Time to encourage Indians-Pirates rivalry

I grew up in the small town of Hermitage, Pa., which is situated on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border about midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. I watched people almost come to blows over the storied Steelers-Browns rivalry, yet saw people treat the Indians and Pirates with indifference. Obviously a big part of this is due to the fact that the baseball teams are not only in separate divisions, but separate leagues. Yet I still don’t think that fully explains the lack of any developed rivalry between the Tribe and the Bucs. There is still plenty of animosity between crosstown interleague rivalries in New York and Chicago, and even cross-state in Missouri and Texas. I’m not necessarily complaining; I’m mostly indifferent about football, and can therefore enjoy both the Indians and Pirates in peace without harassment. At the same time, I can’t help but think that Major League Basball is missing out on a great opportunity to encourage a rivalry between two teams just 133 miles apart.

The Indians' brass seems to prefer their cross-state rivalry with the Cincinnati Reds in the battle for the Ohio Cup, while the Pirates don’t have a true interleague rival. I think one of the big reasons that an interleague rivalry never developed between the Indians and Pirates was because neither team has really been good at the same time. Since interleague play began in 1997, the Pirates haven’t had a season when the team even played .500 baseball; you’d have to go back to 1992 to find the last time the Pirates finished a year above .500. The Indians have made the playoffs five times since interleague play began, but were still terrible in the early 1990s when the Pirates made their last trips to the playoffs.

For a portion of 2011 and thus far in 2012, the Indians and Pirates have both been in contention. Whether they can maintain their positions through the end of the season has yet to be determined. While both had high hopes in 2011 and were buyers at the trade deadline, the end result was anything but a close race for the Tribe or the Bucs. When the two teams square off at Progressive Field this weekend, both teams will hope to creep closer to first place in their respective divisions. Both teams have something on the line when they meet this year.

There are myriad connections between the Indians and Pirates on the field, in the front office, and even in their recent past. The Pirates are a team that has survived throughout the 2012 season based on the strength of their pitching. Even though their offense is much improved over the past couple of weeks, they still are last in baseball in runs scored. The Indians’ offense has struggled at times as well, and the team has often gotten help from their strong bullpen in order to close out victories.

Both teams have a mix of exciting young stars and prospects -- Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor in Cleveland; Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon for Pittsburgh. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington spent a number of years in Cleveland’s front office, eventually serving as assistant general manager and special assistant to the general manager at the time, Mark Shapiro. The Pirates and the Indians also suffered crushing Game 7 walk-off losses: the Pirates in 1992 against the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, and the Indians in 1997 against the Florida Marlins in the World Series. Both teams saw their title hopes crushed by the Atlanta Braves in that decade (the Indians in the 1995 World Series).

When baseball decided to whittle the National League Central down to five teams, the most logical solution was to move Houston to the American League West. This also amplifies the already cross-state rivalry between the Rangers and the Astros. But think about what would have happened if MLB found a way to move the Pirates to the AL Central. Not only would you establish a true rivalry with the Indians, but with the Detroit Tigers as well. Why would a rivalry with the Tigers be significant, apart from their geographical proximity to the Pirates? Several members of the Tigers coaching staff have connections to the great Pirates teams of the early 1990s. Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont and Lloyd McClendon all managed the Pirates; Leyland from 1986 to 1996, Lamont from 1997 to 2000, McClendon from 2001-2005. Former Pirates player Rafael Belliard is also on the Tigers’ coaching staff.

There will undoubtedly be people who scoff at the Indians-Pirates series this weekend, who think there is nothing of interest between a team that hasn’t had a winning season in 19 years and a team that hasn’t won a World Series since Harry Truman was in the Oval Office. (Not to mention the fact that both crumbled in the second half of 2011.) Despite the fact that the Indians and Pirates both had bad weeks against the Reds and Orioles respectively, this still has a chance to be an exciting matchup. Optimistically, one hopes that the Indians and Pirates both have bright futures ahead of them. It would be the ultimate interleague battle for the pair to meet up in October a few years down the road.

Stephanie Liscio writes for the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog on the Indians.