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Baseball’s best rivalry resumes tonight

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Already on the upswing, 2016 and the first month-plus of 2017 have only solidified Cardinals-Cubs as the premier rivalry in baseball.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The title of “best rivalry in baseball” is not a permanent title any more than “best team in baseball” or “best player in baseball” is a permanent title (or at least wasn’t before Mike Trout came around).

In the early 1950s, the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers finished first and second in the National League three times in four seasons, the first of which led to a best-of-three series, at the conclusion of which the Giants won the pennant. Starting in 2013, the rivalry, which continued through the teams’ simultaneous departures to San Francisco and Los Angeles following the 1957 season, has been defined by the Dodgers finishing in first, the Giants finishing in second, and yet the Giants being the team labelled a dynasty thanks to its three World Series wins in five seasons.

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have been a default answer for decades for the “best rivalry” title. It had many peaks, though it arguably hit its cultural zenith in the mid-2000s when the long-suffering Red Sox finally closed the gap on the dominant Yankees, won a World Series title in 2004, and gave the rivalry a dynamic it had previously lacked—it was no longer hunter versus hunted; instead, it was a time for Boston to exact revenge for years of suffering, but the Yankees were unwilling to acquiesce without a fight.

Before the 2016 season, Craig Edwards wrote that the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs had the best rivalry in baseball. This has only become more true since.

Cardinals-Cubs (or Cubs-Cardinals, depending on your vantage point) is usually listed among baseball’s three greatest historic rivalries, along with the aforementioned Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants. But until recently, it was typically presented with an almost condescending tone—a series of anecdotes about how it was a “friendly rivalry”, lacking the unbridled passion of the coastal rivalries and instead being built upon a foundation of Midwestern hospitality straight out of a Garrison Keillor story.

In retrospect, this was always a Cardinals-centric perspective. While Cardinals fans such as myself were raised on a steady diet of (mostly bad) jokes about 1908 and Billy Goats, the “hatred” of the Cubs was always forced, because what was the point of hating the Cubs? Since 1945, the Cubs’ final National League pennant until 2016, the Cardinals and Cubs finished in first and second place just once, in 2009. For Cubs fans to be jealous of the tremendous success of the Cardinals was understandable, speaking as a fan of teams in other sports which are far less successful than the Cardinals. But for Cardinals fans, it was somewhat forced.

But now, Cardinals fans are legitimately mad that the Cubs ruined the constant they have known throughout their lives. St. Louis, for better or worse, has a chip on its shoulder. Like Boston, a world-class city which exerts tremendous political, academic, and cultural power yet finds itself reconciling the fact that New York is still the biggest city in the region, St. Louis often finds itself in the shadow of Chicago. It goes beyond baseball—St. Louis often finds itself arguing with Chicago about who has the superior pizza (I remain firmly on the side of “all pizza is good, you weirdos”), who has the superior football team (in a lovely show of solidarity with St. Louis following the departure of the Rams, the Chicago Bears did not play football in 2016), or whatever factor could give one’s city the upper hand.

But unlike Boston, where baseball continued the city’s tradition of running second to the region’s economic superpower, St. Louis had the edge in baseball, if nothing else. And now it doesn’t.

But St. Louis isn’t going down without a fight. Barely six months after the Chicago Cubs vanquished their 100-win rivals in the 2015 National League Division Series, the St. Louis Blues got its measure of territorial revenge by, like the Cubs, upending its more historically successful rival in the postseason, defeating the star-studded Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. And while a disappointing, postseason-less 2016 from the Cardinals, coupled with a dominant Chicago Cubs season, assured that hockey would be the only form of revenge St. Louis would get on Chicago last year, early results in 2017 suggest that while the Cubs may have won the battle in 2016, they have not yet won the war.

As it currently stands, the St. Louis Cardinals lead the Chicago Cubs by 2 12 games in the National League Central standings. The Cardinals are in first place; the Cubs are in fourth. That said, the Cardinals do not have nearly enough of a lead to feel comfortable, and prognosticators who picked the Cubs to cruise to a second consecutive division title have little reason to change their pick.

While the Cardinals’ recent successes, as well as the early season struggles of 2017 Wild Card co-favorites (along with the Cardinals) New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, have me increasingly optimistic that the Cardinals can win a Wild Card berth, I am not yet ready to predict that 2017 will not end with the Cubs taking home another NL Central title. But entering May 12 of last season, the Cardinals trailed the Cubs by 7 12 games. The Cardinals never once, even for a minute, held the division lead. While the rational observer in me knows that there is tons of baseball left to be played, the wide-eyed homer is foaming at the mouth to get revenge on a Chicago Cubs team that, for the first time in my life, I am finally learning to genuinely despise.

That I dislike the Cubs is completely irrational. But that’s what makes it fun! And the Cubs are a likable team. The one obvious mark against their likability during their 2016 playoff run, Aroldis Chapman, is gone, replaced by Wade Davis, about whose personal life I know absolutely nothing, which would not be the case had he ever fired a gun repeatedly at his girlfriend while subsequently choking her. At this point, Cardinals fans are left with John Lackey, more curmudgeon than monster—the kind of player fans like more when he’s on their team (ahem).

But the Cubs have budding Face of Baseball Kris Bryant, fan-friendly stars like Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist, exciting youngsters such as Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, and others I will not list because, as a Cardinals fan, it’s starting to get a little bit depressing. Also, the 2017 edition has two former Cardinals in longtime center fielder Jon Jay and 2015 right fielder Jason Heyward.

Heyward will miss this weekend’s series, as he is on the 10-day Disabled List. But if history is any indication, he was probably going to get booed. And while, personally, I found the booing a bit silly, I also echo the sentiments of Alex Crisafulli, who wrote in April of 2016 that booing Heyward is simply in the spirit of the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry.

And while Heyward’s first time back in St. Louis last season brought its fair share of Very Serious Takes about how it was beneath Cardinals fans to boo (as well as some outright fiction on the subject), it amplified the rivalry. Jason Heyward is, by all accounts, a terrific person, and he contributed to a memorable 2015 Cardinals team. But he was a Cub, so for many fans, none of this mattered.

That Heyward left the Cardinals to join the Cubs, and that Dexter Fowler went the reverse path in free agency the next season, exemplifies that the Cardinals and Cubs rivalry exists solely for the fans. Heyward and Fowler each seamlessly fraternize with their ex-teammates because, frankly, the players have a more rational grip on this than the fans do. And while Joe Maddon may occasionally stoke the flames of the rivalry, he is almost certainly doing so because it is his means of endearing himself to his fan base—Maddon, as has been covered numerous times, grew up a Cardinals fan.

And in the end, it’s probably for the betterment of the rivalry that the bad blood be kept off the field—these are both among the better teams in baseball, and hard-fought but ultimately clean games will provide more drama than clunky bean ball wars ever do.

I don’t remember how old I was when I decided to hate, if somewhat passively, the Chicago Cubs, but I can assure you that their entire roster has turned over multiple times since then. A good sports rivalry can be contested between individual players, but a great one manifests itself from the outside. And while the resurgence of the Chicago Cubs franchise may not sound like a great thing for Cardinals fans, it did come with a very positive residual effect—being able to watch first-hand the best rivalry in baseball.