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Seeing Red

In Baseball, Culture on June 12, 2013 at 10:45 am

The Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals are battling atop the National League Central division for another trip to the postseason. CDH’s Ian Brickey takes a look at the deeper meaning behind the Cardinals-Reds rivalry.

Matt Holliday ruined Curtis Partch’s Sunday night. It had been a good weekend so far — a great one, in fact. Louisville Bats manager Jim Riggleman had delivered the news that every AAA player greets with a mixture of joy, relief and terror — Partch was going to the show. He made the short two-hour drive to Cincinnati later that day, been fitted for his uniform at Great American Ballpark and was ready to dress for his first major league game Sunday night. And then Matt Holliday had to beat it all to hell by doing what Matt Holliday is paid to do. With the bases loaded in the top of the 10th inning, the St. Louis Cardinals left fielder belted Partch’s 2-2 pitch into the upper deck of Great American Ballpark, capping a  seven run inning for the Cardinals and extending their division lead over the Reds to four games.

There’s a concept in the field of aesthetics known as the “uncanny valley.” It holds that, when human features resemble and move almost, but not quite perfectly, like natural human images, it can create a feeling of revulsion in observers. While it’s primarily a scientific term, since 2009, the uncanny valley might have a baseball application: the rivalry between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals and the Reds traditionally haven’t been rivals, and in hindsight, it’s surprising. Both teams have spent their entire histories in the National League. Both have won multiple World Series Championships — 11 for St. Louis, five for Cincinnati. Since 1994, both teams have played in the NL Central division. Both are storied, successful Midwestern franchises with dedicated fan bases, yet for more than a century, Cardinals-Reds games were about as interesting as watching C-SPAN — you knew something important was going on, but you probably weren’t going to see much action.

But that’s all changed since 2009. Since then, it’s been nothing but trash-talking, allegations of cheating, on-field fracases, media spats, dirty pitches, pitches that weren’t dirty but Carpenter/Cueto threw it so it must have been, and unhealthy levels of loathing. The sports pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer would say the rivalry comes from the recent successes of both franchises and their fight for the top spot in the division, or the long-standing animosity between former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Reds manager Dusty Baker or some hackneyed argument about the stoic personality of the St. Louis clubhouse against the young and hungry Cincinnati roster.

Those elements certainly factor into Major League Baseball’s hottest rivalry, but at the professional level, rivalries are embodied more by fan bases than players. And that reveals the true motivation behind the Cincinnati-St. Louis rivalry — the two cities are just enough alike to create familiarity between the two, but just different enough to make each revolting to the other.[1]

Let’s start with the cities themselves. Both are located on major American rivers. Both were once gateways to the West, and both are currently Midwestern. Both are past their heydays as metropolitan centers, and both cannot (or will not) come to terms with that. But there are differences that are just familiar enough to divide the two cities. St. Louis has its long-standing association with Anheuser-Busch, the namesake of its baseball stadium, while Cincinnati has Great American Insurance Company, the namesake if its ballpark. St. Louisans chow down on local delicacies no one else quite “gets”: matzo-flat pizza topped in processed cheese. Meanwhile, Cincinnatians feast on a different local delicacy that’s misunderstood by the uninitiated: a runny chili seasoned with cinnamon, cloves, allspice and (sometimes) chocolate, and served over hot dogs or (sometimes) spaghetti. In March, St. Louis cheers on its basketball-centric Jesuit university, Saint Louis University. Five hundred miles away, Cincinnati pulls for its basketball-centric Jesuit college, Xavier University.

The uncanny valley extends to the cities’ baseball teams. Both the Cardinals and the Reds use red as their primary uniform color. Both were led to division crowns by MVP-award winning first basemen, St. Louis’s Albert Pujols and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto. Both have been managed by quick-tempered, narcissistic curmudgeons with a flair for baiting the local media. Both have been saved by the fielding skills of Scott Rolen at third base, and both have been disappointed by his propensity to be injured. Both have found recent success in home-grown talent, and they currently occupy the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the NL Central standings.

Most baseball rivalries are defined by some kind of imbalance. Boston’s civic inferiority complex comes out whenever the Red Sox play the New York Yankees. The relative futility of the Chicago Cubs compliments the historical success of the Cardinals franchise. The Dodgers-Giants rivalry is SoCal sun versus NorCal cool. But Cardinals-Reds is different. Call it a river city rivalry. The cities, the teams and the fans have more in common than not, and that’s what makes the rivalry great. The Cardinals and the Reds will play in three more series this season. That’s plenty of time for the familiarity — and revulsion — of both sides to grow.


[1] At this point, I wanted to use “Bizarro World” as an analogy, but I already had the uncanny valley comparison going, so I had to cut it out.

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