Was last year, when the Tigers beat back the Indians by one game to win the Central Division, the start of a long overdue rivalry between two franchises separated by only 90 miles (as the crow flies)?
Michigan and Ohio have always been natural rivals. They share a border. They were involved in something called the Toledo War (really). And of course there is the legendary college rivalry that simmers year long but boils over in the late fall. Michigan is automobiles and cherry trees, Motown and beaches, and the color blue (think Tigers, Lions, Wolverines). Ohio is rubber and Buckeye trees, rock and roll and roller coasters, and the color red (think Indians, Reds, and Ohio State).
In the summer and early fall, however, when the Tigers and Indians vie for the same prize, as they have done for more than a century, mention of either team to the other team’s fan base usually elicits nothing more than a shrug. And that is remarkable—until you consider the facts. The Tigers and Indians historical series has lacked the dynamics that fuel the hatred and bitterness of most rivalries. You can’t have a great rivalry without contempt.
The Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians are charter members of the American League. They have been playing major league baseball in the same league since before the Wright brothers and the mass production of the automobile. They have been competing for the same playoff spot for 108 of the 113 years they have shared the same league or division. Yet, before the 2007 season the Tigers and Indians had gone 67 years without finishing one and two in the standings. To put it another way, two generations of Detroit and Cleveland baseball fans had never experienced even one pennant race between the two. An entire lifetime of Tigers and Indians supporters lacked any concrete reason to despise each other.
In the last century, the Tigers and Indians were just never in sync. When the Tigers were really good the Indians were not. And when the Indians ruled the Tigers drooled. The Tigers won pennants in the aughts, the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, and 1980s. The Indians were strong in the late teens, in 1920, the 1940s, 1950s, and 1990s. Only in the ’40s were the Tigers and Indians competitive at the same time, although that only produced one down-to-the-wire pennant race (1940, which the Tigers won by a game). Before that the two regional foes had finished one-two only once before, in 1908 when the Tigers topped the Indians by a half game.
It’s not just two-team pennant races that were missing. From 1901 to 1968, when baseball consisted of just the American and National Leagues, the Tigers and Indians both finished among the top three in the American League only seven times (including the above referenced 1908 and 1940). None of the other five seasons featured a heated three-way battle for first. And in the entire history of the old AL East, which ran from 1969-1993, not a single time did Detroit and Cleveland both finish among the top three in the league.
The reasons for all this are manifold but not really important. (It should be noted, in fairness, that the Yankees’ dominance of the American League throughout the last century clearly limited pennant race opportunities between other AL franchises.) Let’s just call it a quirk of history, an anomaly that has kept a nozzle on a rivalry that could pay dividends for both franchises.
Since 2007, when the Tigers finished second to the Indians for the only time in history, the two have finished at the top more frequently. The Tigers bested the Tribe in 2011 and again in 2013. Last year’s triumph over the Indians by the narrowest of margins certainly fits the definition of a pennant race. But for both teams the race never felt that close. The Tigers always seemed in total control. Every small step forward by the Indians was met by a quick and decisive counteroffensive by the Tigers (the Tigers won the season series 15-4, outscoring the Tribe by 50 runs). The race just didn’t feel like much of a race, certainly not in the classic sense. The same could be said of the races in 2007 and 2011.
This year, however, may finally be the season in which the Tigers and Indians, for the first time since 1940, are involved in a throat-tightening, sweat-drenched pennant race that goes down to the final days. The type of pennant race that causes absolute joy for the winner and abject misery for the loser. And if this could be become a regular thing, it would be boon for both franchises.
When the Red Sox are down, games against the Yankees still matter. Cubs fans have suffered too many seasons when nothing mattered—but a victory over the Cardinals always brightens the mood on the Northside of Chicago. Dodgers-Giants games generate strong interest and attendance under any circumstances. Some good-natured enmity between the Tigers and Indians could help both franchise in good times, and perhaps more importantly, in bad times. Every franchise cycles up and down. But rivalries burn forever and can help maintain interest, at least for a few dates each year, during those inevitable periods when there are more gray than blue skies.