Have We Seen a New Turning Point in the Cubs/Cardinals Rivalry?

In 1964, the Cubs traded outfielder Lou Brock to the Cardinals for pitcher Ernie Broglio. It became one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history, as Brock went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Cardinals while Broglio’s career fizzled out almost immediately.
In baseball lore, it might not be up there with the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, but that trade epitomizes the opposite fortunes of two of baseball’s most storied franchises. While there were obviously other factors at play, the Brock-for-Broglio swap stands as turning point in the Cubs/Cards rivalry. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series in 1964 and have won a total of ten pennants and five world championships since.
The Cubs…well, you’ve heard the numbers hundreds of times already, so I’ll spare you.
I’ve only been a Cubs fan since 1994, but even in that time the Cardinals have been an endless source of frustration for me. It started in 1996, when I was 11 years old. The two teams met late in the season with the Cubs trailing St. Louis by five games for the division lead. The Cardinals swept all three games, ending any chance the Cubs had to make the playoffs. They’ve been irritating me for nearly 20 years since.
It amazes me how the Cards keep doing it year after year, especially while playing in one of the league’s smaller markets. In 2011, after losing Adam Wainwright for the entire season due to injury, they were somehow able to go all the way to the World Series and beat the Rangers in improbable fashion. Then they lost Albert Pujols, the face of their franchise, to free agency but have made the playoffs every year since. Mediocre or struggling players seem to gain superpowers once they put on the Cardinals uniform. This year, despite Wainwright, Matt Holliday, and Matt Adams missing significant time to injuries, they still managed to win 100 games.
Cubs vs. Cardinals is one of the game’s oldest and most storied rivalries. For decades though, the story has been that the Cardinals are a model franchise that finds a way to get it done each year, while the Cubs are bumbling losers who can’t seem to do anything right. That’s why, when the two teams met in the postseason for the first time ever this year, Six Flags in St. Louis felt confident enough to post a sign that read, “No worries, it’s just the Cubs.”
It looked like things would go according to the script in Game One of the Division Series, when the Cardinals outclassed the Cubs in a 4-0 win. Even more so when Matt Carpenter hit a leadoff homer in Game Two.
But then something incredible happened in the second inning of that game: the Cardinals imploded. Shortly after Kolten Wong committed a throwing error, the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks tried a safety squeeze and pitcher Jaime Garcia, seeming confused, threw the ball into right field. From that moment on, the dynamic of the entire series changed. While watching that second inning unfold, I felt like my entire 22 years as a Cubs fan were being turned upside down. I cheered almost as much out of surprise as excitement.
The Cubs rallied for five runs and went on to win that game, plus the next two to win the series. Then, as if it wasn’t enough to knock the Cardinals out of the playoffs, the Cubs have continued to torment their rivals this offseason by signing away two of the most important players from their 2015 squad. First, it was pitcher John Lackey, who dominated the Cubs during the regular season and Game One of the NLDS (though they got to him on short rest in Game Four). But the bigger blow was outfielder Jason Heyward, who not only chose the Cubs over the Cardinals, but did so for less money. Watching all this unfold, I feel like I’ve been transported to another universe.
Now, I know nothing is won in the offseason; the Nationals were a great example of that this year. And I know the Cubs have a very long way to go to match the accomplishments of the Cardinals, who I can’t imagine are going to take this lying down either. They’ll probably still manage to bring in at least a couple quality players before the season and likely will be in the middle of the NL Central chase again in 2016.
But I’m hoping that, after what has happened over the past few months, the tired narrative of the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry is changing. When watching sports, I try to recognize important moments, turning points, as they happen. Years from now, we may look back at that second inning of Game Two much like we do the Lou Brock trade. The Cubs and Cardinals were already on opposite paths before that trade and losing Brock alone doesn’t account for all the Cubs’ woes, but it is a signature moment in a larger story.
Similarly, the second inning of Game Two alone didn’t trigger a change of fortunes. The Cubs were already trending up, and the Cardinals down, before then. The Cardinals humiliated the Cubs in this year’s early-season meetings, but we watched this team grow up during the season, to the point that the Cubs won both of the teams’ final two series in September. The Cubs are now in a position we’re used to seeing the Cardinals in: that of a desirable landing spot for free agents. That didn’t happen overnight, but rather is a result of hard work from Theo Epstein and the rest of the Cubs’ management.
That second inning, if all continues to go according to plan, could be the defining moment for the Cubs in their perpetual grudge match with the Cardinals in the coming years. At the very least, I’m hoping that instead of the Cubs being a source of amusement for Cardinals fans, this rivalry will be exciting for the foreseeable future because both teams will be really good. Hopefully, the 2015 playoff win will be the first of several victories over the Cardinals we’ll remember for many years.
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