There is an unspoken irony to the provincial rivalry between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, which is that the two cities represented by these National League Central teams are not, in the grand scheme of things, especially different. For a sizable cluster of people in central Illinois, an allegiance is selected semi-arbitrarily and the fan bases easily co-exist because there is an understanding, often neglected in the cities themselves, that none of this actually matters.
Chicago is much larger, of course, but both are diverse, highly urbanized Midwestern cities with oft-brutal summers and winters, unique cuisines built upon their respective ethnic sub-cultures, and an arguably unhealthy level of civic pride. But when it comes down to it, loud and widely distributed Twitter accounts aside, there is little question that while, broadly speaking, Chicago has a sporting animosity towards St. Louis based on the far more sustained success of the Cardinals than the Cubs (or, to a much lesser extent, the White Sox), a large swath of St. Louis actually hates Chicago.
I don’t condone this hatred, but for any Chicagoans reading this, you can rest assured that the hatred is entirely based upon jealousy. Chicago is the more culturally relevant city, and denying this would be downright ahistorical. The truth is that both cities are, in their own ways, great. I enjoy St. Louis’s affordability and easily accessible amenities; I also enjoy Chicago’s robust public transit and beautiful architecture (I also like Chicago’s pizza better, but given how much Chicagoans like to take shots at perfectly good St. Louis-style pizza, I’m reticent to give them this ammunition). And if you, generic person from Chicago who I am inventing in my head right now, think it sounds pretty small-time and petty from St. Louis to try to degrade Chicago, you aren’t wrong. But Chicago does the same thing to New York.
While Chicago is the more “major” city between it and St. Louis, it is far behind New York. And for every United States census from 1890 to 1980, Chicago earned its “Second City” moniker as the second-largest city in the country. To this day, for every big-city amenity that Chicago can reasonably proclaim itself as triumphing over St. Louis, it pales in comparison to New York. You think the 8-line, 145-station L-train is cool, Chicago? Try the 36-line, 472-station New York City Subway. Twenty-three Michelin-starred restaurants? That’s nothing compared to the Big Apple’s seventy-six. Nice little theater district you’ve got there, Chicago–ever heard of this place called Broadway? These factors don’t make a city “great” to live in–greatness is subjective and while I enjoyed my one trip to New York, thinking about the number of nine-dollar beers I bought makes me shiver. But the sheer size of New York threatens Chicago’s identity of iconic American metropolis, just as Chicago threatens St. Louis’s identity of major Midwestern cultural hub.
While Paul DeJong was born in Orlando and did not move to Antioch, a city in the northern Chicago exurbs situated slightly closer geographically to Milwaukee than Chicago but firmly in the Chicagoland area culturally, until he was 11, DeJong came of age as a person in northeastern Illinois. He grew up a fan of the Atlanta Braves, but I know that when I was eleven years old, I could geographically map my way to Busch Stadium but virtually no other cultural sites. One becomes a fan of a baseball team at a young age, but one becomes a tried and true member of the broader culture of a region at a somewhat later age. And surely whatever Atlanta Braves fandom DeJong had as a child dissipated immediately the minute he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.
But DeJong still came of age as a Chicagolander. And being a Chicagolander may mean a certain level of hostility towards your sporting rivals, but it’s not as though Chicago White Sox fans who don’t care about hockey are known for having particularly strong opinions on St. Louis sports. But whether you’re a fan of the Cubs, the White Sox, or some other baseball team, it is your civic responsibility to hate New York. Paul DeJong’s go-ahead home run off Craig Kimbrel to stomp the Chicago Cubs deep into a trash can on September 21, 2019 was not an act of animosity towards the Cubs–it was a guy on a playoff contender trying to help his team against the opponent that happened to stand in his way (of some note–DeJong’s numbers against the Cubs are fairly typical and his numbers against the White Sox are, albeit in just four games, downright poor). Crushing the hopes and dreams of New York is an act of vengeance.
Paul DeJong’s first game against a New York-based baseball team came on July 7, 2017, during his rookie season. Although the Cardinals lost, it was very much not as a result of DeJong’s shortcomings. In his first plate appearances against the New York Mets, DeJong hit a home run off Jacob deGrom. His next time up, he hit a single, and in his third appearance, DeJong notched a double–all three hits came off Jacob deGrom, an impressive accomplishment even if he wasn’t quite that level of Jacob deGrom just yet. By the end of that weekend’s series, Paul DeJong had routinely tormented the Mets, hitting a home run in each game of the set and batting an astonishing .750 with an OPS of 2.583. A week and a half later, on July 17, the Cardinals began a series in Queens against the Mets, and DeJong hit a go-ahead two-run home run to give the Cardinals a one-run lead which they would not relinquish, this time doing damage against Zack Wheeler.
While Paul DeJong did not maintain that sort of pace forever, his reputation as a New York Mets killer has become a well-known area of pain for Mets fans, and consider how much of a pest you have to be to stand out as a thing that makes Mets fans vocally annoyed. And while DeJong’s 27 games and 113 plate appearances still isn’t enough to be reasonably called a large sample, it is also hardly a microscopic one. And during that time, DeJong has a .327 batting average, a .354 on-base percentage, and a .710 slugging percentage, with ten home runs, all while exhibiting his typically strong defense at shortstop. His 1.064 OPS is higher than the OPS of any full, qualified MLB season since 2019. I was aware of this level of success and assumed it was random–clearly, some team had to be the team against whom DeJong performed the best, and it just happened to be the New York Mets. And then he faced the New York Yankees.
Contrary to what you may assume, the Mets weren’t the team against whom DeJong had the highest OPS even prior to last weekend, when he faced the New York Yankees for the first time in his career. DeJong had a higher OPS against both the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers. But notably, in addition to only playing the teams three games apiece, both of these teams have been exceptionally terrible throughout DeJong’s career, while the Mets, despite the anguish of Mets Twitter, have been perfectly representative. The 2022 Yankees, on the other hand, have been a juggernaut. They entered this weekend with the second-best record in baseball, and with the Cardinals tied with a Milwaukee Brewers team facing the lowly Cincinnati Reds entering the weekend, maintaining a mere share of first place seemed a lofty goal for St. Louis.
Paul DeJong has had a truly lousy 2022 season. Long a frustratingly streaky hitter dependent on solid defense at a premium position to keep him in the lineup during slumps, DeJong was effectively in a permanent slump for the first portion of his 2022 season. Through May 8, DeJong was batting .130 with minimal power and a proclivity for strikeouts, and thus he was relegated to the Memphis Redbirds. He regained his footing, hitting effectively and for power, and on July 30, the Cardinals made a pair of subsequent moves which established their faith that DeJong had returned to form–they promoted DeJong and they traded Edmundo Sosa, the only true shortstop remaining on the St. Louis roster. DeJong proceeded to hit home runs in both of his first games back with the Cardinals, but while the Cardinals swept the Chicago Cubs, DeJong struggled individually, with just one hit in the series. But little did most of us know that Paul DeJong is not, after his formative years, a Mets Killer. He is a New York Killer.
On August 5, in his first plate appearance against the Yankees and starting pitcher Nestor Cortes, DeJong walked. And although his next couple of plate appearances resulted in strikeouts, DeJong retained his focus on destroying New York. With the Yankees deploying All-Star closer Clay Holmes in the bottom of the eighth inning, with the team nursing a one-run lead, the Cardinals put runners on first and second base for DeJong, who, with two outs, smashed a double past Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge to give the Cardinals a 4-3 lead which they would maintain for the remainder of the game.
Like most Cardinals bats, DeJong’s fell mostly silent on Saturday night, but during Sunday’s wild 12-9 offensive explosion, DeJong remembered once again who he was facing. That DeJong’s offensive flourishes came not against Domingo Germán, the worst of the Yankees’ set of starters last weekend, but instead against the far more competent starters Nestor Cortes and Frankie Montas speaks to his ability to laser-focus on his target. And the remainder of the offense did the same. In DeJong’s first plate appearance of the day, a walk to lead off the second inning led the way for a five-run offensive explosion, and in the fifth inning, an RBI double gave the Cardinals a lead and a strong DeJong slide expanded it, after further review from, ironically, the league offices in New York. DeJong once again walked in the sixth, but in the eighth inning, with the Cardinals holding a tenuous one-run lead given how much offense had been generated during the afternoon, a three-run DeJong bomb gave the Cardinals critical security runs, ones which would come in handy after a DJ LeMahieu ninth-inning dinger which would have otherwise tied the already overlong game. DeJong’s career OPS against the Yankees now stands at 1.389, the highest mark he has against any MLB opponent.
His eighth-inning home run to preserve the sweep was Paul DeJong’s 100th at the Major League level, making him the 23rd player to hit 100 career home runs with the St. Louis Cardinals. Ozzie Smith never did that, nor did Curt Flood, nor did Keith Hernandez, nor did Red Schoendienst. No player has hit more home runs in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform since his debut than Paul DeJong, and he did this while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at shortstop. Unlike, say, Matt Carpenter, DeJong has not (yet) entered the rarefied air of future Cardinals Hall of Famer, but he is putting together a quietly accomplished run as Cardinals shortstop which as recently as a couple weeks ago seemed in grave danger and and now I’m using “Paul DeJong” and “Cardinals Hall of Famer” in the same sentence. Heck, if Paul DeJong can somehow be tricked into believing that all of his opponents play in New York, I might start using his name alongside “Baseball Hall of Famer”.