One of the funniest stories I've ever heard, from a former big leaguer visiting a press box, was about Pete Rose. Throughout the 1970s Pete reveled in the booty of his fame, particularly attention from the opposite sex. He was canoodling with one such Annie when she confided her affinity for a different All-Star.
"Hey, baby," Rose cooed. "You haven't had anyone till you've had a National Leaguer."
Oh, the costs of progress. As Major League Baseball has blurred the lines between the American and National Leagues, opening interleague play and closing league offices, the once-fervid rivalry between the two circuits has become as cold as Warren Giles' gravestone. A few generations ago, suggesting one league was better than the other could get you beat up on the playground; today you'd get a disdainful "L" sign flashed at you and be altogether ignored.
Even fans who might care don't even realize the roll the American League is on at the moment. The White Sox and Red Sox have won the last eight straight World Series games. And the NL hasn't won an All-Star Game since fielding its vaunted Todd Worrell-Todd Hundley battery back in 1996.
These imperfect, but most glaring, indications of AL dominance gibe with the feelings of many industry insiders -- that the American League is the better league now and has been for years.
"The talent in the American League is better than the National League," said new Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, who spent the past several seasons with the Mariners. "I had the opportunity with Seattle last year to see some National League games, and thought it overall wasn't the same."
Objectively measuring "talent" is virtually impossible, as the season statistics by which we evaluate individual players are built in their own, relatively self-contained league spheres (i.e., Vladimir Guerrero is of course fantastic, but are his AL-helped stats a result of the DH, or worse pitchers, or...). Yet there are some ways to take a closer peek. Mainly, there's more competition between AL and NL teams than just midsummer and fall classics. It's called interleague play -- and the evidence there makes Sam Alito look committal.
In the 2,200 matchups since interleague play began in 1997, the National League has won 1,104 times, the American League 1,096. (Think about how even that is -- these guys have played almost 14 seasons' worth of games with records of 81.3 wins versus 80.7.) The AL did go 136-116 last year, but in the last three seasons combined it's almost a dead heat: NL 378 wins, AL 377.
"Star power" starts really muddling objectivity, but we can give it a shot. Let's look at last year's All-Star teams and try to use general consensus (please, no mail on this) to assess which league fields better players. (Such choices are indicated in ALL CAPS, and italics indicate pairs where neither stands much above the other.)
The National League wins here, seven players to six. The more interesting part is the types of players on here -- specifically, Beltran vs. Ramirez, Abreu vs. Guerrero. The National League's style of play appears either to call for or cultivate more well-rounded players. And let's face it, our impression of the American League's hitters and National League's pitchers will always be heightened by the DH or lack thereof, which affects statistics significantly. Separating one from the other is like trying to unravel a candy cane.
We all know that because of the DH rule, the American League sees more runs scored, so more RBI, higher ERAs, etc., for individual players. Correspondingly, the NL sees more sacrifices, steals and strikeouts. (Not to mention quicker games, thanks to pitchers' making outs but also fewer mid-inning pitching changes.) Some differences have been muted over the last 10 years -- principally due to player movement between leagues, ballpark changes and greater uniformity in umpiring -- but the leagues do remain somewhat distinct.
Ask almost any major-leaguer who has played in both leagues, and he'll tell you he prefers the National League environment. Mark McGwire was one such player when I asked him back in 1998, after he had recently moved over from Oakland to St. Louis.
"Definitely the National," he said. "Now I understand this is the way the game should be played. It's the way it started. They never had a DH way back when. Pitchers have to hit. Games are quicker. It's just such a better game. Managers have to think much more.
"When you're not playing that day, the chances are really good that you're going to get in the game because there are double switches, there's always pinch runners, there's always pinch hitters. It's just a better brand of baseball. Don't get me wrong -- I loved the American League for 11-plus years. But now that I've been over here, I understand why they call it the Senior Circuit."
The National League has always had a certain disdain for the American, ever since the AL became major league in 1901. New York Giants manager John McGraw had an open contempt for the rival league and famously refused to take on the AL-champion Boston Pilgrims in what would have been the 1904 World Series. (McGraw later so despised the pure slugging of an AL phenom named Babe Ruth, he sniped, "If he plays every day, the bum will hit into a hundred double plays before the season is over.")
McGraw would have been immensely proud during 1963-82, when his beloved National League won 19 of 20 All-Star Games. Perhaps it is no accident that this run coincided almost exactly with the career of Pete Rose -- and was aided, most symbolically, by Rose's shoulder-separating slide on Ray Fosse in 1970. The National League president prior to that was Warren Giles, who made it a point to exhort his troops before every face-off with the hated Americans.
"He really wanted to win the World Series every year, win the All-Star Game, draw more people than the American League, and at every All-Star Game he would go in the clubhouse and give the players a real pep talk about beating the other league," said Giles' son, Bill, later the controlling partner of the Phillies. "Even during the World Series, when we were flying charter flights in those days with executives from each league, he wanted the National League plane to take off first and land first."
By the late 1980s, though, the All-Star Game had ceded some of its allure, perhaps because of the growth of other sporting spectacles and various summertime diversions. The growing apathy spread to the players themselves. Contract bonuses began being the greatest reward for selection, and as union solidarity became commonplace, a certain chumminess painted over what had been fierce competition. The recent carrot of earning home-field advantage in the World Series helps, but only to a point.
"I think now," Gillick said, "people think, 'It's nice to win,' but there's a more cozy feeling than there used to be."
In the end, the most telling characteristic of the American League's recent dominance over the National is that nobody particularly cares. Quite a contrast from 1981, when first-time All-Star Dusty Baker walked into the NL clubhouse in Cleveland and was met immediately by one Pete Rose.
"We haven't lost to those guys in, like, nine years," Rose informed Baker, "and we aren't losing this year."
The NL did win, 5-4. Rose didn't score in that game. Perhaps he did afterward.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.