CINCINNATI — Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo walked through the Reds clubhouse with five reporters following, shooting a segment on his quick success in Cincinnati.
“Oh!” second baseman Brandon Phillips yelled. “It’s the Choo-Choo train!”
Funny, and fitting. The leadoff hitter has been the engine driving Cincinnati’s early success on offense. And he gets to pull into a familiar station as interleague play resumes on Monday.
Ohio’s two major league teams are meeting again, this time with a Korean tie that binds them and a few reasons for each of them to be looking up — or looking down, if they happen to be glancing at the standings.
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The two shoreline teams — the Indians by Lake Erie, the Reds by the banks of the Ohio River — play a first-ever four-game series this week, starting Monday. The first two are in Cincinnati, followed by two more in Cleveland.
Both teams are doing quite well, which has rarely been the case when they get together. The Indians are second in the AL Central, the Reds second in the NL Central.
“It’s nice to see the Indians doing well,” said Phillips, who took a long time to get over being traded by Cleveland in 2006. “I can thank the Indians, and the Reds can thank them for bringing me and Choo over here.”
The Reds got Choo from Cleveland last December as part of a deal that sent center fielder Drew Stubbs to the Indians. So far, the deal is working out well for both sides.
It’s not often like that.
Since interleague play started in 1997, this is only the fifth year in which both teams are in first or second place when they meet, according to STATS.
Last year, the Reds swept their three-game series at Great American Ball Park and the Indians swept three at Progressive Field, leaving Cleveland with a 42-39 edge.
Their series last year marked the first time that both teams were in first place. The Reds went on to win the NL Central for the second time in three years. The Indians won only five games in August and finished 20 games out with 94 losses.
Unlike same-city rivalries — the Mets and Yankees, the White Sox and Cubs, the Angels and Dodgers — this one involves two teams with distinct fan bases and 250 miles separating them. It’s more novelty than a grudge match.
“It’s just two good teams playing against each other who happen to be in the same state,” Indians pitcher Justin Masterson said. “I think the National League-American League thing, it’s not (big) for the players. It’s not as big and as crazy as what some would think.
“It would be just because you’re in the same state, but it’s not like (we’re) in the same division or anything like that.”
Their shared history goes right back to the beginning of professional baseball. On June 2, 1869, Cleveland’s first pro team — the Forest Citys — played the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Cincinnati became a charter member of the National League in 1876, Cleveland joined it three years later.
Nobody has looked forward to the intrastate series more than Phillips, who was bitter at the Indians for trading him in 2006. Phillips has batted .352 against Cleveland with nine homers and 31 runs batted in.
The All-Star second baseman has mellowed, in part because those who traded him are long gone.
“They’re not there anymore, so now it’s just about going out and playing the game and not worrying about things,” Phillips said. “That’s what it was all about — showing those guys that they gave up on me at a young age.”
The Reds are trying for their third playoff appearance in four years. Choo hopes his former team makes it, too.
“I hope they play good all year,” Choo said. “The last three or four years, they’d play good the first half and the start of the second go down. But I think they’re a better team this year. It looks like it.”