With the first meeting between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs rapidly approaching, and the second series of the season with the Cincinnati Reds just completed, I thought now would be a good time to take a look at the evolution of the NL Central Rivalries.
Growing up as a Cardinals fan in St. Louis, the Cubs were the only rivals I knew. Every time the two teams were facing each other an excitement would build throughout both cities. Even when both teams weren’t playing well, or one was contending for the division title and the other was bringing up the rear, these two teams would battle hard against each other as if a playoff berth were at stake. This rivalry has a very long history dating back to the 1880’s before the Cardinals were the Cardinals, and before the Cubs were the Cubs. Not only did the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Stockings meet in the 1885 and 1886 World Series’, but an economic trade rivalry existed between the two cities. Territorial rights can stake a claim to this rivalry. Central Illinois, for example could hear both Cardinals broadcasts on KMOX and Cubs broadcasts on WGN-radio (as well as WGN TV more recently). Another thing to keep in mind is that these two teams were, for quite a long time, the furthest West of any other teams in the league. Not only did they have to fight for fans in the area between the two cities, but also for any fans to the west. There have also been several players that have played for both teams. Players such as Rogers Horsnby, Lou Brock (noted as one of the worst trades in history when the Cubs dealt him to the Cardinals for Ernie Broglio), Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, and Dizzy Dean. Famed Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray started his radio career with St. Louis. The Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run race of 1998 fueled some of this rivalry as well. It seems the dislike between the two clubs really intensified when Dusty Baker took over the manager position for the Cubs. Baker and Tony LaRussa had some run-ins during the 2002 NLCS between the Cardinals and San Francisco Giants. This carried over to the following year when Baker came to the Cubs. Keep in mind that Baker played for LaRussa when he was with the Oakland A’s. Both Baker and LaRussa had some “old school” beliefs and wouldn’t allow another team to show them up. Of course there are several highly contested games between the two clubs, and several instances of players saying unkind things about the other team that have added to this rivalry. However, with the Cubs not having a winning record since 2009, and the Cardinals making the post season all but one year in that time span, this rivalry has quickly faded.
It seems as if now the Reds are the new rival. These are two of the oldest and most storied franchises in MLB. Each team has a high number of Hall of Famers. When the Cardinals fired General Manager Walt Jocketty following the 2007 season, the Reds quickly picked him up. That seems to be when this rivalry really picked up steam. Not only did Jocketty get the Reds in to contention by 2010, but he also had a knack of making deals for former Cardinals fan favorites such as Scott Rolen (who reportedly had a feud with LaRussa near the end of his time with the Cardinals), Ryan Ludwick, and Jim Edmonds. On top of all of this, Dusty Baker was also the manager of the Reds at this time. The feud between him and LaRussa continued on. Then came the Brandon Phillips/Yadier Molina scuffle in 2010. This led to Chris Carpenter being pushed up against the backstop after shoving Rolen, Johnny Cueto was also being pushed against the fence at which point he began furiously kicking anyone he could. In doing so, he kicked Cardinals back-up catcher Jason LaRue in the head, causing a concussion, and ultimately ending LaRue’s career. In the aftermath, the Cardinals were upset Cueto’s suspension meant he would only miss one start, while the Reds were upset that Molina “started” the brawl and Carpenter escalated it. At the 2012 All Star Game, with LaRussa managing the NL squad, Baker claimed LaRussa let this brawl influence his decision to not select Cueto to be a starter in the game. Fans in Cincinnati still boo Yadi when he comes to the plate. Further evidence can be found in the first meeting of these two teams this season. Matt Adams made an attempt to catch a foul ball in the stands. A Reds fan caught it, Adams gave him (in my opinion) a playful shove, and the fan then flipped Adams the bird…not of the red variety. This rivalry is clearly based on an extreme dislike between the two teams. Of course, the success of each team fuels it. The Reds won the NL Central in 2010 and 2012, and made the post season last year as the second wild card. With both teams regularly in contention for the division crown, it is no surprise this rivalry has become so heated.
The Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers have never really had much of a rivalry, other than arguing over which city brews the best beer. This is likely due to the fact that the Brewers have not had great success in recent years, other than 2011 when they won the division. The two teams faced each other that year in the NLCS that took 6 games to resolve. Of course, the Cardinals won that series, then went on to win the World Series against the Texas Rangers in an extremely exciting 7 games. During that NLCS, and even the regular season, it seemed like a serious rivalry was building. Partly due to comments made by Nyjer Morgan late in the season which eventually led to an emptying of the benches. It also felt like a rivalry to me because I have several relatives that live in the Milwaukee area who are Brewers fans. All season long we would banter back and forth about which team was better. I finally got the upper hand once the Cardinals won the NLCS. Then I really got to brag after the World Series victory.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates can continue their success and challenge the Cardinals each season for the division title, a rivalry could build between the two teams. I see this as a much more friendly rivalry as neither team has said anything negative about the other. Of course, if an incident similar to the Phillips/Molina brawl or the Morgan comments happens, this could become much more heated.
It seems as if the Cubs are trying to renew this rivalry. They have a lot of young talent that will be ready for the big leagues in the next couple seasons. But, until the Cubs are competitive again, I do not see this old rivalry becoming as heated or as relevant as the new rivalry with the Reds. In my opinion, that is a shame. Sure, the Cubs haven’t had the success the Cardinals have had over the past few decades. But, both teams have extremely loyal fan bases, and very long histories. Plus, the Cubs and Cards rivalry was, in my mind, a very friendly and very enjoyable rivalry. Whereas the Cards and Reds rivalry seems to be based more on a dislike, or even hatred, of each other that is being fueled by both teams’ successes (similar to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees). That being said, since I now live in the Quad Cities and have several friends/coworkers/neighbors that are Cubs fans, these games will still be very fun to watch, even though they are less relevant than times past (some of my neighbors even fly their “W” flags after a Cubs win…about 65 times a season). In fact, I will be attending the game this Saturday in St. Louis. I cannot wait. You can expect a review of the series, as well as a review of the new, highly touted Ballpark Village early next week.