Tigers are closing in on Indians in AL race that started more than a century ago

detroit-cleveland-al-standingsThe Detroit Tigers have almost caught the Cleveland Indians.

In a back-and-forth race that has spanned more than a century, the Tigers are just five games behind the Indians in the standings. That’s the all-time American League standings. In the AL Central Division race, the Tigs enjoy a lead over the ballclub from Cleveland, of course. But we’re talking about a much larger cosmic scoreboard here.

Both the Tigers and Indians came into the American League from the get-go, in 1901. Back then, the Detroiters were known as the “Tigers” informally thanks to their striped socks. The Cleveland Nine were called the Blues back then during the McKinley administration. Many things have changed in the intervening 112 years, but amazingly, the AL counterparts find themselves neck-and-neck on the all-time tally sheet. Entering Wednesday, August 28, the Indians have won 8,910 games, while the Tigers have won 8,905. A weekend series in Detroit that starts Friday could give the Bengals a chance to pounce even closer to their rivals from the shore of Lake Erie.

It’s not always been this way – the recent success of the Tigers in the Leyland Era has brought the franchise back within striking distance of the Clevelanders. At the end of the 2005 season, the Indians held an 81-game advantage over our Tigers. They built that lead after a 12-year stretch of dominance beginning in 1994 that included six Central division titles. During the same time, the Tigers were playing more like pussycats – limping through 12 straight losing seasons – the longest period of losing in team history. In ’03 they lost 119 games, allowing the Indians to increase their all-time lead over Detroit to 51 games. Ironically, for more than two decades, starting in the late 1970s, the Indians had been chasing the Tigers, falling as far back as 187 games. But their powerful ’90s teams, led by Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome, and others, erased that deficit.

But here we are now, the Tigers just a few games behind the Tribe after putting together winning seasons in six of the last seven years. In the last four seasons the Tigers have posted more wins than the Indians, but with new manager Terry Francona now in Cleveland, the winning seems to have returned to the Indians.

As has been the case throughout their history in the Junior Circuit, it’s likely that the two clubs will dance back and forth, trading spots on the all-time win list in future years. The all-time win list has the Yankees on top (they’ve been big winners since the era of Ruth and Gehrig in the 1920s), with the Red Sox second. The Tigers and Indians are jostling for third place among the eight original AL franchises. The White Sox, Orioles (formerly the St. Louis Browns), Twins (descendents of the Washington Senators), and Athletics round out the originals.

Rarely over the years have the Tigers and Indians been really good at the same time. It almost seems that every time one of the teams went up, the other went down, like reluctant partners on a teeter-totter. In the 1930s the Tigers won two pennants, while  the Indians were mediocre. In the first half of the ’40s the Tigs won two more pennants, and the Tribe won one in ’48. In the 1950s the Tigers were pretty bad, while Cleveland had some great teams but finished second to the Yanks almost every year. Detroit gained ground on Cleveland in the 60s and 70s, and in the 1980s the Tigs were back on top, but the Indians were mediocre again. Twice – in 1908 and 1940 – the Indians finished second to the Tigers in close pennant races, but beside those two instances a very long time ago, the two teams have rarely played meaningful games against each other late in the season. The most thrilling events in the history of these two teams are the 1910 batting race that was won by Ty Cobb despite efforts to throw it to Cleveland’s Napolean Lajoie, the famous pitching duels between Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser in the 1940s, and the trade that sent home run king Rocky Colavito to Detroit for batting champ Harvey Kuenn. But those things are ancient history. Probably the most historic game played between Detroit and Cleveland was the infamous Armando Galarraga “imperfect” perfect game three years ago.

Two years ago, in 2011, the Tigs and Indians stalked each other for the first four months of the season – it was the first time in more than seven decades that they were in 1st and 2nd place as late as July 31. Then, Detroit pulled away and won the division by 15 games, winning their last 10 games against Cleveland. The “race” was over by September 1.

The two teams may not have a real race for first place this year either, since Detroit has a lead of 5 1/2 going into tonight’s games. But even if they don’t, there’s always the 113-year battle that you’re now aware of. As the Tigers close in on Cleveland, that subplot adds a layer of nostalgic intrigue to this baseball season.