The opening day of the baseball season is but one of 162 games. In the standings at year's end, it's no more meaningful than a getaway weekday game in mid-June. But the hopes and anticipation of a midweek game pale in comparison to the feelings that swirled as Monday's opening-day game against the Reds neared. And the contest delivered on its promise, perhaps more than any season opener in recent memory.
To understand the outsized significance for Cardinals fans of Monday's 1-0 season-opening victory over the Reds, we have to go back to 2010.
In August, the Cardinals and Reds got into a disagreement about the quality of job the Reds did rubbing mud on the baseballs before a game between the clubs in Cincinnati. Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan, respectively the manager and pitching coach of the Redbirds at the time, voiced their complaints. Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter did the same. Shortly thereafter, the Dayton Daily News quoted Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips as having said:
"I’d play against these guys with one leg. We have to beat these guys. I hate the Cardinals. All they do is bitch and moan about everything, all of them, they’re little bitches, all of ‘em.
"I really hate the Cardinals. Compared to the Cardinals, I love the Chicago Cubs. Let me make this clear: I hate the Cardinals."
On August 10, the day after the Daily News story ran, Phillips made his way to the plate to lead-off the bottom of the first inning. He attempted to tap Yadier Molina on the shinguard, a common way for a batter to greet a catcher. But Molina rejected the salutation from the man who proclaimed his hatred for and insulted the Cardinals the day before. The two exchanged words, Phillips took off his helmet, Molina pulled off his mask and demonstrably asked the Red, "What's your problem, mother fucker?" Molina emphatically repeated his inquiry multiple times as the home-plate umpire separated the men and their teammates came between and restrained them.
The situation seemed to cool down, only to then escalate.
Dusty Baker, manager of the Reds, and Tony La Russa exchanged heated words. Then Baker and Carpenter got into it. Former MV3 Cardinal Scott Rolen, who spent the twilight of his illustrious career in Cincinnati, attempted to restrain Carpenter and the ruckus turned into a full-fledged fight.
Our SBN sister site Red Reporter ran a multi-part history of the Cardinals-Reds rivalry (that you should read; it's very interesting). In one installment, ams78 writes that backup Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue "sustained a concussion (which he estimated to be his twentieth concussion of his playing career) and retired from baseball." Using the passive voice and making no mention of Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto is one way to describe what happened that day. Another and perhaps more accurate description is to say that Cueto intentionally kicked LaRue in the head multiple times from behind while wearing baseball spikes. Cueto's kicks resulted in a concussion that prevented LaRue from ever playing baseball again and forced his retirement.
In the seventh inning of Monday's opening-day tilt, Molina and Cueto, two central figures in the August 10, 2010 Cardinals-Reds brawl, faced off yet again. Cueto was dealing, deploying his fastball in a way that was inducing whiffs and weak contact throughout the game. But the righthander's luck ran out against the Birdo backstop. Cueto piped an offering down the center of the plate and Molina happily swatted it into the Great American Ball Park bleachers. Molina's dinger gave the Cards a 1-0 lead and their margin of victory. Reds fans booed Molina as he rounded the bases—like they always do when he homers in Cincinnati.
The season opener is just another game. But it always carries a bit more weight for fans because it's the first. Throw in the history between the Redbirds and Redlegs and you have a bit more at stake. Add to that the players who played a decisive role in the game's outcome and you have a game of outsized significance for Cardinals fans. And understandably so. It's always nice to beat the Reds, but doing so on opening day thanks to a Molina homer off Cueto is all the sweeter.