Hey! Look! The Cardinals are good again!
This is excellent news. It means that the Cubs’ rivalry with their neighbors to the southwest is more than Kris Bryant calling the city of St. Louis “so boring,’’ which he did in the offseason. Trash talking is fine. But trash talking is much better when the object of your garbage dumping can go toe to toe with you on the field.
That hadn’t been the case in each of the previous two seasons, when the Cardinals finished third in the National League Central Division. And it wasn’t the case in 2016, when they finished 17.5 games behind the Cubs, who went on to win the World Series.
I get the distinct feeling that St. Louis has had it with Cubs fans, who, after a century-plus of watching bad baseball as part of some nefarious government experiment, now act as if they invented the game. This bothers Cardinals fans, who, along with Tony La Russa, did invent the game.
Cubs fans have indeed become emboldened, which can happen when your team has averaged 97 victories the past four seasons. The strutting seems excessive from a fan base that didn’t know how to put one foot in front of another for decades. But thanks to Cubs president Theo Epstein, who built this monster, we have an army of young Theo clones who can tell you where the franchise is in relation to the luxury tax but not when their kid sister’s birthday is.
Now the two franchises seem to be on more even ground, though the Cardinals, who are 20-10, might look at the 16-12 Cubs and disagree.
They open a three-game series at Wrigley Field on Friday, and neither team’s season to date has been a surprise. The Cardinals announced their grand intentions in the offseason, when they traded for six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt. He and Marcell Ozuna have combined for 19 home runs so far. The Cardinals lead the NL in batting average. Most surprising of all is that St. Louis’ rotation has been mediocre at best. And yet the Cards keep winning.
The Cubs got off to a poor start and have battled their way back. Nothing about any of it has been all that stunning. When they decided in spring training to put an emphasis on getting off to a good start, it was almost a cosmic guarantee that they wouldn’t. But after beginning the season 1-6, they have gotten their ship righted against mostly middling competition. Their starting pitching has been excellent.
The Cards had won 10 of their last 11 games, the Cubs 11 of 14.
So this is a perfect time for the first series of the season between the two rivals. I’m openly rooting for Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina to blow his stack and have cartoon steam coming out of his ears. He called Bryant and former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster “stupid players” and “losers.’’ It was Dempster’s faux talk show during the Cubs Convention that drew out Bryant’s unflattering comments about St. Louis and, in turn, Molina’s response. If I’m Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, I say, “You call that an arch?’’ when Molina comes to the plate for the first time Friday.
So let the nastiness continue. Just know that it makes for better theater when both teams are playing well. It’s OK to have bad blood between two teams, but it’s that much better when both snarling clubs have the talent to make it mean something.
Last July, I wrote a column imploring the haughty Cardinals to come back. Their team was hovering around .500, they had fired their manager and their team president had questioned a veteran’s effort. This wasn’t the St. Louis organization that Chicago had come to know and hate. This was somebody else. The Reds, maybe.
But now the Cardinals are back where they’re used to being, even if it has been a while. And the Cubs, the nouveau riche, seem to be on an upswing in this young season. It’s better this way, for everyone. Better for the players, who like it when they don’t have to concoct a reason to get motivated for a series in early May. And better for the fans, who would prefer to pick on someone their own size.
Last season, the Cardinals moved into first place in the division with a victory over the Cubs on May 4. They went on to sweep the three-game series and raise their record to 20-12. But it would never get better than that for the Cards, who would lose six of their next 10 games and never regain first place.
I don’t anticipate a similar fall by St. Louis this season. Nor do I anticipate another 95-victory season by the Cubs. I envision two evenly matched teams and two swaggering fans bases facing each other 19 times this season.
I envision heat, no matter what the weather is.