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Friday, April 24, 2009
Red fightin' blue? It's Cards vs. Cubs

By Jon Greenberg
ESPN.com

Ian Knowles is sitting in the front patio of Murphy's Bleachers like he owns the place. Surrounded by two dozen red-shirted, Albert Pujols-worshipping friends, he sucks down a Bud Light and makes fun of his soon-to-be-married buddy while enjoying the fleeting sunshine.

This was last Saturday, the first 2009 series between the Cardinals and Cubs, perhaps the best sports rivalry in the Midwest, and the second-best in all of baseball -- after, of course, the Florida Marlins-Washington Nationals. (Yeah, some would say Red Sox-Yankees is a big deal, but to me, the Jeffrey Loria Series is like the Festivus of baseball grudge matches.) The second Cubs-Cards series takes place this weekend in St. Louis.

Cubs vs Cardinals
Whenever the Cubs and Cardinals get together, battle lines are drawn throughout the Midwest.
Knowles was in town with a full baseball-sized roster of dudes to celebrate Tim Banks' bachelor party. Banks sat across the table, well-buzzed, and Johnson pointed at his ankle. Banks was wearing a bowling ball, a bit of stag party tomfoolery. There were five names on it, all female, four wives and one fiancée.

No way, you get that thing inside, I said.

"We did last year," he said confidently. "The security guards just laughed."

You have to admire their pluck, and question Wrigley's lax security standards. ("Bottle of Coke? Throw it out. Bowling ball? Yeah, that's cool.")

Knowles makes this trip every season, bachelor party or not, along with thousands of Cardinals fans who invade Chicago for every edition of the rivalry, adorned head to toe in red. Red Pujols jerseys. Red Pujols jersey T-shirts. Red tasteless novelty T-shirts mocking Chicago parades that don't involve World Series trophies. (The corresponding shirt for Cubs fans mocks Albert Pujols' family name. My wife, for whatever reason, thinks it's hilarious.)

With every fan around Wrigley wearing either Cardinal Red or Cubby Blue, it's as if the Crips and Bloods were made up of dorky Midwest baseball fans.

Every Cubs fan I talked to agreed they enjoy the St. Louis migration, because it adds some spice to the games.

"It's crazy," said 34-year-old lawyer Mark Bartholomaei, who grew up in Connecticut rooting for the Cubs. "You've got to respect Cardinals fans. They travel everywhere. You can't beat (this rivalry)."

Good for business

Zach Strauss stands around Slugger's like he owns the place, which he does. Strauss' father opened the Wrigleyville bar in 1984 and Zach runs the place, and thus spends a lot of time watching Cubs fans getting, uh, liberated.

A half-hour before first pitch, the bar was packed, more Cubs fans than Cardinals, to be sure, but a nice healthy mix.

For reasons we already know, Cubs fans are considered to be among the most devoted in baseball, and because of the most cherished demographics -- 21 to 40-something with money to burn -- they treat the game as a concentrated spring break. The bars around the stadium could print their own currency during the season (Kyle Farnsworth would be on the $2 bill!).

Having your biggest rival 300 miles away helps to bring in extra business during these series. Wrigleyville is like a summer resort town for these fans.

"It's great," Strauss said. "They're tourists. They're on vacation. When you're on vacation, you spend what you've got."

The vibe is pretty mellow, I note, as everyone in the bar is focused on the TVs showing the first Bulls-Celtics game.

"Mellow is fine," he said. "No one's drunk yet."

Friendly confines?

Aaron Miles is sitting in the Cubs' clubhouse like he owns the place.

A former St. Louis infielder who played on the Cards' 2006 World Series championship team, Miles came over to the Cubs this season after being non-tendered, and he wasn't happy.

"I want to play the game the right way and show St. Louis they let somebody go that maybe they shouldn't have," Miles said during a conference call when the Cubs signed him on New Year's Eve. "I was a little surprised given the situation and how well I did last year. I felt I was part of the team. Financially, I understand why they did it. It was still kind of shocking. I felt I had a place over there."

Now he seems at peace with the decision. Very few free agents regret coming to the Cubs. You always play in front of a full house, you play a ton of day games, leaving nights free, and when you play late, restaurants are still open. The Cubs-Cards games ratchet up the crowd noise to playoff decibels. No one likes to play in front of empty seats. Just ask any ex-Pittsburgh Pirate.

Cubs fans won't have a problem embracing Miles, who signed a two-year deal to be a cheaper version of Mark DeRosa -- should Miles ever do anything deserving of an embrace. But it wasn't the same at first for Jim Edmonds, whose preening style rubbed Cubs fans (and players) the wrong way during his eight seasons with St. Louis. But when Edmonds heated up, he felt the love too ... until he stunk again.

The rivalry goes back to the 19th century, and as the Cubs have stumbled a bit in the past century, the Cardinals won 17 pennants and 10 World Series since 1926. The Cardinals got Lou Brock, the Cubs Ernie Broglio. Bruce Sutter won a World Series with St. Louis two years after the Cubs traded him for Leon "Bull" Durham, whose error in the 1984 NLCS doomed the Cubs to another year sans a World Series appearance, which as everyone knows, is still ongoing. But hey, at least the Cubs stole Harry Caray, right?

"This is one of the best rivalries out there," Miles said. "We play so many games, but every time we play there's a playoff atmosphere. ... Both teams are good, and this year it looks like the rivalry will be a great one."

Cubs fan favorite Reed Johnson said the intensity from the fans doesn't boil over to the clubhouses, at least not anymore. The teams had some nasty games during the Dusty Baker-Tony La Russa era, thanks to some high and tight pitches and Jim Edmonds' dramatics. And old friends Piniella and La Russa have traded barbs on and off the field in the past three seasons.

There wasn't much animosity in last week's series, aside from Milton Bradley getting tossed for arguing balls and strikes, and La Russa questioning the Cubs' questioning the umpires, which Piniella found pretty hilarious, given the source. Still the players respect the idea of the rivalry.

"I've never been in the midst of something like Cubs-Cards, or Cubs-Sox," Johnson said. "The players on each side enjoy each other. There are guys in both clubhouses that play the game the right way and enjoy playing baseball."

Once-a-year rivals, like Ohio State and Michigan, create a lot of pent-up anger and media-inflicted controversy. But familiarity doesn't always breed contempt. It's the same deal with the fans. Try walking around Ohio Stadium with a Michigan jersey on. I did it when I was 16. Big mistake.

This doesn't matter in Wrigleyville, though. Everyone's used to each other. The fans, for the most part, were on their best Midwestern behavior while I was walking around. No fights, very little heckling. A few zingers were delivered sartorially via ironic T-shirts, but that was about it. Is this still an intense rivalry if the fans aren't drunkenly duking it out, physically or verbally? Well, maybe. I wanted to see some arguments, maybe a fight or two. But I guess I didn't stick around long enough.

"We saw a couple fights break out," Miles said with a grin on Sunday afternoon. "But I don't know if they were Cubs fans and Cards fans."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com