Sunday, June 5, 2011

The I-55 "Rivalry"

With the possible exception of Celtics vs. Lakers, the I-55 rivalry is hands down my favorite in sports. I don't think it's one that translates outside of a particular geography, though, in the same way that C's/Lakers, Yankees/Red Sox or Packers/Bears does. A big reason for that was on grand display this past weekend.....It has seemed to be very rare in my 38 years that both the Cubs and the Cardinals have been good in the same season. They have been closer in the standings in the last decade, but the last time that this rivalry seemed to have real teeth was back in 2003 as the favored Cardinals just couldn't hang with Dusty Baker's surprising Cubs. But then in 2004, the roles flipped and the Cardinals returned the favor by being a juggernaut team (that eventually lost to the, umm ....juggernaut-y Red Sox). But more often than not, it seems that when one team is a serious contender, the other fades by mid-August if not sooner. And we've certainly never seen any games with the kind of drama that was on display in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs when the Yankees and Red Sox met in the ALCS in consecutive years. It was those two series that really lead ESPN to believe that the nation really cared about that rivalry (and they've been shoving it down our throats ever since.....and I mean no disrespect -- I am as much a Yankees fan as I am a Cardinals fan).

But still, growing up in Central Illinois, this is the rivalry that seemed to matter above all others. Peoria is about 3 1/2 hours from St. Louis and about 3 from Chicago. Peoria' local Midwest League has been the low A affiliate to both the Cubs and the Cards at different points in the franchise's history -- and has seen the beginning of the careers of such talents as Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. I had friends growing up that shared my love of the Cardinals, and I had just as many friends that were Cubs fans. (Side note....only a handful of folks cared about the White Sox until they donned black hats in the 90's. And even after that, they are a distant #3 in terms of baseball pecking order....maybe further down with the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Braves having dominant stretches that attracted fans). For my 8th grade class trip, we had a choice of going to the St. Louis Zoo and a Cardinals game or spending a day at Six Flags. We voted for the former simply because it was the option that got us a day off of school. My 8th grade teacher, herself a huge Cubs fan, gave a lecture to the class that for the Cubs fans, it was one thing to go to St. Louis and cheer against the Cardinals, but another to do so wearing a Cubs hat (the opponent was the Braves). In other words, leave your Cubs apparel on the bus or at home.

The other reason that I love this rivalry -- it really is a friendly rivalry. I've watched games at Wrigley field, proudly wearing my red, and not been the least bit worried about being an opposing fan in "the enemy's ballpark." Same has held true for my wife when we've taken in games in St. Louis. Sure, you get a few good-natured barbs thrown your way, but I've never once felt like things would turn ugly (the same can't be said when I've worn my Yankees gear as a visiting fan). In truth, though my loyalties are rarely at odds (though I will admit to rooting for the Cubs in 2003 once the playoffs started), I just can't muster up much hatred for the Cubs. Doesn't mean I enjoy watching the Cards lose to them, but on days like today -- where the Cards have finished a heartbreaking sweep of the Cubs -- I really feel pity for Cubs fans as much as anything.

There are two players on the Cubs that I truly dislike....Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Marmol. I think both are perfect examples of the kind of misguided talent evaluation that has taken the Cubs from contenders in 2003, 2004 and 2007-09 and put them where they are today. They have great "stuff", but they also have screws loose that will ALWAYS prevent either from ever reaching his true potential. The Cubs will never win a World Series with Big Z in their rotation, and if they do ever get to a pressure packed game 7 in the NLCS with Marmol as their closer, I have no doubt that he'll fold just like he folded today. Zambrano is a bit easier to explain...I'm not sure where I picked up the intense dislike for Marmol.

But aside from that, there are a lot of Cubs players that I semi-root for....especially the young guys like Colvin and Barney. So on a day like today, I'm marveling at the way Pujols, in a down season, ended two straight games (one on a pitch that wasn't all that bad) in walk-off fashion. But I can't help but feel a bit sorry for a fan like my wife. She loves her team -- always will -- but has always had respect for the Cardinals. Of course, she like me, is married to a fan of the enemy, and related to several more such fans. But even in the worst of times, her stripes don't change. One change has happened, though. The cluelessness of the Ricketts family combined by the occasionally brilliant but mostly awful reign of Jim Hendry has made her somewhat apathetic to her team. For the second straight season, we're not going to make a single trip to Wrigley, which is especially note worthy because the Yankees come to play this year. In 2003, I burned a vacation day to buy tickets for the same series. This year, we decided that we didn't want to put any money in the Cubs' wallets. I'm thrilled with the way the Cardinals have hung in there all season -- one in which my expectations were fairly low -- but I do feel sad that a fan like my wife hasn't been able to feel the same sense of hope around her team. It's been years and years of either waiting for the bottom to drop out (when they're good) or just wondering how far down the bottom is (how she feels this year).

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