Well, now that my official duties for Easter are completed and our celebration of our Lord’s resurrection is finished for the day (reminder: we should celebrate Easter everyday), my attention turns to this evening when I will have the challenge of watching St. Louis compete against Chicago in two different sports. First, the Blues play the Blackhawks at 6:30 from the United Center and at 7:00 the Cardinals open their 2015 season with a game with the Cubs at the recently demolished but yet unfinished Wrigley Field (OK, they just took down the left field bleachers to put up a video board but the work isn’t completed. I like the idea of knocking down that old place because it isn’t worth anything).).
My wife tells me that our main TV has a picture in picture options and I will investigate that in a few hours. My first preference is to watch hockey since this is the last week of the regular season and the Blues and Black Hawks are only a point apart in the standings and are chasing the Nashville Predators for first place. There is more significance in this game than the baseball action. I will work this out.
There has been lots of talk that the Cubs are going to make their move this season. With high priced free agents and a boatload of rookies (obtained by the Cubs because they have played so miserably for way too many seasons), some feel this team is ready to take on the best. We’ll see about that.
Let me share with you what Derrick Goold, writer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch says about these two teams fighting for a championship:
There is a story Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has told many times about how he can personally relate to fans left up in the air so long by their team that the only guarantee is a heartbreaking fall.
As kids growing up in the shadow of Fenway Park and the cursed club there, Epstein and his twin brother Paul watched Game 6 of the 1986 World Series from the family couch. With each out the Boston Red Sox inched closer to their first championship in generations and the Epstein boys got higher up on the couch preparing to celebrate with a brief but ecstatic orbit. They were 12 and when the final out came they wanted to be “in midair, not connected to this planet.” Perched on the back of the couch they watched, they watched, they shifted, they watched, until …
“The ball went through (Bill) Buckner’s legs and we collapsed,” Epstein said during a phone interview this spring. “That’s part of the fabric of Red Sox fans at the time. Everyone has experienced some sort of hope and then pain along the way. That makes the experience richer and ultimately makes the winning cathartic and beautiful when it happens. Cubs fans are at a certain point in that process right now.
The Hundred Year Vigil continues in person Sunday as the Cubs host the defending division champion Cardinals at Wrigley Field for ESPN’s national broadcast of Major League Baseball’s 2015 opening night.
The Cubs and the ballpark they call home are still in the midst of rebuilds. At least the roster, unlike the friendly confines, is ahead of schedule. Slugger Kris Bryant, who starts the season in the minors, will likely be installed in the lineup before the bleachers are riveted down beyond the outfield. The cornerstones of contentions are in place – new ace Jon Lester will start opening night opposite Adam Wainwright, new manager Joe Maddon will scheme opposite Mike Matheny – and it’s only fitting that the first peek at both new Wrigley and the new Cubs goes to their archrivals.
This will be the first time the Cardinals have visited Wrigley for opening day since 1991. It only seems that long since the two historic rivals have played a meaningful series. As the Cardinals open their 124th season in the National League, the team geographically closest to them all that time has rarely been so in the standings. While the Cubs have had five consecutive fifth-place finishes, the Cardinals are starting this year aiming for a fifth consecutive National League championship series appearance. Since 1945, the last time the Cubs won the pennant, the Cardinals and Cubs have finished first and second in the division only once, in 2009.
They have never played in the same postseason.
They have never had a one-game playoff.
The Cubs hope to change that by introducing something new to the rivalry – games with gravity.
“I think it’s on us to rekindle the rivalry,” said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer last week. “The last five years we haven’t been a team of the caliber to have a meaningful rivalry with them or really threaten them at all. They are still the team that you measure yourself against, and in that way they’ve held up their end of the bargain. We need to do our part.”
“There could very well be something on the line with the Cubs in the near future,” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “We’ve had a great rivalry over many years, but, you know, it’s been a friendly rivalry in many ways.”
It’s been a one-sided rivalry.
The Cardinals have all 11 of their World Series titles since the Cubs’ last, in 1908. During the 1930s, the Cardinals and Cubs twice finished one-two atop the National League, and from the year the Cardinals won their first World Series (1926) through 1939 the two rivals had winning records at the same time in 12 of 14 seasons. The rivalry with the Windy City has had little gust since. It has been 69 seasons since the Cubs last appeared in a World Series and the Cardinals have finished ahead of them in the standings 53 times. A Baby Boomer born to a Cardinals family could have graduated high school, raised another generation in red, and joined AARP without seeing his or her team finish behind the Cubs more than 12 times.
August 2003, as chronicled in the bestseller Three Nights in August, and September 1989 are the closest the teams have come to meaningful late-season games. It’s what the New York Yankees and Red Sox have added to their made-for-TV rivalry that the Cubs-Cards have not.
“Great theater,” Hoyer called it.
“It’s because wins mean movement in your division,” said Bill Mueller, the Cubs’ hitting coach last season and now the Cardinals assistant hitting coach. He played third base for Boston at the height of the clashes with the Yankees. “Losses mean changes in the standings. It’s more significant when it’s something that impacts the division or the playoff spot or a wild card. I think there’s more attention, there’s more people, there’s more media, and there’s more emphasis on the details of the games. When a rivalry becomes very competitive, it can be like (October) all the time.”
The Cardinals-Cubs rivalry spans Interstate 55 and bisects the state of Illinois. It has been rooted in Midwest proximity and forged in history, while other rivalries have been fanned by the postseason. The Cardinals and Milwaukee met in an NLCS. The Cardinals fended off Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in recent years to win division crowns.
In his three seasons as manager, Matheny has reached the playoffs each year in large part because of his team’s success against division foes. The Cardinals have a .594 winning percentage in the NL Central with Matheny as manager; that’s the equivalent of a 96-win season. Last year, 45 of the Cardinals’ 90 wins came from the division. The team the Cardinals had the fewest wins against – the Cubs.
“It’s not like we saw some team that was a doormat,” Matheny said.
What the Cardinals saw, especially in August and September, was a team that helped slow down division-leading Milwaukee and speed up its own reboot. Epstein and Hoyer both said the Cubs’ eagerness to spend this winter was encouraged by how the team improved late last season. They signed Maddon to a five-year, $25-million contract and landed Lester for $155 million, while also outfitting the roster with catcher Miguel Montero and starter Jason Hammel. The Cardinals will open this season with 24 of their first 31 games within the division and close it with 26 consecutive games in September against NL Central teams. Six of them will be with the Cubs. They’ll get an eyeful of the Cubs’ additions.
That is, after all, how the spiciest rivalries cook these days. Familiarity brings them to a boil. The Cardinals will play the Cubs 19 times this season. They played the Brewers 24 times in 2011 when they met in the postseason. The hitter who has faced Wainwright most often is a Brewer, Ryan Braun. The pitcher to face Yadier Molina most often was a Red, Bronson Arroyo. The future could be defined by the many at-bats this season’s first hitter, Matt Carpenter, will have against Lester. The careers of Cardinals starter Michael Wacha and Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo will be intertwined, and on the horizon is Bryant vs. lefty Marco Gonzales.
“There’s so much continuity,” Hoyer said, “it becomes like playing against your brother.”
Hoyer knows the family aspect. His wife, Merrill Muckerman, is from the St. Louis area, so he’s married into Cardinals country. With visits to the area, he has seen the rivalry from both sides – the run of perpetual success by the Cardinals and the Cubs’ past chases for fleeting moments of contending. The Cubs acknowledge they are trying to build what the Cardinals have, and in doing so have the makings of a rich, revived rivalry. The Cubs are built around young power. The Cardinals have sided with young pitching. The Cubs hired a manager who grew up a Cardinals fan. The Cardinals have one who grew up a Cardinal.
The ingredients are there. A catalyst is needed.
A pennant race the teams have never had would do.
“This is a unique opportunity because they haven’t won in over a century, and we have a plan,” Epstein said. “For three years we’ve been doing the dirty work and digging out of a hole and you probably would not have wanted to be here because we’ve been trading 40 percent of our rotation, we’ve been getting high draft picks that are essential, and we been trading short-term assets for longterm assets and we’ve been providing young players a chance.
“But that work is over,” he concluded. “Now, we haven’t done anything yet but we think we may be set up to a point where we really can compete. It’s time to compete.”
The Cubs are the kids on the back of the couch.
They’re ready to make the leap.
The Cardinals will be waiting when they land.