 All-Star game at Coors Field. Unaccustomed to how the ball travels there, Clemens pointed up when Bonds made contact, thinking it was a popup — it really was a fly to the warning track.

Arizona first baseman Mark Grace was excited about the Diamondbacks' trip to Fenway Park this weekend.

"I've never been to the city of Boston, period. It should be a great series. They've got the best record in the American League, we've got the best record in the National League," he said.

There's also the Green Monster.

"I'll be at the ballpark real early when we go, and check it out," he said.

On Saturday, there will be a marquee matchup at Fenway when Schilling, leading the majors with 11 wins, opposes Martinez (7-0). Schilling began his pro career with the Red Sox in 1986, but never made it to the majors with them.

Randy Johnson is supposed to pitch early next week at Yankee Stadium for the champion Diamondbacks, sure to bring reminders of last October and November.

Also next week, Smoltz will be back at the Metrodome for the first time since starting Game 7 of the 1991 World Series between the Braves and Minnesota.

"It's going to be neat," he said. "I haven't been there in a long time. Times change, but the memories don't."

On June 18-20, Alex Rodriguez will play at Wrigley Field when Texas takes on the Chicago Cubs. Last year, he hit 52 home runs to break the record by a shortstop, formerly held by Cubs star Ernie Banks.

"I'm very excited to go to one of the historic parks in the history of the game," Rodriguez said. "Ernie Banks is one of my childhood heroes, and it will be nice to play where he played."

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