INTERLEAGUE play has arrived once again as the Phillies prepare to play their natural American League rivals. That, of course, would be the Toronto Blue Jays. While waiting for the first pitch, please select the appropriate video clip from the following menu. Press 1 for Plague of Locusts. Press 2 for Doomsday Thunderclouds. Press 3 for Owners Sitting Around Counting Money.

Just teasing. All the arguments against this no-longer-novel novelty have been outlined before in this tiny little corner of the baseball universe. And yet, it continues. Press 3.

There will be, in fact, one series that just might make the whole thing worthwhile. It will begin tonight, when the Mets visit Yankee Stadium for the first of three games.

That's always a big deal in New York, where the residents tend to believe that Galileo was wrong and that all things revolve around the Big Apple instead of the sun. But it will be especially piquant this weekend.

The biggest reason is that Hank Steinbrenner has come into his own this season, proving himself every bit as blustery as his father, George, who made his reputation with demands, threats and intimidation.

The Baby Boss has been at the top of his game recently. He ripped into his players for not earning their huge salaries. "They're paid tremendous amounts of money," he told the Newark Star-Ledger. "That might not mean anything to the media because they're not paying it. But it means something to me. They have to start earning it."

He backed manager Joe Girardi and, in doing so, seemed to place lame-duck general manager Brian Cashman squarely in the crosshairs. "Joe is playing with the deck he's been dealt," Hank told the paper. "We'll fix it. If not this year, then next year."

And while he downplayed the decision not to give up prospects to get Johan Santana from the Twins and rely on youngsters like Phil Hughes (who is on the disabled list) and Ian Kennedy (who pitched his way back to the minors for two starts before being recalled), we will see.

The Mets pushed Santana (4-2, 3.10) back a day so he could face the Yankees tonight in the Bronx. If he dominates the Yankees, who have been largely punchless with Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada on the disabled list, Hank Steinbrenner's reaction alone could override all the faults of interleague play. At least this year.

The hot corner

* Mariners scout

Duane Shaffer

has been shadowing Cincinnati, reportedly watching

Ken Griffey Jr.

But Reds general manager

Walt Jocketty

said he has had no trade discussions. Best guess: Griffey isn't going anywhere until he hits the three homers he needs to reach 600 for his career.

* Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said on a radio show that he made another pitch to sign Barry Bonds, arguing that he would be ideal to bat behind Albert Pujols. "I think he would fit in. I don't think he'd be a problem," said La Russa, who added that ownership had vetoed the idea.

Around the bases

* Orioles closer

George Sherrill

wears his hat with the brim completely flat. Now that he has 15 saves, his teammates have taken to flipping up the brims of their caps in tribute as they shake hands after he nails down a win. "It's pretty funny. It's taken on a life of its own," Sherrill said.

* David Banner's video for "Get Like Me" features a cameo appearance by Barry Bonds. "Barry came fresh out of court to come holla at me. That's real," Banner told MTV News, according to the New York Daily News.

On deck

CHEERS: For Astros righthander Roy Oswalt. This guy has it made. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball. He's in the second season of a 5-year, $73 million contract. So what did he do after he twice failed to get a sacrifice bunt down Monday night?

He came out early on Tuesday and asked hitting coach Sean Berry to throw him 50 pitches so he could practice his bunting, that's what, even though nobody would have said boo to him if he hadn't.

Which helps explain why he's so good in the first place.

JEERS: For the Washington Nationals. It probably wasn't Mets righthander Nelson Figueroa's place to call them "softball girls" after outfielder Elijah Dukes started a chant for batter Lastings Milledge in the dugout during a 10-4 win Monday night.

But "Let's go, Mill-edge, let's go" followed by rhythmic clapping? Several Nats players privately admitted it was pretty bush league.

Even manager Manny Acta could barely bring himself to muster a defense. "You don't see it every day in the big leagues, but I don't think they were doing anything mean," he said.

BY THE NUMBERS:

8: Starts without a win or a loss for Houston's Shawn Chacon. That ties the major league record for most consecutive no-decisions at the beginning of a season. Chacon starts vs. Texas tonight.

11: Errors by Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo, who said that hasn't dented his confidence: "I'm one of the best shortstops in the league." Hmm.

13: Players originally signed by Washington and Oakland on this year's All-Star ballot, the most of any team. The Orioles and Giants have the fewest, with three each.

14: Unassisted tripleplays in major league history. After Indians second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera turned one Monday night, the Tribe has been involved in six of them.

19: Pitchers used by the Rockies in their first 40 games.

UP NEXT: The rich will keep getting richer. Agent Joe Bick made a couple of proposals to the Red Sox on behalf of client Kevin Youkilis during the offseason, but no deal was reached.

"Since then, a couple players have signed that made those proposals outdated," Bick told the Boston Globe. And that was before Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez got a 6-year, $70 million deal that's expected to be announced tomorrow and the Brewers gave leftfielder Ryan Braun $45 million for 8 years.

Weeklings

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Angels centerfielder Torii Hunter, on losing three straight to the surprising Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field: "You come in here and think you should get a sweep or at least win the series. Psych! They will knock you out. Come in here thinking you're the man, they'll knock you back to earth."

GIMMICK OF THE WEEK: Twins rightfielder Michael Cuddyer has been fitted for a special mouthpiece that is supposed to relax his jaw. That in turn is supposed to relax his face, shoulders and trapezius muscles, which the manufacturers claim is a key to athletic performance.

"[Red Sox slugger] Manny Ramirez is a big endorser of it," he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Seven Tigers are using it, a few Toronto players are using it and I thought, 'Well, I'll give it a shot.' "

INSPIRATION OF THE WEEK: Red Sox reliever Craig Hansen told the Boston Herald that he enjoys an obscure quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger so much that he not only memorized it but constantly writes it down on slips of paper to keep it fresh in his mind.

The quote: "Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardship and decide not to surrender, that is strength."

STAT OF THE WEEK: Indians starting pitchers have a 0.16 earned run average in their last seven games. Tribe pitching overall has five shutouts in the last nine games. The pitching has been so good that Cleveland has won six of its last seven games, and in the only loss, starter Cliff Lee pitched nine shutout innings before the Indians lost after he departed in the 10th.

Nobody is enjoying this more than pitching coach Carl Willis. "Mostly I'm just sitting there eating [sunflower] seeds," he said.

Finally

Every once in a while, a really nice story floats in over the transom. Like the one about

Luke Carlin

, a 27-year-old career minor league backup catcher who found himself making his major league debut for the Padres Saturday night.

That would have been memorable enough, but he ended up being behind the plate for Greg Maddux' 350th career win as well as a save by Trevor Hoffman.

"When [Hoffman] was coming in I turned to [plate umpire] Ed Hickox and said, 'Can you believe this is my first game in the major leagues and I'm catching two Hall of Famers?' I couldn't have asked for a better story," he told reporters. *