A Reflection On Rivalries
After a tumultuous three game set against the Cincinnati Reds last week, the Cardinals found themselves the talk of baseball. They rolled in to town two games back of the Reds and left town one game up, but in the end people were talking less about the standings and more about what happened off the diamond and outside the chalk lines of Great American Ballpark.
Much has been made of the fracas that occurred between the Reds and Cardinals, starting with Reds’ second baseman Brandon Phillips running his mouth and ending with suspensions and fines for five players and both managers. It eventually came to light that Phillips’ comment of “I hate the Cardinals,” was not such a foreign concept. The rivalry between the two teams suddenly felt very real, and fans on both sides of the fence were studying up on the other team, finding new and creative ways to lob shots at the other side.
As far as the Reds and the Cardinals go, there is not a long history between the two teams in terms of having bad blood towards the other. There might have been little things here and there over the years, which is not surprising considering both teams have been in existence and playing against each other since the 1800’s. Most of the bad blood seems to have come in the past year or two, perhaps starting when the Cardinals’ pitching staff complained about slick baseballs. On October 9, 2009, John Smoltz first lodged a complaint that the game-used balls were not properly prepared for the game, and on April 5 of this year (that would be opening day), Chris Carpenter made the same complaint. On top of that, managers Tony LaRussa and Dusty Baker have been around the block with each other several times before, and it never gets more cordial, only more dramatic.
Now the two teams have been neck and neck all year long for the lead in the NL Central. Neither team has fallen off or backed down, despite having several opportunities to either pull away or concede the lead to the other. Combine this past week with the upcoming series over Labor Day weekend in St. Louis – the last time the two teams will meet this season – and it is more than safe to say that this rivalry will not be finding a happy conclusion this year.
In a little more distant history, the Cardinals have found a tough opponent in the Houston Astros. From 2001-2006, the team ended the season in first or second place in the Central, and made it to the postseason three times, finally reaching the World Series in 2005 before bowing out against the Chicago White Sox. For those few years the Astros were somewhat of a second half team, seemingly coasting through the first half of the schedule before hitting the gas and going full throttle from the beginning of the dog days of summer through the end of September.
In both 2004 and 2005 the Cards and Astros met up in the NLCS to duke it out for the NL pennant. Both series were thrilling, providing breath-taking home runs, dominant pitching performances and flashy plays with the glove that made highlight reels for years to come. While not bitter rivals, there was definitely a more intense feel every time the two teams met for a few years.
That said, when most people think of the Cardinals and their rivals, the Chicago Cubs are usually the first team to come up. The two teams have played each other an astounding 2145 times since 1901, with the all-time standings sitting at 1042 wins for the Cards and 1086 wins for the Cubs (including Saturday’s win). No other team besides the Pittsburgh Pirates is within spitting distance of this astounding number of times these two teams have squared off. The history is well chronicled, and born-and-bred fans from both sides will tell you that the first thing their parents taught them about baseball was that their team was the Cards or Cubs, and you could be a fan of any team except the other side of that line.
Aaron Hooks had a piece over on Baseball Digest about the Cards/Cubs rivalry before the first series of this year. He pointed out that while this is one of the most storied rivalries in baseball, they have experienced a strong lack of relevance since the inception of the NL Central in 1994. Both teams have made the playoffs several times since then, but the two teams have not ever really battled for a division crown in the same year in that time frame.
That does not stop fans from taking every opportunity to revel in their team taking a win from the other side. Every series, no matter the relevance (or lack there-of) brings a little extra spark to the city hosting. The usually good natured ribbing and knowledge of each other results in a rivalry that has stood the test of time, and is unlikely to fade in the near future no matter how good or bad either team is from year to year.
Each one of these teams’ players and fans has a different reason to ‘hate’ the Cardinals. Where does that hate come from? It could be that there is some bad blood, whether it stems from former teammates and executives scorned or a few pitches that came a little too close to opposing batters. It could be that the fans make more of it than it is, which is what I suspect is the case (at least in recent history) for the Cubs.
However, the most likely reason in my mind is this: more often than not, the Cardinals win. They have up years and down years, but a team with more World Series titles and pennants than any other team in the National League, a long and storied history and a knowledgeable fan base that keeps the memories alive is always going to be a team that others love to hate. Perhaps Michael Wilbon said it best last week on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” when he said, “As a Cub fan, I grew up hating the Cardinals. Part of why I hate them so much is because they’re such an admirable team. You call them out, they kick your butt.”
Not all fans feel the same respect as Mr. Wilbon, but as long as the Cardinals always remember to back up their words with their play, the truth remains: St. Louis does baseball right, no matter who the rival is on any given day.