After their latest four-game set, it’s clear that the rivalry between the Cubs are Cardinals is alive, kicking, and going to be a lot of fun.
The Cubs and the Cardinals are well known for having a rivalry that is different than that of the Red Sox and Yankees, the Giants and Dodgers, or even a football rivalry like the Bears and Packers. When you hear about the Cubs and Cardinals, people say things like “friendly rivalry.” This is likely based upon false notions like that Cubs fans don’t pay attention to the game or that Cardinals fans are nothing but scholarly gentlemen in polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts.
But calling the rivalry between these two teams “friendly” is like referring to Cardinals fans as “the best fans in baseball.” It’s simply a passed down cliché that has no real basis, other than someone said it once and others kept pushing the lazy narrative because it benefited them in some way. As someone that grew up a Cubs fan in Central Illinois, which is probably three-quarters Cardinals fans, I can tell you this rivalry isn’t friendly–it’s simply been dormant.
The “big brother” Cardinals and “little brother” Cubs head-to-head record has been fairly close over the years. From 2005-2014, the Cubs actually lead the season series 84-83. But being annoying and spoiling playoff positioning is one thing, and actually being a rival is another. For the last several years, the Cubs have been nothing more than the pesky little brother to the Cards.
The good news? You can start to see all of that change. It actually started late last season, when the Cubs rebounded from a tough start to the season and started playing like a decent baseball team. They finished just 73-89, but anyone paying close attention knew that a storm was coming. Noted Cardinals fan and Deadspin founder Will Leitch has some thoughts on the topic:
“The Cubs, after a few years in the wilderness, building, preparing, might be the most exciting young team in baseball, with tons of power (the most scarce commodity in the game), a motivated, intelligent front office and millions upon millions of dollars available to turn this team into Boston Midwest. (And they even have Jon Lester pitching to complete the illusion.)
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are coming off their fourth consecutive National League Championship Series, with hordes of young talent of their own to go along with the same grizzled playoff vets Cubs fans have been growling at for nearly a decade now. Both teams are expected to compete for the NL Central title this season, the first time both have been reasonably expected to do so since, what, 2008? Maybe?”
He’s close. The Cubs played the Cardinals in a four-game set leading into the All-Star break in 2009, and the teams split the four games. When it was over, the Cardinals still lead the division that they would eventually win. But the Cubs were just 3.5 games out of first place, and although they’d ultimately miss the playoffs, the rivalry was as fierce as ever at that time.
But things began to fade as the Cubs became less and less competitive. The Cubs dredged through seasons of Blake DeWitt, Bryan LaHair, Dave Sappelt, and Jason Berken to get to the seasons of Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Jake Arrieta. They had high expectations coming into 2015, and knowing that the Cardinals would be the major road block to achieving their success made the challenge all the more fun.
That is, until we saw the Cubs struggling to beat the Cardinals. The rivals split the two games at Wrigley Field to open the season, followed by the Cardinals taking three of four in St. Louis in May and then sweeping a three-game set there in late June, pushing the Cubs to 11.5 games out of first place in the division.
But, as all young teams do, they learn from the experience. While the Cards ran out early to the best record in baseball, lately there have been some chinks in the armor. On May 8th, the Cardinals were 22-7 and dominating the league with unprecedented good pitching. But injuries have happened and performances have started coming back down to earth, and slowly things are changing. Here are the NL Central division standings since May 8th:
You’ll notice that the Cardinals are still playing well, but that the Pirates are scorching hot. The Cubs are right up on their heals during this time, as well. The two teams just split a four-game set in Chicago that, on the eye test, was dominated by the Cubs. If the Cubs were able to hold onto the game that the Cardinals won with a two-out, go-ahead home run in the ninth inning, they would have identical records.
So many of the meetings between these two teams have meant nothing for the Cubs and little for the Cards, but this most recent series occurred with both teams holding leads on playoff spots. The Cardinals lead over the Cubs remains quite large, but their lead over the Pirates isn’t quite as comfortable. While the Cards come down off their hot start, the Cubs are just getting started, and that seems to make the team from St. Louis a bit nervous.
You could tell by how frustrated the Cardinals were getting, whether it be over balls and strikes, a hit that was (correctly) ruled fair, or just from their own mental errors. These aren’t things that Cubs fans have typically seen of the Cardinals, and I think it represents the beginning of the new era in this rivalry. The Cubs aren’t just a pest to be dealt with anymore. These games mean something in both dugouts.
This all means nothing if the Cubs can’t close the gap on the Redbirds, but I think what we can take away from the four-game series at Wrigley this week is that the rivalry has been renewed. Once again fans can look forward to the fifteen or so games per year that their favorite team will take on their most hated rival.
It’s no longer just a game on the schedule, or a glimpse at a potential mirrored future somewhere down the road. The Cardinals have always been the big brother, and maybe they always will be. But the funny thing about little brothers is that they grow up, and the Cubs are growing up quickly.
Friendly rivalry? Check back in a few years and see if either side feels all that friendly about the other.