On October 9, 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals hosted the Chicago Cubs in the postseason for the first time. It was the peak of a century-plus old series of matchups between what were, for decades, the National League’s two westernmost franchises. Throughout most of their respective histories, one team (usually, though not always, the Cardinals) were good and the other team was bad and they rarely competed with stakes on the line. This time, the teams were on equal footing, and what was often considered baseball’s great “friendly rivalry”, particularly in comparison to the more overt hostility found with the Yankees/Red Sox or Dodgers/Giants rivalries, had a chance to build genuine animosity.

Two months and six days later, the best player on the 100-win 2015 Cardinals by Wins Above Replacement, Jason Heyward, signed an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. When he returned to Busch Stadium for the first time the next season, Heyward received more boos than cheers from Cardinals fans, many of whom viewed Heyward as a heretic who had abandoned the good and righteous cause of the Cardinal Way for the eyesore that is Cubbie Blue.

Although Heyward was not warmly received by most fans (the degree of anger towards Heyward was frequently misrepresented, but it was certainly not a friendly homecoming), this did not particularly extend to the Cardinals clubhouse. Some players, notably Adam Wainwright, grew defensive after Heyward’s infamous “aging core” comments (which, in Heyward’s defense, almost every team in baseball had an aging core relative to the Cubs at that point), but by the time the next season started, the players had moved on. For, say, Matt Holliday, Heyward was a former co-worker. People don’t typically hold long-term grudges against former co-workers for leaving their jobs.

The next off-season, the Cardinals flipped the script on the Cubs, signing Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. It wasn’t quite a Heyward-level signing (besides the dollar amount, the Cubs didn’t make much of an effort to re-sign Fowler anyway), but it felt like a certain amount of validation for Cardinals fans who felt rejected by Heyward.

Of course, that Heyward and Fowler could play beside each other for a year in the outfield at Wrigley Field and that, at the conclusion of that season, Fowler would head to Heyward’s old team could be interpreted as a sign that Jason Heyward actually enjoyed, or at least did not despise, his time in St. Louis. The Chicago Cubs simply offered him a more attractive contract–while the Cardinals reportedly guaranteed Heyward more money, the Cubs allowed Heyward multiple opt-out clauses so that he could test free agency as soon as after the 2018 season (as it turns out, Heyward underperformed for three years and did not opt out, but at the time, this seemed like a pretty savvy long-term gamble on himself).

The exact offers other teams extended to Dexter Fowler aren’t known, but he was a consensus top-ten free agent during the 2016-17 off-season, so it’s safe to assume that while the Cardinals probably offered him the most money, they probably didn’t offer him the most money by leaps and bounds. And surely, if Fowler got the sense that playing in St. Louis was awful, from Heyward or somebody else, he would be likely to consider slightly less lucrative offers to avoid that culture. But he didn’t.

The Cardinals and Cubs are perceived as rivals. But with the induction of Lee Smith to the Hall of Fame, thirteen Hall of Famers will have played for both the Cardinals and Cubs. In recent years, former Cardinals such as Jim Edmonds, Jon Jay, Jaime Garcia, and Jason Motte suited up for the Cubs (it’s possible that only people with J names defect to the Cubs–keep an eye out for me). Some went of their own volition and others were traded, but none protested even the slightest bit. By the time this post publishes, it is possible that the rumors that former Cardinal Daniel Descalso will sign with the Cubs will come true.

These players have no sense of the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry because the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry exists only in the minds of fans. Sure, there was bad blood for a while in the mid-aughts, but when Dusty Baker went to manage the Cincinnati Reds, the Reds became the featured rival for the Cardinals. This isn’t a Cardinals/Cubs thing–this is a “Tony LaRussa and Dusty Baker are insufferable, crotchety old men” thing.

This isn’t to diminish the hostility between Cardinals and Cubs fans–it is fun and good and assuming it doesn’t spill into actual physical violence, I hope it continues for a few years until the Cubs fall apart and the Cardinals finish a season undefeated. But the rivalry is confined to a relatively small segment of the population. The vast, vast majority of people, even of baseball fans, don’t have a strong preference between the Cardinals or Cubs. And among baseball players, this percentage is even lower. It requires singular focus and dispassion about such silly things as baseball team rivalries to achieve the level of greatness to play Major League Baseball. It’s probably for the best for the sake of the quality of the rivalry that players compartmentalize arbitrary provincial loyalties and just try to hit baseballs.

Dexter Fowler has come under criticism as of late for his initially expected absence from the Winter Warm-Up, the annual charity event at which Cardinals players and coaches sign autographs, due to a friend’s wedding in Mexico. After heavy criticism, Fowler relented and agreed to attend the Warm-Up, but what made the backlash to Fowler unique was that it was framed by many fans as Fowler eschewing Cardinals fans in favor of the Cubs, as Fowler will attend an autograph show in Chicago the weekend before.

Fowler wasn’t in charge of planning his friend’s wedding, and getting mad about his potential WWU absence feels more like an indirect way of complaining about the guy who had a terrible 2018 season and screaming about how he’s overpaid (oh, Bryce Harper, come to St. Louis, by the way–you’ll love it here!). But what strikes me is the number of people mad not at Fowler’s Winter Warm-Up absence, but his presence signing autographs in Chicago. It probably never registered as a big deal to Fowler, either–he, after all, had a great time playing for the Cubs and the fans there loved (and, for the most part, still do love) him. Fowler doesn’t view the Cubs as his enemy, and when he was a Cub, he didn’t view the Cardinals as his enemy–when Cardinals fans were being accused of hurling racial slurs at Jason Heyward, Fowler came to the defense of St. Louis and said that he had never heard Cardinals fans using such language.

This is how baseball players function. Maybe Matt Carpenter will wind up on the Cubs someday. Maybe Kris Bryant will wind up on the Cardinals. Neither is specifically likely, but neither is really any more unlikely than any other team. Baseball teams will chew up and spit out players once they are no longer helpful to them; players have to act in their own best interests or be run over. Fans remain with teams independent of the current roster, and that is how rivalries form. The players are necessarily dispassionate, and it is pointless to expect them to be anything else.

One thought on “The Cardinals/Cubs rivalry is a myth, and that’s fine

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