Why MLB’s best rivalry could provide the spark for Cubs’ elusive championship

Mike Matheny and Joe Maddon don't always see eye to eye.

Jerry Lai/Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox and Yankees justifiably dominated our country’s baseball conversation in the first decade of this century. They played 52 times between the 2003 and 2004 seasons — a major-league record for a two-year span — including back-to-back seven-game American League Championship Series. Boston’s historic comeback in 2004 changed the franchise, and its rivalry with the Yankees, forever.

More recently, the Giants won three World Series in a five-year span while the Dodgers ran up the largest payroll in North American sports history, creating new antipathy around a conflict rooted in the 19th century.

But neither can be called the best rivalry in baseball in 2016. That distinction belongs to the Cubs and Cardinals, whose encounters long had the bonhomie of a college football tailgate.

No more.

The Cubs’ window to win a World Series is more promising now than at any time in recent memory. The result is new animosity in relations with their standard-bearing neighbors, as Cubs pitchers and catchers prepare for their first official workout Saturday in Mesa, Ariz.

“They need to have that,” Ryan Theriot, the former Cubs and Cardinals infielder, said this week of the growing contempt. “The nastiness makes it fun and interesting. It gives you a little extra push. Tony (La Russa) used to call it your ‘edge’ — whatever it is that motivates you. As long as the Cardinals stay relevant and Cubs continue to be good, the rivalry is going to be awesome.”

Many baseball fans today have Red Sox-Yankees fatigue, and West Coast start times make it difficult for a Dodgers-Giants pennant race to truly captivate the country. But the Cubs and Cardinals are in the sweet spot, culturally and geographically, and are uniquely capable of elevating a regionalized sport back into the national consciousness.

Last fall, the Cubs defeated the Cardinals in their first-ever postseason matchup, then lured away Gold Glove-winning right fielder Jason Heyward from St. Louis with the richest contract of any free-agent position player this offseason: eight years, $184 million. And the Cubs fortified their rotation by signing John Lackey — who led qualifying Cardinals starters in innings and ERA last season — to a two-year, $32 million deal.

The Cardinals offered Heyward a larger guarantee, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In explaining his decision, Heyward cited the advancing age of the Cardinals’ key players, compared to the Cubs’ younger core. St. Louis manager Mike Matheny issued a rejoinder to the Post-Dispatch, saying, “I can’t say I’m in any kind of agreement with that (Chicago) core being better than any kind of core that we have. … I don’t blame him. But I don’t like it.”

All this, following a September in which Cubs manager Joe Maddon declared his team wouldn’t “put up with” Anthony Rizzo being hit by an apparent purpose pitch, saying, “I never read that particular book the Cardinals wrote way back in the day … regarding how to play baseball.”

Whatever happened to that Midwestern affability?

“The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry was much more of a respected, friendly competition than Dodgers-Giants,” Theriot, the rare player who experienced both rivalries from each side, said in a telephone interview. “Dodger Stadium would get intense, to the point where you’re worried for the players’ wives. Cubs-Cardinals was much more cordial.

“But let me tell you: Once the benches clear one time (between the Cubs and Cardinals), it’s on. Once the players get involved, you see a couple brushbacks, things like that — then the rivalry has reached what it possibly could be. And it’s coming. They’re getting a little chippy this offseason. I’m excited to see it, man. Wrigley Field on a Friday afternoon, with the Cardinals coming to town, there’s not a better place in the world.”

Comparisons to the Red Sox-Yankees ’03-04 zenith aren’t exact, but the scenarios are remarkably similar. The ’04 Red Sox defeated the Yankees — and Cardinals — en route to their first world championship in 86 years. The Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908, must go through St. Louis — literally or figuratively — if they are to end an even longer drought.

Theo Epstein was general manager of the Red Sox in 2004. He runs the Cubs now. Even the antagonists resemble one another: The Yankees’ 27 world titles are the most of any team; the Cardinals rank second with 11.

And if the Cubs win Game 7 of the World Series at Wrigley Field on Nov. 2, the country may be too stunned to vote in the presidential election six days later.

“I think everybody, deep down in their core, wants to see the Cubs win,” said Mark DeRosa, the MLB Network analyst who reached the playoffs with both the Cubs and Cardinals during a 16-year major-league career. “You’re not an American if you don’t want to see the Cubs win.

“I’ve always said this: No matter where I am in life, no matter how old I am, if the Cubs get to a clinching game to win a World Series, I’m there. I have to see it. I lived it for two years. I know what those fans have gone through. They’re a different fan base. It’s a passion, loyalty, and connection to a city that’s really unique.

“That’s why I signed there: I wanted to be on the team that won it. That’s a motivating factor. You’re not concerned about the past 108 years, but you can’t help but think about it once it gets to late September and the postseason. If you’re lucky enough to be on the team that does it, you’ll be immortalized forever. I’ve gone to 15, 16 big-league camps in my career. When there’s an expectation like the Cubs are going to have when they roll out for their first stretch, and Joe Maddon says at their first meeting that it’s World Series or bust, that’s a beautiful feeling.”

DeRosa and Theriot were a popular double-play combination on the Cubs’ back-to-back division champions in 2007 and 2008, before winning World Series rings elsewhere — DeRosa with the 2010 Giants, Theriot with the 2011 Cardinals and 2012 Giants. And they see a characteristic in the current Cubs that reminds them of the World Series-winning clubs on which they played.

In Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Javier Baez, the Cubs have a core of position players — around the same age — who were drafted by the team or arrived in trades as prospects. So they’re able to forge a shared identity and collective ethos, their own version of the renowned resiliency that led to the Kansas City Royals’ record-tying eight comeback wins in the 2015 postseason.

“For the Cubs, I’m sure the message in their clubhouse is, ‘This is our time, and it’s going to be our time for a while,’ ” DeRosa said. “What makes the Cubs different is they’re so talented, and these key players are in their early and mid-20s. But they also have guys with World Series rings in that clubhouse who can manage personalities: Jon Lester, David Ross, (Ben) Zobrist, Lackey, and right down the line.

“They have a losing streak, David Ross says something on the bus. They’re on a winning streak, it’s ‘stay humble.’ They really have the perfect storm.”

DeRosa said he believes the Cardinals’ culture “gets them five wins every year, because they’ve got such high-character people who check their egos at the door and do their jobs.” For Theriot, the experience of winning with the Cardinals and Giants helped him realize what the Cubs lacked in 2007 and 2008.

“Talent-wise, there wasn’t a better team on the planet,” Theriot said. “We had the best pitching staff. We had the best offense. How could you lose? Well, you lose if you’re not playing as a team, if you’re not playing for the guy next to you.

“I’m not going to speak for the current team, but I’d venture to say that they’re on the top step, rooting hard for their teammates every game, and it’s not because they want to win a game. They want to see that person succeed, because they care for them. It has to be that way, if you want to create a dynasty. Look at the Braves in the ’90s. They came up together. They were great friends. And they won. You add a piece here or there, and you’ve got that unit. In ’07 and ’08, we had a lot of guys who were really, really great players, but as far as knowing each other and being around each other for a long time, it wasn’t there. And that’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way the team was set up.

“For the Cubs now, it’s not about the 100 years (without a title). It’s about your relationship with the guy at the plate. You couldn’t care less about 100 years ago. You want to see Addison Russell shoot the ball in the gap, because you want him to experience that, not atone for all the losses. You want Schwarber to feel what it’s like to win a championship, because you care about him.

“And that’s a scary thing, man, when teams feel that way. They’re like the wolves that hunt in a pack. It’s the animal instinct that good teams have.”

DeRosa has a vivid recollection of his final game with the Cubs: Oct. 4, 2008, when they were swept by the Dodgers in the National League Division Series after an NL-best 97 victories during the regular season.

“We were probably a David Price away from really doing it,” he recalled. “I remember how good we were all year, then to go to LA and get swept . . . I was playing right field for some unknown reason, and there was Jim Edmonds in center field. I remember thinking, ‘This guy’s going to retire. It’s so hard to pull this off.’ So much has to go right. A lot of it is fate. The ball has to bounce your way.”

Then DeRosa’s thoughts skipped ahead eight years.

“You’re out there for the bottom of the ninth, with a chance to win the World Series for the Cubs,” DeRosa said. “I can’t imagine what would be going through the players’ minds defensively . . . ”

This fall, we might be able to ask that question of Rizzo, Bryant and Russell. But not before the Cardinals have their chance to thwart the greatest fairytale ending in American sports. 

HOT STOVE LEAGUE

Spring Training 2016

AROUND THE HORN