DETROIT - Sitting in his office on a sunny March 1 afternoon, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland was puffing on his customary post-game Marlboro and talking about the team which sat in the opposing dugout earlier that day.
His Tigers had just hosted the Cleveland Indians in a spring-training game which, perhaps fittingly, finished in a 3-3 tie. Heading into the 2008 season, which begins today for both clubs, these two American League Central Division contenders seem evenly matched.
"I'm not one of those guys who gets corny pumping up the opposition, but I'm impressed with them," Leyland said of the Indians.
The Tigers, an already talented bunch who loaded up on even more star power to overtake the Indians as AL Central champs, clearly respect the Tribe. And the
Indians, who definitely noticed the moves Detroit made this offseason, recognize Detroit as a formidable foe in their quest to retain their division crown.
"It's going to be tough," Cleveland pitcher C.C. Sabathia said of pitching to a Tigers lineup that added Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria to a group that already included stars like Magglio Ordonez, Garry Sheffield and Ivan Rodriguez. "But it was tough last year."
Somewhere in all of this warm and fuzzy rhetoric is a budding rivalry between these two teams, and the players are well aware of that too.
Unless a collapse unforeseen by most national pundits occurs with the Tigers or Indians, the two clubs figure to be fighting it out again for a pennant deep into September.
Last year Cleveland played Detroit 18 times and won 12, finishing eight games ahead of the Tigers for first place. The division could easily come down to the Indians' head-to-head matchup with Detroit this year, as the two clubs are scheduled for 18 games, with the first scheduled for April 16 in Cleveland.
The Tigers, who will host the Kansas City Royals at 1:05 p.m. today, are a team hungry to return to the World Series after last getting there in 2006. They partially blew up their farm system last winter to acquire big names capable of helping them win now.
The Indians, meanwhile, are the defending champs who finished one win away from the World Series last year, and are a team made up mostly of core players who have been together for years. They will host the Chicago White Sox at 3:05 p.m. today.
Detroit and Cleveland took opposite approaches to achieve the same goal - which is to edge the other out for first place en route to a World Series.
"Obviously, yeah, it is a rivalry," Sheffield said. "I think that's [our] rivalry, but I'm sure every team in this division feels like they've got to go through the Indians."
The Indians-Tigers rivalry is not like the Red Sox-Yankees feud, or, if you prefer, the Ohio State-Michigan battle. This is true primarily because, well, the players in this case kind of like each other.
Sabathia and new Tigers pitcher Dontrelle Willis have been friends for years, dating back to their days growing up near Oakland. And during spring training, Indians all-star center fielder Grady Sizemore and his Tigers counterpart, Curtis Granderson, both spoke of a friendly rivalry between the two based on the constant comparisons people make between them.
"You can consider it a rivalry on the field, but guys get along so well off the field that it's not like us and the [Minnesota] Twins a couple years ago, where it could be bench clearing at anytime," Sabathia said. "It's nothing like that, but it's definitely a big rivalry when we get out there on the field."
Sizemore is quick to remind people that the Twins won the AL Central in 2006, and the White Sox were World Series champs in 2005. Sizemore said that labeling the Indians and Tigers as superior to the rest of the division now was premature, but he acknowledges his team will have its eye on Detroit.
"It goes without saying, everyone in this clubhouse respects the Tigers and knows what they're capable of," Sizemore said.
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