Cubs, Cardinals leveraging rivalry to be ambassadors for baseball in London

The Cubs and Cardinals open a two-game series Saturday at London Stadium.

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London Stadium was set up for baseball ahead of the Cubs and Cardinals’ workouts Friday before the London Series.

London Stadium was set up for baseball ahead of the Cubs and Cardinals’ workouts Friday before the London Series.

Maddie Lee/Sun-Times

LONDON — Cubs utility player Christopher Morel held up the West Ham United jersey retired footballers Carlton Cole and James Collins had given him for a photo op in the dugout during team workouts Friday for the London Series.

First-base coach Mike Napoli, wearing an Arsenal jersey, walked past Morel on his way back to the clubhouse and said: ‘‘Put that down.’’

That caught Cole’s attention, and he called after Napoli: ‘‘Hey, hey, hey.’’

Cole shook his head as Napoli disappeared down the tunnel and said: ‘‘Coming in here in an Arsenal shirt.’’

Nothing breaks down cultural barriers like rivalry banter.

That’s exactly what MLB is counting on as the National League Central rival Cubs and Cardinals play a two-game series this weekend at London Stadium. ‘‘Old rivalry, new ground’’ serves as the slogan for the event.

Rivalries have been a big factor in deciding which teams MLB sends across the pond. The Yankees and Red Sox played the inaugural games in 2019, and commissioner Rob Manfred said Friday that the Mets and Phillies will carry on the new tradition June 8-9, 2024.

‘‘We want to show our best when we come someplace special, like London,’’ Manfred said. ‘‘We do regard London to be special, of strategic importance to us. We think our game is at its best when we have traditional rivals playing.’’

The rivalry between the Cubs and Cardinals goes back well more than a century. And now their division has no clear favorite, with only nine games separating the last-place Cardinals (31-44) and the first-place Reds (40-35) entering play Friday.

The Cubs (36-38), who have won 10 of their last 12 games, are trying to make up ground before president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer decides what the team’s approach to the trade deadline will be.

‘‘These two games still count,’’ shortstop Dansby Swanson said. ‘‘As long as we come out of here with two wins, that’s the reason we’re here.’’

It’s an interesting time for an overseas trip. In the Cubs’ case, a late-June event meant a pair of roughly 7½-hour flights, extra days off and jet lag thrown at a hot streak. But players also pointed to the bonding experience overseas travel offers.

‘‘The cool thing about a trip like this is all the families get to be together,’’ left fielder Ian Happ said. ‘‘You get some time in Chicago to do that, but on a trip like this, everybody gets to hang out together. The flight was a really nice experience for everybody to spend some time. And being on that roll coming off some really good series is a nice way to do that.’’

The Cubs also got a private tour of Westminster Abbey on Thursday. They took in the towering ceilings, stained-glass windows and troves of history held within the stone walls. Happ, left-hander Justin Steele — who is set to start Saturday — and manager David Ross highlighted the experience as one of their favorites of the trip so far.

Shortstop Nico Hoerner’s pick was more overarching.

‘‘Walking around the streets in general, just the impression of how our history in the United States is pretty short,’’ Hoerner said. ‘‘Just walking around and getting a sense of all that’s come before you.’’

Playing a rivalry game in a soccer stadium will be the Cubs’ next new experience. They’ll be giving plenty of fans a new experience, too. What do they want any new fans who are seeing a major-league game in person for the first time to take away from the weekend games?

‘‘That it’s not just any two teams that are coming,’’ Hoerner said. ‘‘Cubs-Cardinals is a special thing.’’

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