Yesterday, the St. Louis Cardinals opened a three-game set at PNC Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite a hot start which found the Pirates surprisingly briefly atop an NL Central that they were widely believed destined to finish in the back half of, the consensus on the Pirates is still that they will fade from sincere playoff contention in time. After all, in 2017, the Pirates won just 75 games and in the off-season, they dealt their most iconic player (Andrew McCutchen) and their best pitcher (Gerrit Cole).
For most of their histories, the Cardinals and Pirates didn’t have much of a rivalry, Willie Stargell’s inexplicable split of the 1979 NL MVP award with more deserving Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez aside–each franchise had its highs, but they rarely correlated. But in 2013, when the Pirates finally emerged from the cellar of Major League Baseball, they ran into the Cardinals. Although the teams would finish 1-2 in the NL Central in 2014 and 2015, as well, it was in 2013 that the rivalry peaked, thanks to a five-game NLDS that went the distance.
It was finally Pittsburgh’s year, and the Cardinals ruined it. Pirates fans undeniably hate the Cardinals more than Cardinals fans hate the Pirates. Can you blame them?
Rivalries tend to fluctuate, and while the Chicago Cubs are the de facto answer for the top Cardinals rivalry, the answer really depends on the season. Here is the season in which the Cardinals’ rivalry with every team in baseball peaked.
Baltimore Orioles–1944: Okay, it was the St. Louis Browns at the time, but this is an easy answer. The Browns were usually bad and won their first (and only, during their time in St. Louis) pennant in 1944, where they faced the Cardinals team with whom they shared Sportsman’s Park. The Cardinals won in six and who knows what would have happened had the Browns managed to bring their own World Series title to St. Louis?
Boston Red Sox–1946: They’ve played four times in the World Series, and while a case could certainly be made for 1967 or 2004, this is a World Series in which a 104-win Red Sox team was topped by a 98-win Cardinals team. Each roster was led by its near-peak greatest player in franchise history, Ted Williams and Stan Musial.
New York Yankees–1926: The Yankees had already won a World Series, in 1923, but they weren’t quite the Yankees, while the Cardinals, who had been mediocre for most of their history, were in their first World Series. One could make a very good argument that the greatest first baseman (Lou Gehrig), second baseman (Rogers Hornsby), and outfielder (Babe Ruth) were in this World Series. It was Ruth who made the most headlines in the series, positive (hitting three home runs in a game) and negative (being caught attempting to steal second base to end Game 7 and give the Cardinals their first championship).
Tampa Bay Rays–2017: My sole memory of the Cardinals playing the Rays was this.
Toronto Blue Jays–2014: Same as above but this.
Houston Astros–2004: 2004 felt like the last gasp for a Houston Astros team which had never made the World Series. Carlos Beltran was around as a rental, Jeff Kent was about to be a free agent, and Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte weren’t getting any younger. And when Kent hit a walk-off home run in Game 5 to give Houston a 3-2 series lead, it seemed the 105-win Cardinals juggernaut may fall short of the World Series, but after two wins in St. Louis, the Cardinals made their first World Series in seventeen years and the Astros would have to wait a length of time I’d rather not discuss.
Los Angeles Angels–2011: The Cardinals had great success with ex-Angels such as Jim Edmonds, David Eckstein, Scott Spiezio, and That One Year Of Troy Glaus, but when Albert Pujols went the opposite direction, signing a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Angels following the 2011 World Series, many Cardinals fans were angry. This anger has largely subsided (Pujols being mostly terrible helps) and if/when Albert Pujols returns to St. Louis in an Angels uniform and I see fans booing him, I’m calling the police.
Oakland Athletics–1931: The at-the-time Philadelphia Athletics went a ludicrous 107-45 and was buoyed by Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Waite Hoyt, and Al Simmons. Like, the Yankees had peak Ruth and Gehrig and they finished 13 1/2 games back. And yet it was the Cardinals who won the World Series in seven games, depriving the Athletics of a third consecutive title.
Seattle Mariners–2016: Freakin’ Adam Lind, man.
Texas Rangers–2011: As a naturally defensive Midwestern, I feel the need to defend the Cardinals from The Internet’s collective scorn. But after the 2011 World Series, one which kept the Rangers’ still-ongoing run of zero World Series titles–I get it. Man, I get it.
Chicago White Sox–2006: The White Sox were up, having won the World Series the year before, and the Cardinals were down. In a truly disastrous mid-June set, the Cardinals started off by losing 20-6 at U.S. Cellular Field, and it wasn’t as close as that sounds–they allowed 11 runs in the 3rd inning and scored four runs in the ninth. The next game was barely better, with the White Sox winning 13-5, scoring nine runs in the first two innings. Following a 1-0 White Sox win on Thursday to complete the sweep, the 2006 Cardinals forfeited the rest of their season in shame.
Cleveland Indians–2016: After a disappointing season in which the Cardinals missed the postseason for the first time since 2010, we had one thing to eagerly anticipate: the demise of the Chicago Cubs. And when the Indians pulled out to a 3-1 lead in the World Series, it looked over. Rajai Davis deserved better. At least for one fleeting moment, we were all LeBron James twenty seconds into this video.
Detroit Tigers–1968: 2006, sure, but the World Series was, objectively, a dud. It was in the middle of a four-year stretch in which only one game more than the minimum was played in the Fall Classic and somehow, baseball survived. But the 1968 World Series, a tour de force of legendary pitchers such as Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Mickey Lolich, and 30-game winner Denny McLain, was the more hotly contested series, going seven games before the Tigers closed out the 3-1 series comeback at Busch Memorial Stadium.
Kansas City Royals–1985: I mean, yeah.
Minnesota Twins–1987: Although not as contentious, bitter, or frankly famous as the 1985 World Series, it is hard to not go with the only World Series contested between the two teams. Honorable mention: 2011, when Joe Buck used his dad’s iconic “We’ll see you tomorrow night” call for David Freese’s walk-off home run in Game 6 of the World Series. I’m not saying this should annoy Twins fans who will always associate the phrase with Kirby Puckett in 1991, or even that it did. But I would understand why it might.
Atlanta Braves–2012: Coming off the 2011 Wild Card collapse, in which the Braves blew a 10 1/2 game lead to the Cardinals, concluding the collapse on the final day of the season, the Atlanta Braves got Koz’d.
Miami Marlins–2015: Come on, Miami, you couldn’t win one measly game against the Cubs in the World Series?
New York Mets–1985: While the two teams met in the 2000 NLCS, the Cardinals/Mets rivalry of the 21st century (insofar as one exists) never matched the intensity of the 1980s, and 1985 was its peak. The 1985 Cardinals were great and deserving NL East winners, but the 1985 Mets were themselves an incredible squad, with terrific seasons from Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, and particularly Dwight Gooden, who had, by Baseball Reference’s measurement, the best individual season since Babe Ruth. And yet the 98 win Mets were kept away from their rightful World Series glory for an entire extra year.
Philadelphia Phillies–2011: They had Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, and they all had career years. They had Vance Worley and Roy Oswalt, who were terrific. They won 102 games and were as safe of a pick as any to win the World Series. And yet it was the Cardinals who out-dueled the Phillies, with Ryan Howard’s series-concluding Achilles injury acting as an unfortunate metaphor for what would happen to the Phillies in the ensuing seasons.
Washington Nationals–2012: Like The Godfather Part II, Pete Kozma Part II is the rare sequel which matches or even surpasses the original. By this analogy, Pete Kozma Part III was that weird hop on that ground ball in Game 7 of the 2012 NLCS.
Arizona Diamondbacks–2001: Tony Womack. Because 2004 happened, I resisted throwing an extra word in between his first and last names.
Colorado Rockies–2008: Does the fact that Rick Ankiel embarrassed the Rockies like this while being a former pitcher make it more or less excruciating?
Los Angeles Dodgers–2013: The Dodgers were up-and-coming and entered the postseason as the hottest team in baseball, going 61-28 from June 22 onward. But it was the Cardinals, slightly stodgy but fun to those who wanted them to be, who got the 13th inning walk-off single, rookie Michael Wacha beating Clayton Kershaw twice, and Matt Carpenter garnering a series-winning RBI in Game 6 following an 80-minute (citation needed) AB against the 2013 Cy Young Award winner.
San Diego Padres–1996: The 1996 Padres won 91 games and may have had the most star power in franchise history–third baseman Ken Caminiti was NL MVP, each of their corner outfielders (Rickey Henderson and Tony Gwynn) are in the Hall of Fame, and their center fielder (Steve Finley) is probably closer to Hall of Fame-worthy than you think. But the Cardinals won three close games (the total margin of victory was five runs for the series) to sweep the Padres. God bless Brian Jordan.
San Francisco Giants–1987: The many 21st century postseason tilts were aggravating for Cardinals fans, but the basically likable Giants teams never had a widely-detested heel quite like the 1987 Giants had Jeffrey Leonard. I personally think it’s kind of dumb and I don’t understand it but this is probably just my Millennial showing.
Chicago Cubs–2015: For a rivalry that gets so much attention, there weren’t really defining moments because the teams were rarely good at the same time. But in 2015, the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry became more than “a bunch of people from each city make weekend trips to the other’s stadium”–it had actual postseason stakes when the two teams met in the NLDS. I don’t remember which team won.
Cincinnati Reds–2010: The Reds and Cardinals finished 1-2 again in 2012, but 2010 was when the anger was really unleashed. For my generation (I think), Brandon Phillips was our Jeffrey Leonard–it wasn’t that he was an actually evil dude but he loved being hated by St. Louis. He was to us what Yadier Molina is to the rest of the National League and I would hate to live in a world in which Brandon Phillips never happened. Johnny Cueto actually sucks, though.
Milwaukee Brewers–2011: 1982 may have been for the World Series, but it’s hard to build up actual animosity over seven games. But the 2011 Brewers had Nyjer Morgan, a store-brand version of Brandon Phillips, and with Prince Fielder almost certain to leave Milwaukee in the off-season (which he did), this felt like a last-gasp for the Brewers. And while the Brewers won the NL Central crown, the Cardinals won the NLCS and eventually the World Series.