A few hours of darkness still lingered when I woke up on Saturday to head to Washington National Airport for an early morning flight to St. Louis for Game 2 of the NLDS between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. It was a short trip – I flew back 24 hours later – but a mandatory one because I’ve waited too long for this. We all have. And I know that because as you’ve probably heard by now, the Cardinals and Cubs have never met in a postseason game. Now, it wasn’t possible for them to meet in the postseason until 1995 when the wild card was introduced, but since that time the Cardinals, my favorite team, have played a postseason series versus 11 of the other 15 National League teams (including the Houston Astros, who departed for the American League in 2013). More impressive, they’ve eliminated ten of those 11 teams at least once (damn you forever, San Francisco Giants), and have sent the Padres and Dodgers packing an unmerciful three separate times.
But they’ve never had a shot at their rival of 123 years until now. I’ve written before what Cardinals vs. Cubs means to me, what it means to Central Illinois, as have many others, which is probably a byproduct of resentment mixed with an inferiority complex that the rest of the world doesn’t understand what we have. Recently, a national baseball scribe wrote a farcical piece on division realignment in which he suggested breaking up the Cardinals and Cubs hinting that the rivalry isn’t a big deal.
That anyone could think Cardinals vs. Cubs isn’t a big deal slightly offends me but when I truly think about it I can understand the sentiment because it doesn’t always look like other rivalries. The crowd in and around the stadium on Saturday was exactly what I expected. Mixed in with the red mass and the smaller blue contingency were throngs of friends and family members with some in red and some in blue, at the game together. It wasn’t much different from a series in July – just way more amped with much higher stakes. But plenty of people were still watching the game with the enemy. I understand this dynamic because I couldn’t segregate myself from Cubs fans if I tried. I talked to my brother on the phone the morning of the game. He’s a Cubs fan. I sent my wife a picture of the packed stadium. She’s a Cubs fan. I exchanged texts of “Good luck” with one of my best friends. He’s a Cubs fan. Of course, neither of us truly meant “good luck” with regards to what happened on the field, I wanted him to have the worst luck, typical Cubs luck, but I was still glad to be able to have the “Can you believe this is actually happening?” moment with him. It doesn’t mean I’m not terrified at the thought of losing this series because I am.
And not to say it’s exclusively like this – genuine dislike for the other side certainly exists, especially for fans who grew up in St. Louis or Chicago and weren’t as forced by geography to cultivate relationships with the other side. I’m not immune. Whenever a Cubs fan takes a serious swipe at Cardinals fans on Twitter or elsewhere I’m quick to retort with the time that Steve Bartman was forced to do a perp walk out of Wrigley Field. (Because he would have been murdered. We all know this, right?) But if there was any ill-natured taunting or fights at the game on Saturday I didn’t see it. I almost never have at these games. That’s probably confusing, maybe boring, to an outsider looking in on what’s supposed to be one of baseball’s fiercest rivalries but it’s all I know. It’s the way it should be. Acting ugly or disliking someone all in the name of sports has always been a horrible look on all of us.
As for the actual game itself, Game 2, well, by now, you probably know how that turned out. The tide turned in the Cubs’ favor pretty early with a disastrous second inning featuring a sequence of events and miscues in which Kolten Wong made a crucial error trying to turn a double play even though he never truly had a chance – speedy Austin Jackson was the runner, and he was standing on second after Wong threw the ball away; pitcher Jaime Garcia then basically let Jackson swipe third; Miguel Montero walked; pitcher Kyle Hendricks tried to let the Cardinals out of the inning by bunting only Garcia appeared to have forgotten there was a man on third and by the time it dawned on him there was nothing left to do but throw the ball into right field; Addison Russell then squeezed in Montero; Dexter Fowler reached on an infield chop-single plating Hendricks; and Jorge Soler added the exclamation point with a two-run homer. Less than 45 minutes into the game and it was 5-1 Cubs and the home crowd never truly recovered. The Cardinals were the beneficiaries of similar ridiculousness in the 2006 World Series, so we’ve seen enough to know that you’re not likely to win many games to the theme of Yakety Sax. The final score was 6-3, evening up the series as it heads north on I-55.
As you also probably know by now, Garcia did not return for the third inning because he was suffering from a stomach bug. I’m used to watching games at home with my face buried in Twitter so I often learn of news as soon as it’s being reported by everyone on the beat. (I’m aware this is a terrible way to take in sports or anything else for that matter.) But I avoid social media during playoff games — and especially if I’m at the game, for a variety of reasons, so I was under the belief that Garcia had been pulled because of performance, which wouldn’t have been entirely indefensible. Lance Lynn pitched the 3rd and with the Cardinals pitchers’ spot due up the next inning there was a lot of “What the hell is Matheny doing here?” discussion amongst all of us. Meaning, why not just let Garcia have a run at the 3rd, pinch hit for him, and then turn the game over to long man Carlos Villanueva, instead of burning an inning from the guy who is (was?) supposed to be our Game 4 starter. When word of Garcia’s illness started to buzz around our section a few innings later it hit me how hard it is to be a manager. Probably every Cardinals fan in the stadium was second-guessing Mike Matheny without knowing the entire situation, which isn’t to say it was handled correctly, or that Garcia should have ever been allowed to take the mound in the first place, but there’s no patience allowed on managerial decisions anymore.
Also worth noting: The Cardinals lost an incredibly frustrating game, one that could end up costing them this season, and I still feel lucky to have been there. Adam Wainwright pitched 1 and 2/3 innings of relief and struck out the side in the 8th, culminating with a punch-out of Kyle Schwarber while everyone was on their feet. It felt like a microcosm for the entire series: The old guard vs. the new. During the 7th-inning stretch they played an old video of Jack Buck singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field in honor of his former broadcasting partner at KMOX. Before singing, Buck requested of those at Wrigley that day, “Let’s sing this song for the greatest rivalry in the history of baseball,” and they all did. We did, too. It was one of the few things enjoyed equally by everyone at the stadium.
As I left the stadium with my friend – a guy I’ve been going to Cardinals games with since I can remember and who became my brother-in-law along the way – we complained a bit more about the 2nd inning, wondered about our chances with Jake Arrieta looming in Game 3 (apparently he’s good), and then met up for beers and laughs with some Cubs fans from my hometown. That’s the rivalry.
There’s been a lot of talk that because of what’s at stake here in 2015 that this is the beginning of the end of this “friendly” rivalry. Talk that Joe Maddon helped jump start the end with his post-game clown show a few weeks back. Friends will no longer want to watch games with friends from the other “insufferable” fanbase. Or that if the Cubs win they’ll hold the trump card and erase the previous 107 years of not winning the World Series while the Cardinals won 11. That if the Cardinals win then that’ll be the harshest reminder yet that the Cubs will never be as good. Personally, I don’t buy any of that. Barring a truly transcendent ending with some very hurt feelings along the way, this series won’t change too much of anything. There will be elation for one side and some sting for the other, but before we know it the 2016 season will be here and we’ll all be reborn and ready to enjoy Cardinals-Cubs games again.Next post: The American League Is Sweden
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