Tate: Different types of agony for Cards', Cubs' fans
Here’s the difference. North and South Koreans don’t live together. The Japanese and Chinese are separated by water. But in central Illinois, while they’re poles apart, Cub and Cardinal disciples are intertwined, intermarried and inescapable.
As devoted adversaries, both suffer. Just for different reasons.
With August upon us, Chicago precincts — the city should always be described in political terms — will begin the familiar ritual of pounding out an overly optimistic Bear drumbeat. Cutler for MVP? You’re kidding. The Bears over the Packers? We’ll see. And the Cubs? Wail till next year. It’s the rite of autumn.
In St. Louis, football questions revert to whether the Rams will be in town for many more years. There’s always a pennant race going on. Whereas the North Siders are shipping away their veteran pitchers for youth, the win-now Redbirds are adding established arms without sharing their best prospects.
The Cardinals are buried in expectations. Every game is a nail-biter for a franchise, just since 2000, showing 64 playoff victories and two World Series titles. By contrast, since winning the 1908 World Series, the Lovable Losers have dropped 41 of 50 playoff games and 13 of 14 postseason series.
The daily grind
If Cub games are generally inconsequential (in terms of playoff implications), Cardinal games tend to matter too much. Every episode drains blood, sweat and tears while also decreasing one’s longevity.
This isn’t, ha-ha, we won with a catcher pitching the 16th inning. This is, oh, my gosh, what are the costs of losing to a 46-59 San Diego team?
That’s the nature of a genuine pennant race. If you’re engaged, each loss is excruciating. And the Cardinals have become the target that inspires the competition.
Dating back to the halcyon days of Houston’s “Killer Bees” — Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman — somebody always rises to challenge St. Louis. It might be the Reds under Bryan Price. It might be the reborn Pirates. For most of this year, Milwaukee has led the division.
Yet even a week ago, oddsmakers mysteriously favored the trailing Cards. To me, this appears to be a combination of a favorable schedule and history — the Redbirds having appeared in 26 playoffs since 1926 with 11 World Series titles. The championships in 2006 and 2011 firmly established them as the premier small-market team in baseball.
So the buzz around Busch Stadium keeps getting louder, drawing a turnout that will top the 3.5 million mark for the first time (nearly a million more than the Cubs). St. Louis remains a “baseball metropolis” while August football steals the attention of most major cities, from the Eagles in Philadelphia to the Vikings in Minneapolis, and to the Bears, Patriots, Chargers, Dolphins, Cowboys and Browns where those cities’ baseball teams are out of the hunt.
After falling to Big Papi and the Red Sox last October (the BoSox are headed for a mind-bending run of last to first to last), 2014 projected as another banner year in St. Louis. Young and promising were the Redbird watchwords. Nobody had more live arms, and they filled shortstop with Jhonny Peralta.
The season reverted, instead, into a frustrating struggle. They lost their edge. They’ve hit into 100 double plays (only Boston has more), are next to last in runs scored (397 vs. leader Oakland with 535 through Friday), and they are still shuffling their starting rotation. They’re fearful of trading young talent for quality acquisitions, and yet the youths are raising serious doubts. Projected ace Michael Wacha is sidelined indefinitely, Carlos Martinez has been sent down, and Shelby Miller’s 8-8 record speaks for itself. Jaime Garcia is gone, perhaps for good. The team’s strongest position, catcher, is now the weakest without Yadier Molina. And rookies Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong have been overmatched for the most part, Taveras raising concerns whether he can catch up to 95 mph fastballs.
The only Cardinal position player exceeding personal expectations is Matt Adams, his presence allowing John Mozeliak to thankfully move slumping Allen Craig’s multiyear contract.
Shakeup was needed
In late July, it began to appear that this team would not win the division without a shakeup. Lefty David Price was the target, but they wound up with Justin Masterson and John Lackey. The two acquisitions project at this stage as little more than 50-50 major league pitchers — newer versions of Jake Westbrook — although three positive factors could weigh in: (1) The Birds-on-the-Bat uniform provided inspiration for veterans like Berkman, Will Clark and Carlos Beltran, (2) the pitchers’ stats might have been more impressive if they hadn’t faced those mighty DH bats in the American League and (3) athletes often respond to a hot pennant race.
Mozeliak gambled on the now without giving up Taveras, Wong and the franchise’s young prospects. The pipeline remains strong, but uncertain (minors to majors is still a big leap, Cub fans).
A team that rode dominant pitching and clutch hitting to the World Series last year learned that these assets can be fleeting. Pitchers’ arms are fragile, and two-out hitting comes and goes.
But here’s the good news: Five teams will advance to the NL playoffs, and the Cardinals are still in contention. It’s a race. That beats the alternative kind of suffering.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.