Imagining a rivalry between former A.L. East foes
by Matthew Taylor
Familiarity breeds contempt, so baseball’s biggest rivals often share the same division. Sure, there are the natural geographic rivalries created by Interleague play, but let’s face it, each team’s truest rivals typically are the ones that they face most often. Which do Yankee fans chant more often: “Red Sox Suck” or “Mets Suck”? So just imagine what could’ve been between the Orioles and their opponent this week, the Cleveland Indians, had baseball not reconfigured its divisional alignment in the early nineties.
Until 1993, the O’s shared the Eastern Division with the Indians. With the advent of the Central Division in 1994, the teams’ direct divisional competition ended. And while the Brewers (’94) and Tigers (’98) ultimately left the A.L. East as well, Cleveland would’ve made for the best rival among those teams.
Consider the still-somewhat-recent shared history of the two teams. In 1996, the Wild Card Orioles, winners of 88 games, took down the 99-win Indians juggernaut in the Division Series. A year later, with Birds fans still exuberant about the Yankees’ first-round playoff loss, the 86-win Indians returned the favor by defeating the 98-win Orioles in a dramatic, six-game ALCS.
I stood and cheered for the 1997 ALCS Champion Cleveland Indians as they piled up on the pitcher’s mound at Camden Yards. Would I have done the same if they still played in the East and fueled a more consistent spring of frustration? I’d like to think so, but I’m not certain.
Then there are the players who have changed their allegiances among the two teams, either by choice or by circumstance. Orioles ace Mike Mussina may have traded in his Orange and Black for pinstripes, but is that really any worse than Jeff “Mickey” Manto becoming an Indian? Who’s hat would Manto, ahem, wear in the Hall of Fame? Okay, bad example.
Instead, think about the Roberto Alomars and the Albert Belles of Cleveland and Baltimore’s shared baseball universe. And what about Wednesday’s winning pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie? Imagine how Indians fans would have reacted to Dave Trembley’s words if this rivalry had ever truly been given a chance to blossom.
“I kind of had a sense of what this has meant to Guthrie, this entire process over the last year and this year. I think he has established for himself, and for our team, an identity as an Oriole.”
Given a more heated rivalry between the O’s and Indians, this would’ve been another case of everything turning out right for the enemy, another trash-to-treasure fairy tale that warrants the most fan attention – and frustration – when it happens for the bad guy.
And there are a number of other factors that would give this hypothetical steak of a rivalry its sizzle:
–The similarities between the team’s two “retro” stadiums. Jacobs Field is essentially Camden Yards minus the Warehouse plus a bell here, a whistle there. There would surely be an “I’ve become what I hate” motif in there somewhere were these teams to still share a division.
–The existence of a divisional baseball rivalry that would match the divisional football rivalry. That’d be enough for almost year-round animosity between the two cities.
–The animosity generated by the Browns’ move to Baltimore and the Ravens’ subsequent Super Bowl victory. Can’t you just hear the chants in Baltimore of “19-64,” regardless of the sport? Check out Countdown to a Cleveland Championship if you want to know how much that one would sting for Cleveland fans.
–The O’s recent struggles against the Indians. Granted, we’ve struggled against most teams for more than a decade now, but check out the Birds’ win percentage since 2005 against all of the teams from the old A.L. East (see graphic below). The Indians have treated us worse than have the Yankees and nearly as bad as have the Red Sox.
Heck, fans of the two teams could even fight over popular culture: Major League II – featuring the Indians, but filmed in Baltimore.
The truth is that I find Cleveland to be an endearing sports city. The fans support their teams through thick and thin, riding a rickshaw when there’s nary a bandwagon in sight.
But given the chance to imagine “The Rivalry That Could Have Been,” I wonder exactly how thin that proverbial line between love and hate would turn out to be.
O’s Record Versus Teams from the 1993 A.L. East