The next to 9,000: Tigers, Indians race to victory milestone

In their 114th season in the American League and after more than 17,000 games played each, only a few wins separate the Indians and Tigers.

In their 114th season in the American League and after more than 17,000 games played each, only a few wins separate the Indians and Tigers.

Much has changed in the last 114 years, obviously. But prior to Friday’s game between the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers, the two teams were almost exactly where they were way back in 1901.

Entering the game at Comerica Park on Friday, the Tigers had 8,974 victories to their credit. The Indians had 8,978, just four more. A sweep by Detroit in this four-game series would make them even. Of course that can’t happen now, as the Tribe has won the first three games, including a sweep of yesterday’s split day/night doubleheader. Still, the two teams are hovering around each other, both marching toward 9,000 wins.

Only two American League teams have won as many as 9,000 games: the New York Yankees (who need just four more to reach 10,000), and the Boston Red Sox. The American League began in 1901 with eight charter franchises. The four others — the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s (previously located in Philadelphia and Kansas City), Minnesota Twins (formerly the Washington Senators), and Baltimore Orioles (once the St. Louis Browns) trail the Yanks, Bosox, Tribe, and Tigers.

Over the years the Indians and Tigers have crossed paths in interesting ways. In 1906 the Tigers offered young outfielder Ty Cobb to Cleveland for an outfielder named Elmer Flick, who could handle a bat as well as Ichiro Suzuki. The Indians declined to make the trade and Cobb went on to make them regret their decision. Cobb’s biggest rival for batting supremacy for many years in the league was Tris Speaker, who spent years in Cleveland. The two were friends and went on hunting trips together in the offseason. But they were also rivals — when Speaker won a World Series with Cleveland in 1920 as a player/manager, it spurred Cobb to make a run at that same role for Detroit. The two were linked in a bad way too — a jealous former Tiger tattled on Ty and Tris’s plan to bet and throw a meaningless late-season game, resulting in an embarrassment for the two stars. In the 1940s, the best pitchers in all of baseball were Cleveland’s right-hander Bob Feller, and Detroit’s lefty Hal Newhouser. The pair matched off against each other in epic battles, Newhouser often getting the better of it. In 1960 the Tigs and Tribe hooked up for two of the most famous trades in baseball history. In April, Detroit shipped batting champion Harvey Kuenn to the shore of Lake Erie for Rocky Colavito, the league home run champion. A few months later, the two teams swapped managers.

Still, the two franchises haven’t always been bunched together on the win-list. As recently as 2000, the Tigs held a lead on the Tribe, but the lean years of 1993-2005 allowed the Indians to catch and pass Detroit on the all-time win ledger. In 1993 the Tigers held a 187-game lead on Cleveland, then came the great Indians teams of Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel etc. and the Indians made it to two World Series in the 1990s. Some Tigers’ fans can surely recall the appalling spectacle of Cleveland fans travelling north to pack Tiger Stadium, cheering on their team to chants of “Let’s Go Indians!” It was the Randy Smith Era in Motown and a myriad of lackluster managers (remember Larry Parrish and Luis Pujols?) guided the team nowhere fast. The Indians chewed up the deficit and caught the Tigers.

But then in 2006 the Tigers started a new era under Jim Leyland, capturing the pennant and shaving 17 games off their win deficit to the Indians. In every season since 2009, Detroit has won more games than Cleveland, even last season when they won the division by a single game ahead of the Tribe. They entered 2014 10 games back of their rivals from Ohio.

Throughout much of the history of what baseball historians call “The Junior Circuit,” the Tigers and Indians have battled for second or third billing behind the Yankees, who started their almost uninterrupted dynasty in 1921 with a young, trim slugger named George. But everyone called him Babe. After the ’42 season, with more than four decades together in the league, only one win separated the Tribe and Tigers. Detroit built a modest lead in the 1940s and then the Indians were the far better team in the 1950s. In the 1960s the Tigers clawed back, and after winning 31 more games than Cleveland in 1971, Detroit held a 3-game lead in the all-time standings. When Detroit built a good team in the late 1970s and 1980s, they pushed ahead of Cleveland, who was going through one of the worst spells in franchise history.

Now, after more jostling, the Tribe’s glory of the 1990s, and Detroit’s dominance in the last half-decade, the two teams stand nearly even. The Indians need just 18 more wins to reach 9,000, but there’s no reason Detroit couldn’t get their first.

It will be much harder for the Tigers to pass the Indians on the all-time win list this season, however. They will need to win 11 more games than the Indians, and every head-to-head game will be important. Given the Tigs’ star-studded roster and stranglehold on the AL Central, it seems likely that the Tigers will slide past the Indians again, probably early in 2015.

And what about the 9,000th win in Detroit Tigers’ history? That will probably occur in early September.  A peek at the schedule