Rivals, NLCS opponents Brewers, Cardinals hold mutual dislike
MILWAUKEE -- True honesty is rare in the public forum, a sector of speech where diplomatic platitudes typically reign, and the eve of a baseball playoff series is no exception. Why rile up your opponent with last-minute bulletin-board material?
Instead, a glimpse of genuine emotion can usually only be divined on the field of play, where the heat of the moment unmasks the animosity, such as when teams plunk each other's star player or have a post-strikeout, on-field staredown and shouting match, culminating in the batter chucking his tobacco, both benches emptying and one participant retreating to Twitter to change an opponent's first name into its feminine form.
All that actually happened, of course, between the Brewers and Cardinals earlier this year, and as always with the Brewers the primary catalyst has been excitable and at times over-the-top centerfielder Nyjer Morgan, who turned Albert Pujols' name into "Alberta" on the same night that he threw his chew toward Chris Carpenter.
And rather than brush all this obvious disdain under the proverbial rug, both sides eschewed etiquette on the eve of their reunion in the National League Championship Series and had at each other in a war of words and subtle digs that promise to make for an entertaining fortnight of baseball in the Midwest.
St. Louis rightfielder Lance Berkman was asked about the perception that these two teams don't like each other, and without batting an eye, he replied, "And that's correct."
The biggest salvo fired came from an unexpected source. Zack Greinke, the Brewers' Game 1 starting pitcher, said "no one really likes Carpenter," because he has a "phony attitude" and "stares people down." This being NL baseball, Greinke now has to stand in that right-hand batter's box and risk receiving his comeuppance in a brush-back pitch or worse.
Others positioned this NL Central rivalry -- in which the two clubs play each other anywhere from 15 to 18 times per year and split this year's series 9-9 -- as an almost cultural divide.
"It's two different philosophies," Milwaukee rightfielder Corey Hart said. "They are more old school, and we're more new school and high energy."
At the end of the day, as long as this tension enhances rather than detracts from the on-field baseball product -- shouting and staring might be allowed, but beaning, brawling and baseless blasting through the press are definitely not -- then this mutual dislike is good for baseball and good for this series, which begins Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee's Miller Park.
"Obviously it's going to be a good series for baseball just because of what I said and stuff like that and what we have in our little history of what happened this year," Morgan said. "Mostly it's just going to be a hard-fought series, and everybody's going to be ready to win. There's a big prize at stake, and I don't think any of this [crap] is going to pour over into what both teams are trying to do, which is to get to the World Series."
Players on both sides -- not everyone, but a healthy number -- openly acknowledged how little the teams cared for each other, always carefully adding that they still respected each other.
"I think Nyjer's a good ballplayer," Berkman said. "I think he plays hard. I think you have to give him his due for that. He's obviously a passionate guy, an intense guy and an intense competitor. That having been said, sometimes that exuberance can spill over into a realm that I don't feel is appropriate.
"But I'm not the czar of baseball, either."
Not a czar, but maybe a baseball elder. In a long session with the media on Saturday, Berkman spelled out what he called the "foundation rules" of baseball -- "have respect for the game and respect for your opponent" -- and emphasized that on-field accomplishments should be treated like you've done it before, rather than show-up your opponent.
"If a guy makes a flamingo dance at me if he strikes me out," Berkman said, "to me that's akin to me hitting a home run and backpedaling to first base. ... Sometimes the demonstrations that happen on the field are rankling, I guess you could say."
Berkman, 35, admitted that when he entered the league, no one cared what his walk-up song was, finally relenting and choosing one for himself for the first time this season and prefacing his comment about the now standard practice by actually saying "quote-unquote walk-up song," as if it were a new-age concept.
And he made the salient point that he came up as a young player on Astros teams with an entrenched veteran core (Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Brad Ausmus, et al.) that policed itself. This Cardinals team now enjoys a similar group with himself, Pujols, Carpenter and Matt Holliday, among others, while the Brewers, as Berkman noted, are generally younger players who were promoted to the big leagues together.
The most salient point, one made by both the Brewers' Hart and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, among others, was one to just agree to disagree. Both recognized that players like Carpenter and Morgan -- maximum-effort players with an edge -- are generally beloved by teammates and hated by opponents.
"If they had Chris Carpenter, they would be cheering for him and believing in him," La Russa said, "and they would not allow somebody that was a teammate to make a crack like that."
That was in reference to Greinke's barb about Carpenter -- La Russa said he was "very disappointed" -- but all of this sure does add a compelling sub-plot to what is already a series with the high stakes of a trip to the World Series.
"I respect everybody out there because everybody's doing one thing and that's to win and get some hardware," said Morgan, who's also known by his alter-ego, Tony Plush. "Honestly it's good for baseball.
"Thanks to Plush, the TV ratings are going to go up a little higher."