With both the red-hot Cardinals and youth-driven Cubs looking like playoff contenders early on, could their decades-old rivalry soon see a revival?
ST. LOUIS—It's the end of the second inning in St. Louis on Thursday afternoon, and outside of Busch Stadium, a businessman in an Acura is asking a meter maid how much a parking ticket would cost him. The place is a zoo, and as soon as the meter maid moves on, the man pulls his car into a spot reserved for cabs. It’s worth the price of a violation not to have to find somewhere to park.
It feels like summer in the Midwest—85, sunny and humid—and the Cubs are in town. I’m in St. Louis unexpectedly, a month to the day after the first time I tried to attend this supposedly revamped rivalry. (Chicago canceled the teams’ April 7 game at Wrigley Field due to inclement weather, and then it never rained.) And so of course I find myself here, at Busch Stadium, a little bit drunk on baseball among a crowd already drunk on Budweiser at this early hour.
When the Cubs took the field here on Monday—the opening night of this four-game series—it marked the first time that they did so against the Cardinals with a winning record since 2009. Chicago was second in the National League Central at the start of the week, with a 13–10 record, and despite losing three of four, it emerged from the series still above .500 and still in second place, although it is now 6 1/2 games behind the 21–7 Cardinals. Even so, the revamped Cubs are good, or at least they’re still baseball’s baby darlings, with a roster full of promising prospects and a new manager in Joe Maddon. All of which raises the question: Does this rivalry exist again, or is it still just an excuse for drunk Midwesterners to yell at one another all summer long?
The last time these teams played with the division title truly on the line was in September 2003. St. Louis opened that month tied with Houston for the Central division lead and was starting a five-game series at Wrigley Field against the Cubs, who were 1 1/2 games back. But the Cardinals lost four of five, and by the end of the month, they had finished in third place, while Chicago came out on top and the Astros snagged the wild-card.
We’re a long way from the playoffs, of course. The 2015 season has just hit its stride, and the Cardinals have played far better than they were expected to, while the Cubs have been perhaps a little worse. The Cardinals are injured, though, having lost ace Adam Wainwright for the season with an Achilles injury. The Cubs are coming on, with super prospect and third baseman Kris Bryant still getting accustomed to things less than one month into his major league career. The Cardinals are great. The Cubs are trying to be.
About a block from the ballpark, I started seeing jerseys—Cubs jerseys. There weren’t too many, but they were notable. Two or three years ago, a jersey parade of Cubs fans would have featured the likes of (Aramis) Ramirez and (Sammy) Sosa; today, it’s all (Anthony) Rizzo and (Starlin) Castro—with a few brand-new Bryants mixed in. Cardinals fans? They’re in everything from (Willie) McGee to (Stan) Musial to (Albert) Pujols. St. Louisans live as much in the past as they do the present. As for the future ... well, they assume it’ll be just as good as the past 15 years have been.
That assumption is at least well-founded. The Cardinals have been to the postseason 11 times this century, and their farm system, which ESPN ranked No. 1 in the game two years ago, produced a good chunk of the roster that has them off to the best start in the majors. The catch? Chicago's farm system is now No. 1, and St. Louis' system has fallen to No. 13.
After two Cardinals comeback wins to open the series and a few Bud Heavies in the past hour, a Cardinals fan can be heard saying this team just doesn’t quit, ever. Down the concourse, another man a few beers deeper into his day says the team can’t stay this good all season. (St. Louis is on pace to finish with 122 wins, and no team has ever won more than 116. The 1906 Cubs went 116–36, and the 2001 Mariners finished 116–46.) The Cubs, meanwhile, would be in position for one of the two NL wild cards if the season ended today, and by September, they could be preparing for their first postseason in seven years.
Near the end of the game, one of Busch Stadium’s illustrious Jumbotron hosts begins one of his between-inning bits. This one involves two 20-something women, one in a Cardinals T-shirt, the other in Cubs blue. The gag: The host sings—or at least attempts to sing—a song that was popular in a certain year. That year should correspond with a World Series title. The women alternate. Host sings, Cardinals woman guesses 2011. Host sings, Cubs woman guesses 1907. Sings, guesses, 2006. Sings, guesses, 1908. Sings, guesses, 1964. Sings—and then the Cubs fan falters. There are no more World Series titles for her to name. The stadium cheers. I can’t help but roll my eyes. The schtick does, in fact, get old.
At this point, the Cubs are down 5–0 heading into the seventh inning, but there’s been no exodus of blue. There are still prayers to be prayed for a Bryant home run. Chicago does manage a run in the seventh, but St. Louis wins 5–1. The Cubs are soon off to a weekend series in Milwaukee against the floundering Brewers, still above .500 and with a chance to add some cushion. The Cardinals head for Pittsburgh to play the Pirates, the team it swept last weekend by winning three extra-innings games in a row. Ho-hum.
On my way out of the stadium, I pass an elderly Cardinals fan in overalls, yelling about Mike Matheny’s managing. The Cardinals had just won in spite of Matheny’s frenzied pitching changes, and this ranting has become a ritual of sorts. Overalls, yelling, Cardinals win. Some things never change. Some things, but not, apparently, the Cubs—and even if I didn’t find the rivalry I was looking for on Thursday, I found something simmering, which for now is good enough.