Yes, the novelty wore off a bit.

Still, interleague play remained a hit at the box office this year, with an average attendance of 31,447, up 16 percent from the average of 27,152 for intraleague games."It was so obvious that people enjoyed it again everywhere," commissioner-to-be Bud Selig said Friday. "It's a permanent part of our landscape. It's fun."

Players and owners have essentially agreed to a one-year extension of interleague play, a management lawyer familiar with the talks said on the condition he not be identified.

And it looks like big rivalries will be expanded next season, with the Mets and Yankees, Cubs and White Sox, Dodgers and Angels, Giants and Athletics, Blue Jays and Expos all playing six games against each other rather than three.

On Thursday, during the same meeting in which they take the commissioner vote, they will approve the 1999 schedule format. Selig says the intracity rivalries have produced the most exciting interleague games.

"The internal drama in the stadiums has been the biggest plus," he said.

So let's look at what happened this year, the second season of interleague play, which technically remains an "experiment."

AL teams beat the NL 114-110 (.509), a reversal of the NL's 117-97 (.547) margin last year. The New York Yankees, who have beaten up on AL opponents this season, also had the best interleague record, going 13-3. Houston was next at 10-4, followed by Anaheim and Cleveland, both 10-6.

St. Louis had the worst record at 4-9, followed by Baltimore and Tampa Bay, each 5-11.

Vinny Castilla of the Rockies had the highest average at .435, followed by Texas' Will Clark at .431, San Francisco's Stan Javier at .421 and Anaheim's Darin Erstad at .420.

Ken Griffey Jr. led in home runs with 10, followed by Carlos Delgado, Tino Martinez and Rafael Palmeiro with seven each. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were among seven players with six apiece.

Cecil Fielder, reviving after an awful start, tied with Martinez for the RBIs lead with 21, followed by Albert Belle and Jim Thome with 19 each.

AL teams hit .286 at home, up from .275 last year, and their road average increased to .261 from .245. NL teams dropped to .265 from .278 at home and went down one point to .267 on the road.

AL pitchers hit .126, up from .106 last year, but had just eight RBIs. NL pitchers hit .152, a drop of 13 points, and drove in 19 runs.

AL designated hitters hit .300 with 13 homers and 57 RBIs, while NL DHs hit .221 with 10 homers and 58 RBIs.

Twelve pitchers went 3-0, the best mark in interleague play: Tim Belcher, Dave Burba, Bartolo Colon, David Cone, Cal Eldred, Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza, Albie Lopez, Greg Maddux, Shane Reynolds, Bret Saberhagen and Bill Swift.

Chan-Ho Park of the Dodgers had the best ERA among qualifying pitchers at 0.55, followed by the Yankees' David Wells at 0.56 and Maddux at 0.82.

HELP! Peter Angelos has given the Baltimore Orioles two weeks to turn their season around. If not, it's trade time for some of the veterans.

Manager Ray Miller would likely drop Pete Smith and his 9.50 ERA from the starting rotation. But with two starters on the disabled list, it appears as if Miller doesn't have much choice but to give the struggling right-hander another start after the All-Star break.

Smith gave up four runs, five hits and four walks Wednesday night in a 5-3 loss to the Florida Marlins. He also threw two wild pitches and committed a balk.

"He knows he's got to do better and he wants to, but he's got to throw more strikes," Miller said. "He'd probably be pretty good in the middle relief role, but that doesn't solve the starting prob-lems."

Doug Johns took over for Smith on Wednesday and allowed only one run in five innings, thereby solidifying his spot in the bullpen.

"I'd like to keep Doug Johns where he's at," Miller said, "because when things are in such disarray and you have so many injuries, you'd like to have something solid, something that you can count on."

RATINGS GAME: Interleague play has produced some of baseball's best regular-season TV ratings in years.

The Mets-Yankees game last Saturday got a 3.4 rating, Fox's second-highest for a regular-season game. The Mets-Yankees game last Sunday night got a 4.3 cable rating, ESPN's highest for a regular-season game since Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games on Sept. 6, 1995 (that one got a 7.5).

It also was the highest-rated Sunday night game on ESPN since 1991, when a Dodgers-Giants game got a 4.5.