I was introduced to the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry as a child through my grandpa. From Missourah, Stan Musial was his favorite player and the Cards his favorite ball club. It is because of him that I am the Cardinals fan I am today (with an assist from Ozzie Smith). It being smalltown Iowa, whether St. Louis won or Chicago prevailed, the hard times were always given good-naturedly and with smile. After all, and everyone not only knew everyone, but also what everyone's family members were doing.
It wasn't much different in my neighborhood. The Cub fans were my best friends. They rooted for Chicago because that was their mom's hometown. Being youngsters removed from the epicenters of the rivalry, its magnitude was lost on us. Playing baseball in the yard, I would pretend to be Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee and Vince Coleman; they would be Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg. It was a natural match-up, even if my ghost-runners were far speedier than theirs. Oh, their Chicagoan family definitely teased me when the Cubs bested the Redbirds head-to-head, but it was always with a warm smile. That was the essence of the rivalry for me as a child: good-natured ribbing and warm smiles.
I suspect that Iowa is not all that different from Nebraska, parts of Missouri (but not Missourah), parts of Illinois, or other states I'm doubtlessly leaving out due to a lack of familiarity. Once the Cardinals were the ball club that was the furthest west and the furthest south in all of baseball. The Cubs also laid claim to much of the northern plains and were a major-league western outpost themselves. The clubs' geography meant that, while centralized in each of their respective metropolises, their respective fan bases are spread over a large swath of the country's middle, nestled in small towns and rural communities. Many of these communities contain Cardinal fans due to KMOX and Cub fans due to WGN. The two fan bases are familiar to one another through proximity and intermingling. I have no stats or infographics to support this; all I know is that I have lived it my whole life.
It is the clubs' dispersed and far-reaching fan bases that form the foundation of both the friendliness and intensity of the rivalry. Many of us make only a pilgramage or two a year to our respective baseball cathedral, and we often target this specific match-up to attend. It is but one of the reasons why, despite preseason prognostications, the atmosphere at Wrigley this series will have a buzz that was absent at Busch Stadium on Sunday and will be missing at the Great American Ballpark on Friday. It is a buzz generated by a stake in the outcome, for most if not all of us will receive texts, messages, tweets, and maybe even phone calls from friends as big moments in the game develop, errors are made, homers are hit, and runs are scored. Even more electronic communication will fill the time after the game. If the Cards win, we will remind those in our social circles who cheer the Cubs that they may be lovable, but they lost yet again. If the Cubs win, their faithful will trumpet the fact to us. At work the next day, the previous day's game will be the topic of discussion in a way it was not today. These generally good-natured exchanges up the ante and the consequent high stakes can be felt in the air at the ballpark.
This week, the hosts of the Brewers become the guests of the Cubs at historic Wrigley in the perenial renewal of one of the game's best rivalries. There is little more idyllic to a baseball enthusiast than Cards-Cubs at Wrigley in May. The ivy is coming alive; the temperature is fair; the organ plays exclusive of techno chant encouragement; and, there is usually a nice breeze off Lake Michigan. This rivalry in this setting, perhaps more than any other in any sport, is now as it ever was. The Birds on the Bat, the "Cubs" in the circle; "STL" on a navy cap, a "C" on a blue one; and, the Cardinals leading the division, the Cubs trailing.
Heartlanders will pack Wrigley, making its stands a sea of royal blue, white, and Cardinal red, creating with the radiant green grass of the playing field, a scene as pleasing to the eye as Seurat's Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte, and just as representative of our country, times, and culture. The television cameras will inevitably find multiple instances of a Cardinals fan and Cubs fan sitting next to each other and chatting, sharing food, laughing, comparing scorebooks, or generally basking in the experience of Cards-Cubs. These are sights one is unlikely to see in as great of numbers at Fenway, Chavez Ravine, or Philadelphia. They take place in St. Louis and Chicago, I believe, because so many of the fans in this rivalry have a grand-dad like mine, or an uncle, or a neighbor, or family friends--folks that we know and we love. This is how that fabled "Midwest nice" has been inextricably infused into Cardinals-Cubs. And, for my money, it is what makes it baseball's best rivalry.
The Cardinals arrive in the Windy City sitting alone atop the division on the strength of solid starting pitching and excellent hitting from most every position player not named Pujols. Meanwhile, the Cubs sit on the steps to the Central cellar, limping along due to hindrance of overly long and expensive contracts that have bogged down their ability to compete in the near term. The Cardinals lead the league in scoring. While battles for divisional supremacy add to the rivalry they do not define it. This is a season-long campaign for bragging rights on the block, around town, and amongst family. And that is what makes it so much fun.