Separate lives

For those of you who are tired of Yankees-Red Sox talk (I am, and I’m a Red Sox fan) or any other media-hyped baseball event, I offer relief. This article is about all the non-rivalries, that is, the team matchups that have rarely existed. Baseball’s history is such that several teams’ successes have “missed” or “hit” each other more often than seems probable.

For example, the Indians and Braves have a fairly connected history, even though neither team has been wildly successful; it’s just that they were both good teams in the mid-1910s, the 1950s and the 1990s, with very little in between. The Tigers and Cardinals have a similar connection; the first three world championships in Detroit (1940, 1945, and 1968) were the year immediately after world championships in St. Louis, two of those from beating the Cards.

In contrast, the teams of this article—I’m only looking at the “original 16” franchises for simplicity’s sake—have lived primarily separate lives. (Hey, if Monsignor Treder is referencing Phil Collins this week and I’m the biggest Genesis/Phil fan at THT, I have to do one better, even if I hate the song I’m referencing.) In ranking them, I have assigned points to seasons where the two teams in question have been successful and therefore would be thought of together. I have done this for two types of seasons:

Two points are awarded when both teams finish the season within four games of a playoff spot. Obviously, teams that face each other in the World Series would count here, but any teams that were a long series away from getting to the playoffs count too, since four games either way is a very small gap and essentially flukish. The best example here is the 1908 season, exactly 100 years ago. Yes, the Cubs beat the Giants in a famous game in September, but the margin of difference is still one game.

What’s to say that World Series wouldn’t have been Tigers-Giants, or Indians-Pirates (the Indians finished a half-game behind the Tigers that year), or White Sox-Cubs? Four games was an easy margin to choose based on series length; it is slightly arbitrary, but it’s useful for these purposes. Every possible combination of the 120 team pairings has had at least one two-point season, with the last pairing being the Cubs and Phillies, who weren’t within four games of the playoffs in the same year until 2007.

One point is awarded when both teams are “relevant” in a given season. By relevant, I mean any team that was in the lead for a playoff spot at any time from June 1 onward, as the teams that hang around the top for a while usually have some stir made about them to the extent that you would tell the narrative of that season and mention them. Relevant teams from the “original 16” franchises this year would include the Red Sox, White Sox and Twins in the AL, and the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals and Phillies in the NL, and I have given the point for each pairing among them.

Since league histories are slightly different, and since this system inherently awards more points to interleague rivalries (if one team dominates its league, nobody else in that league will get points in the pairing, but that doesn’t stop rivalries in the other league), I have chosen the four AL, NL and interleague rivalries that have amassed the fewest points, with a few notes about each. Tiebreakers after points go to whoever had the fewest two-point seasons.

AL rivalries

#4: Indians-Tigers, 9 points (2 two-point seasons and 5 one-point seasons)
They may be close geographically, and they may have traded managers the one year, but there’s not a whole lot else to bind them. Their two-point seasons are 1908, with the half-game difference between them, and 1940, which is also fairly famous; I’ve detailed the latter here (subscribers only). Since 1940, the two teams have been relevant together twice: in 1961, when the Indians faded fast after being on top in June, and in 2007. Not that I’ve lived near either team, but I assume there’s at least some section of Ohio where you have fans of both teams creating a rivalry, but this one could be a lot more interesting than it has been.

#3: Orioles-Tigers, 9 points (7 and 1)
And their two-point season doesn’t even involve the Orioles … the 1944 race to the finish is all they have in terms of close races, though once again they have 1908 in common, as the Browns were in the hunt for a while. Since then, the relevant pairings have come back-to-back: 1972-73, 1982-83 and 1992-93. The O’s were too busy being Angelosized and the Tigers were too busy losing oodles of games in 2002-03, but here’s hoping they resume the streak next decade. Orioles in 2012!

#2: Orioles-Twins, 8 points (4 and 2)
This one is a little bit odd in that it’s all come in divisional play: the teams were in the first two AL Championship Series, and that was the first history between them. Like many AL matchups, the dominance of the Yankees meant that when they collapsed, the teams that had spent most of a half-century as irrelevant teams suddenly had reason to try, and the O’s and Twins were the first teams to win AL pennants post-Yankee collapse in the sixties. Still, less than 40 years is not a long time to make a rivalry, and it’s been sparse since then.

#1: Indians-Twins, 8 points (6 and 1)
These two teams have not been involved in a close race except in 1918, a war-shortened season that neither of them won. The AL pennant of course went to the Red Sox in a rather infamous world championship. Unlike most AL teams, the Indians do not have an Orioles/Twins type history after 1964; Cleveland’s chronology more closely resembles the Yankees’ than any other AL team. (Amazingly enough, by my system the Indians-Yankees rivalry is greater than the Red Sox-Yankees one and is the greatest AL rivalry; the former got 46 points and the latter 45.) Once the Twins got good, the Indians faded away. There’s a break in relevant seasons between 1930 and 1962 and also between 1965 and 2001. It seems like there might be more history to write in this one soon, but it hasn’t happened yet.

NL rivalries

#4: Cubs-Phillies, 15 points (13 and 1)
The general punching bags of the NL for many a year, it was only last year that they shared a two-point season. They’ve been relevant six times this decade, including this year, so they’ve been making up for lost time, but there was nothing in between 1917 and 1975 that would put them in the same story. It may be that the Ryne Sandberg trade is the biggest piece of history between these teams; that doesn’t say much if you’re a Phillies fan, but so it goes.

#3: Cubs-Reds, 12 points (10 and 1)
And this relevant season is barely relevant, too; the Cubs finished a few games out of the wild card in 1995, while the Reds made the playoffs. Had it not been for the 144-game season, it’s likely they’d still have no history together. They do share some contention runs that faded; seven of the relevant seasons are from 1967 to 1979, even though the Cubs didn’t make the playoffs in that time. There’s just not a lot to say about this one.

#2: Braves-Pirates, 10 points (6 and 2)
This one surprised me a bit, in that the Braves don’t show up anywhere else in this article, and that they had two consecutive NLCS pairings in the early ’90s. The trick is that those two years are the only two-point years they have; they didn’t even share a relevant season until 1932. For the bulk of their history since deadball, the Pirates just haven’t had a lot of success, most of it coming in the ’70s when the Braves were anything but. The two teams have been trading somewhat frequently in the past couple of years, which may lead to something down the road, but this one seems like it’s going to stay dead for a while.

#1: Phillies-Pirates, 7 points (5 and 1)
This one’s surprising to me as well, as the two teams won the NL East every year from 1970 to 1980 except for 1973 and since they’re in the same state (or commonwealth, technically). Five of the six seasons, including their only two-point season of 1978, are in the ten-year span from 1974 to 1983. The only other season? 1911, which was more Alexander and Wagner than it was Carlton and Stargell. The quarter-century since this potential rivalry mattered is the longest ongoing streak by far. There’s just no good way to hype this one; there’s nothing to go on. Maybe they could meet in Harrisburg for an intracommonwealth matchup or something? I’ll pass.

Interleague rivalries

#4: Indians-Pirates, 10 points (8 and 1)
This is one of my favorites in the bunch, for a few reasons. First, they’re only two hours apart, so the geography favors it; second, they’re in different leagues, so fans of one league or the other would be drawn to one team or the other; third, Neal Huntington and several Clevelanders have driven down the road to rehabilitate the Buccos; and fourth, it’s been exactly 100 years since their only two-point season. Cubs fans know 1908 well, but it’s also the only legitimate chance the Cleves and Pittses had to face each other in the World Series. Unlike several of these non-rivalries, there hasn’t been a 30-year drought between relevant seasons for these teams; they just can’t get anything started. It’s difficult to make a rivalry when these are your relevant seasons: ’08, ’21, ’26, ’38, ’48, ’60, ’66, ’74, and ’97. This one would be great if they could get their acts synchronized, but alas. Good luck to Neal and crew as they try to make this something worth having.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

#3: Twins-Phillies, 10 points (8 and 1)
This was the second-to-last rivalry to have a two-point season, getting its first in 2006. Like the Cubs-Phillies, six of the seasons have been in this decade, so this is likely to change soon (the other seasons are 1916, 1977, and 1984). Unlike the Cubs-Phillies, however, I can’t think of any major trade that binds them; all I’ve got is Eric Milton for Carlos Silva and Nick Punto, and although the Twins clearly got the best of that deal, I don’t think that’s one they’re remembering with inordinate fondness or anything. “Man, we fleeced the Phillies to get Nick Punto! What a third baseman!” Yeah, maybe not.

#2: Indians-Phillies, 9 points (3 and 3)
This one looks a whole lot like the Twins-Phillies, except that both teams have been a lot better at the same time in the 2000s, with all of their two-point seasons in this decade. The other three weren’t even close though; there’s 1916, which a lot of teams have in common (it’s the only two-pointer for the Braves-Tigers pairing); 1974, when the Indians faded quickly after July; and 1995, when the Phillies somehow stayed afloat on a rotation with Michael Mimbs and All-Star Tyler Green until the inevitable intervened (or maybe it inevited?). I guess this one could be the Jim Thome Connection, which sounds like a televangelist show from the ’80s. Could just be me, I suppose…

#1: Orioles-Cubs, 9 points (7 and 1)
Take two moribund franchises, stick ’em in a pot, and what do you get? Well, a bunch of confused imagery, but aside from that, you would get this matchup. Their only two-pointer is 1989, which could have pitted Frank Robinson against Don Zimmer in the World Series with teams that weren’t expected to succeed. For some reason, those two meeting in the World Series amuses me as an image, the star outfielder who was the first African-American manager in the majors, and the consummate scrappy utility guy of the same era for playing and managing, both of whom have hung around the game forever and neither of whom have been considered great managers. There’s just something Hollywoodish about the matchup (Denzel Washington as Frank Robinson?) … except that it didn’t happen. As you might have guessed, the other seasons are kind of bland to talk about. There’s 1908 again, there’s 1969-70, and that’s about it. So about 1989 again…

So the next time you hear about how every Red Sox-Yankees game matters more than all the other games that day, or how New York teams of the 1950s constituted the whole of relevant baseball back in the day, think of these matchups that have pretty much never mattered. There’s potential for some good regional rivalries in here, but it will take awhile to develop them. It may be that some of these are the big rivalries of the 21st century like the Yankees have had with just about everyone over the years, or it may be that we finally see an all-expansion-team World Series soon (Rays on D-backs, anyone?). Until then, these potential matchups lie dormant, with precious little in the history books that makes you think of them together.

References & Resources
B-ref, for pennant races, and the media at large for helping us ignore these matchups in favor of the next Yankees-Sox game.

Also, Genesis is always a reference for me. I wanted to call this article “Entangled,” since it’s the song before “Squonk” on the album and a great song, but unfortunately “Separate Lives” fit better. Sigh.

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