And the contenders are....

BOB ELLIOTT

, Last Updated: 7:25 AM ET

NATIONAL LEAGUE

It really did happen.

We found it on Page 7 of the New York Times.

You can look it up:

"By defeating Detroit this afternoon 2-0 the Chicago team of the National League retained the title as the champions of the world."

The date was Oct. 14, 1908.

"The Chicago team, according to the critics and the results, showed superiority in every department of the games and in the series as a whole ..."

No one has written those words about Chicago's National League team since it won 100 years ago. Since then? Nada for the Chicago Cubs.

This season they start with a new right fielder in Kosuke Fukudome; top prospect Felix Pie, yet to show he can hit, in centre; rookie catcher Geovany Soto; and a bold prediction from Canadian closer-turned-starter Ryan Dempster that "the Cubs will win it all."

Elsewhere, around the top of the standings the New York Mets have a long way to go, despite Johan Santana's arrival, so the Atlanta Braves will battle the Philadelphia Phillies for the East. The Colorado Rockies and the Los Angeles Dodgers will contend for the West.

Cubs manager Lou Piniella is hoping to break the streak and maybe will speak as Cubs manager Frank Chance did 100 years ago when he said of the Tigers: "Manager Hugh Jennings has a great team, but I think the Chicago team is greater. Our team is the greatest that I ever saw on a baseball field. I firmly believe no team could have beaten us with the kind of ball we play in the world championship series."

Lovable losers for decades, the Cubs can't match Red Sox Nation in heartbreak, Billy Buckner bobbles, or cruel and unusual suffering.

They're like the Leafs with ownership turning a profit without winning. The Cubs have not reached the Series since 1945 when they lost to the same Detroit Tigers. They have had their share of near misses:

- In 2004, they led the wild-card race on Sept. 23, only to lose eight of the final 10 to finish behind the Houston Astros.

- Up 3-2 in the best-of-seven 2003 National League championship series, the Cubs were ahead 3-0 on the Florida Marlins in Game 6 -- five outs from a Series berth. Moises Alou reached into the seats to grab a Luis Castillo foul fly to left, but fan Steve Bartman got in his way. After Alex Gonzalez failed to turn a double-play ball the ivy turned colours and 10 hitters later the Marlins had scored eight.

- Popular Mark Grace was not tendered a contract by Cubs in 2000. He signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the 2001 Series.

- The 1998 Cubs lost the final day of the season when Brant Brown misjudged a fly ball, beat the San Francisco Giants in a one-game playoff and were swept by the Braves and ex-Cub Greg Maddux.

- Up 2-0 in the best-of-five 1984 NLCS the Cubs dropped two to the San Diego Padres and led 3-2 in the seventh in Game 5. First baseman Leon Durham booted Tim Flannery's grounder and Tony Gwynn doubled. Warm up the bus. Game and series over.

-- In 1969 under manager Leo Durocher, the Cubs blew an eight-game August lead to finish behind the New York Mets.

- In 1964 the Cubs dealt Ernie Broglio to the Cardinals for outfielder Lou Brock. Broglio won 18 games in 1963 -- seven in the next 2 1/2 seasons. Brock went on to become a six-time all-star, retiring with 3,023 hits -- 2,713 with St. Louis.

As the Times wrote of the Cubs' excellence 100 years ago: "Throughout the series Chicago's batting was opportune. The occasions were rare with men on bases a Chicago batsmen was not able to produce the needed hit."

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Dave Dombrowski won the off-season.

The Detroit Tigers general manager added third baseman Miguel Cabrera, left-handed pitcher Dontrelle Willis and outfielder Jacque Jones while keeping closer Todd Jones and left-handed starter Kenny Rogers.

Now comes the tough part: Winning the American League Central, baseball's toughest division.

Can you name another club which added more while losing so little?

The Tigers will try to upend the defending AL Central champs, the Cleveland Indians, winners of 96 games in 2007. Or, Detroit will strive to finish ahead of the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox, among other contenders, for the AL wild card berth, which likely will come from the Central as in 2006.

The Indians are the same team that shunted the New York Yankees from post-season play in 2007, keeping their $75-million US payroll intact.

White Sox general manager Kenny Williams added Gold Glove shortstop Orlando Cabrera and outfielder Nick Swisher.

The Twins lost lefty Johan Santana and centre fielder Torii Hunter, but added Delmon Young. Minnesota has suffered devastating losses in years past, yet usually you find the Twins two games out Sept. 1.

By adding Erik Bedard, the Seattle Mariners have a potent 1-2 punch in Felix Hernandez and the Canadian lefty. Likely enough to win the West.

It will be difficult to topple the Boston Red Sox ... unless Josh Beckett's back acts up and Curt Schilling fails to return.

But back to the Motown Cats. Dombrowski, a candidate to be the Blue Jays GM after the 2001 season, chose Detroit and a larger payroll. He reached the World Series in 2006, and has just had a winter meetings to remember.

The Florida Marlins had Cabrera on the block in Nashville. The Tigers phoned asking to include Willis and within 24 hours Detroit, with its deep farm system, sent six players to the Marlins in exchange.

The lightning strike was similar to the Jays sending Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to San Diego for Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter at the 1990 meetings in Chicago.

See if you can find-them an automatic out in the Tigers lineup: 1. Curtis Granderson, centre 2. Placido Polanco, second 3. DH Gary Sheffield 4. Magglio Ordonez, right 5. Cabrera 6. Carlos Guillen, first 7. Edgar Renteria, third 8. Ivan Rodriguez catcher 9. Jones, left. Seven former all-stars in all.

There has not been this much excitement going into the season since 1985 when the Tigers were defending World Series champs. They're excited from Kalamazoo to Dearborn, Saginaw to Adrian, and Sault Ste. Marie to Windsor.

Jim Leyland, the best "in-game" manager in baseball, has a rotation of Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, Rogers and Willis.

On the downside, the Tigers setup situation is not the bowl 'em over bullpen of 2006. Joel Zumaya will miss half the season and Fernando Rodney won't be ready for opening day, both with shoulder injuries. While Jones does the job in roller-coaster fashion, he has saved 75 games the past two seasons.

Willis won 22 games in 2005. Since? He has won 22 games over two seasons as his velocity dropped.

What they are saying around the Central:

- Chicago's Jim Thome: "We're in a division where obviously Detroit got a lot better and Cleveland, too."

- Cleveland's Ryan Garko: "The whole division looks great on paper. Detroit really raised the bar. And it was already the best division in baseball."

- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire: "It's tilting, isn't it? It's not a good thing. There are very, very good teams in our division. Detroit obviously has really, really improved and they were pretty good to start with."

And they'll be pretty good at the end if they fix their setup problems.


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