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An Old-Fashioned Rivalry

In Baseball on June 19, 2013 at 10:56 am

In the lead-up to Monday night’s St. Louis-Chicago game, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnists Bryan Burwell and Bernie Miklasz criticized the state of the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry. Here’s why the rivalry is as strong as ever.

Monday night was a special night in St. Louis. It was the first game of the first Cardinals-Cubs series at Busch Stadium in 2013. And while a lot of fans who attended the game no doubt came down with that unfortunate 24-hour sickness that surfaces after a game runs long and lingers through work the next day, Monday night was one of the lesser holy days on the liturgical calendar that is St. Louis baseball — the Boxing Day to Opening Day’s Christmas. Nonetheless, that Cardinals-Cubs game was important enough for ESPN to wait out a three-hour rain delay and broadcast nearly until midnight on the East Coast to see its conclusion.

It was also important enough for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to publish not one, but two columns lamenting the state of the St. Louis-Chicago rivalry. Bernie Miklasz, who has seen his share of Cards-Cubs games, approached the rivalry with a sense of yearning. “The ensuing Cardinals-Cubs garden parties are cordial and charming,” he writes, “but I’d like to see the teams develop a true big-boy rivalry and create the kind of memories that last forever.” The rivalry between the two clubs is historic, but it lacks a sense of competition. The Cardinals have collected pennants and rings, while the Cubs wallowed in missed chances and might-have-beens. That imbalance prevents the rivalry from being “truly epic” on the scale of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, “A competition so substantial that it can ruin seasons and break hearts.”

Bryan Burwell, who has arguably never seen a baseball game, asserted that the rivalry remains important, but not for its historic ramifications. No, for Burwell, Monday’s game was less about pride and more about position — specifically, for the Cardinals. “Cards vs. Cubs doesn’t have to be a great rivalry to be an important series,” he writes. With the Cincinnati Reds 2.5 games behind the Cardinals, and the Pittsburgh Pirates (unbelievably) 4 games back, Burwell thinks the Cardinals need to be “relentless” in this series, not because Cubs series are important, but because all series are important. The Cubs pose little threat to the Cardinals in 2013, but teams win divisions “by winning two out of three, three out of four, six out of eight, over and over and over. It’s about the relentless and consistent winning of each series.”

Yadier Molina slides under Travis Wood's tag at home plate Monday.

Yadier Molina (right) slides under Travis Wood’s tag at home plate Monday.

Both Miklasz and Burwell can be polarizing figures in St. Louis sports, and both pieces were fine bits of trolling by both columnists. Genuine or not, the columnists’ desire for a more competitive rivalry between the Cardinals and the Cubs is understandable. But their fixation on creating a Yankees-Red Sox-style blood feud is foolish and without much historical precedence. Thanks to incessant media scrutiny, histrionic storylines and recent postseason success, Yankees-Red Sox has become a caricature of the historic rivalry. Every game is a grudge match, overlaid with theatrical highlights and the urgent sounds of strings and brass — Ken Burns on speed.

There’s certainly no love lost between New York and Boston, but if Miklasz is looking for East Coast enmity to sprout along Interstate 55, he’ll likely be disappointed. The easy argument would be to discuss heartland values or the “Midwest Nice” that Illinoisans and Missourians are supposedly known for, but those saccharine qualities are as easily abused as the notion of Philadelphia fans’ rowdiness.

The truth is, Cardinals-Cubs has never been about bad blood or slights or heated pennant races. It’s about proximity, geography and history. Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field are only 303 miles apart and, until the 1950s, they were the westernmost outposts of the National League. Perhaps with the exception of an occasional St. Louis-Cincinnati series, Cardinals-Cubs was likely to be the only occasion where Sportsman’s Park or Wrigley Field would feature a large contingent of opposing fans. There’s also the idea of territorial rights. St. Louis’s KMOX radio station and Chicago’s WGN brought baseball to thousands of fans throughout the Midwest, overlapping on each club’s footprint. For generations, fan loyalties could be decided by wattage and a fortuitous cloudbank between Decatur and Champaign. But the true nature of the rivalry is revealed by the historical connections between St. Louis and Chicago. It’s about the continued success of the Cardinals and the recurring futility of the Cubs juxtaposed with Chicago’s ascendance as the Second City and St. Louis’s inexorable decay. The paths of the cities and their respective National League franchises could not be more different, but every spring and every summer — we all know not the fall — the Cardinals and the Cubs play under the sun at Wrigley and under the lights at Busch.

Miklasz has gotten most of the criticism in this piece, and really, he doesn’t deserve it. Burwell is more guilty than Bernie is of trying to transform the rivalry into something it’s not, but Miklasz is eminently more quotable. Ultimately, Miklasz simply wants memorable baseball, and for him, that is the “meaningful” late-season Cardinals-Cubs games of 1989 and 2003. That’s reasonable. He remembers those moments for the feelings they inspired in him as a fan — the tension, the joy, the heartbreak — and he wants Cardinals and Cubs fans to experience those feelings in the only way he knows how. The only thing is — he doesn’t have to. Those moments at Wrigley and Busch are already memorable. For some people, it’s because their team won, or their closer blew the save in the bottom of the 9th, or their favorite player hit a home run, or their most hated player on the other team did the same. For others, it’s because they ditched class to see that Cardinals-Cubs game, or they finally sat in the bleachers at Wrigley. For me, it was a backup catcher’s walk-off grand slam in extra innings of a game that had no immediate importance, no bad blood or playoff berths on the line — just a pitch and a hit and a kid in the upper deck on a school night. Tell me that’s not a rivalry; tell me that’s not memorable.

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