Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Battle of Lake Erie

I couldn't care less about the Pistons and Cavs, but I have watched the first two games of the Tigers-Indians series, and am currently watching the third (it's 5-3 Tribe in the top of the 8th). Just a lot to like about this series and presumptive pennant race, both for subjective and objective reasons.

Subjectively, I was a Tigers fan until I moved away from Michigan in 1985, and while the absence of Ernie Harwell and Alan Trammell mean that I no longer root for them, they are a part of my baseball DNA. At the same time, I have lived in Ohio for 13 of the past 16 years so, even if they'll never be my favorite team, the Indians have kind of grown on me, so I enjoy seeing them do well. In light of all of this, having the Tigers and the Indians competing for a title is a special treat indeed.

Unfortunately, this is the only year in my lifetime -- or even my father's lifetime -- in which that has been the case. With the exception of a handful of years in the mid 1990s when Detroit was in the AL East and the Indians were in the Central, the Tigers and Indians have always competed in the same division, and before that the same league. Despite this, it has been decades since the two teams have gotten their act together simultaneously.

Indeed, since 1941, either the Tigers or the Indians have won the flag for which the two have immediately competed -- be it the division or the league -- eleven times, with the Tigers winning the AL in 1945 and 1968, the AL East in 1972, 1984, and 1987, and the Central in 2006, and the Indians doing so in 1948, 1954, 1998, 1999, and 2001. In those eleven years, the closest the losing team came to the champ was when the Indians finished eleven back of the Tigers in 1945. The average number of games separating the two in those seasons has been 23.9 games.

One has to go back to 1940 to find the last time these two teams were in an honest to goodness pennant race. It was a good one. After the post-Gehrig Yankees faded by June and some pesky advances by the Red and White Sox were rebuffed, Cleveland and Detroit spent the rest of the summer neck-and-neck. Needing a win in the first of their season-ending three-game series in order to stay alive, Bob Feller, in arguably his greatest season, took the mound for the Indians. He didn't have his best stuff, however, and Rudy York took him deep twice. The Tigers clinched, mailed in the next two, and finished the season a game ahead of Cleveland.

It's far too early to say if we'll have similar drama on the shores of Lake Erie this year -- assuming that you can even call a race for the division title in the age of the wild card "dramatic" -- but these teams match up well. At press time, Cleveland and Detroit are 1-2 respectively in runs per game, and are flip-flopped at 7-8 in runs allowed. Both teams are out-performing their Pythagorean records by a skinch, but each look to be the real deal. While the Red Sox appear to be the class of baseball this year, a hard-fought, season-long battle between the Tigers and the Tribe may very well harden them up enough into something Boston can't handle.

At least I hope so, because I don't think humanity -- or our precious forests -- could take another Boston World Series title, and my Ohio and Michigan friends would all be quite happy.