Ex-Cub Ryan Theriot once landed a somewhat delayed parting shot when he signed with the Cardinals in the offseason after being unceremoniously dumped on the Dodgers, saying that now he was on "the right side of the rivalry".
It irked Cubs fans, perhaps because deep down inside, as much as we hated to admit it, we knew he was right. At that time, the Cubs were a fledgling, directionless franchise. The Cubs took their shot at it all with good, but fatally flawed teams in 2007 and 2008. Theriot was a big part of that short-lived run. By 2011, he was considered more of a utility player and struggled to find regular playing time, but he landed a job with the Cardinals, who had made the playoffs in 7 of the previous 11 years, including a World Series title.
To add insult to injury, the Cardinals proved Theriot right, winning a World Series ring with Theriot along for the ride as their primary shortstop. Cubs fans could only watch helplessly and seethe in anger.
Things would change in 4 years. The young Cubs were no longer intimidated by the Cardinals, but they still had much to learn. Early on they would battle only to fall short. For a while the so-called Cardinals mystique, voodoo, dark side of the force --- whatever you want to call it, still seemed to have a hold over them. The Cardinals won 8 of the first 10 games, a few of them dramatically as they snatched victories away at the last moment from the hungry young Cubs.
Yet there was a sense it was slipping away and that the tide was beginning to turn a little bit. The Cardinals had to work hard to beat the Cubs. They needed every bloop hit, every timely double play, every untimely Cubs error just to narrowly escape with a win. The Cubs, meanwhile, were a talented team beginning to learn that talent alone was not enough. In a long season with two teams that were suddenly more evenly matched on the field than they had been in years, the Cubs were just learning how to grind out wins when they weren't at their best -- or put teams away when they grabbed the early lead.
The Cubs would go on to win 6 of their next 9 regular season encounters. By the time the playoffs came around, the Cubs were ready. And this time, it was the Cardinals making the key mistakes, most notably a John Lackey fastball left over the plate that got Javy'd deep into the RF bleachers in the fourth and final game of the NLDS. The Cardinals would grind their way back into the game, but the Cubs were there, waiting to step on their hands just as they reached the top of the cliff.
And just like that, a rivalry has awakened.
The Cubs did not let up after the season ended. They signed away the Cardinals Game 1 starter and owner of their lone playoff win, John Lackey. They signed Ben Zobrist, another player in whom the Cardinals had shown interest.
And then...the coup d'grace of the offseason...
Jason Heyward, arguably the Cardinals best player in 2015, spurned his old team and signed with the Cubs. And he did it for less money than the Cardinals reportedly offered. The thoughtful Heyward gave a big reason why he chose the Cubs.
As everyone may have seen from the numbers that came out, I didn't take the highest offer," Heyward said in his introductory press conference in Chicago Tuesday afternoon. "But for me, a winning attitude and culture and the fact that this was such a young group that I could grow myself with and be 26 years old."
"You have Yadier (Molina) who is going to be done in two years maybe, You have Matt Holliday who is probably going to be done soon.
"There were already moves made with Jon Jay gone and then Tony Cruz and (Adam) Wainwright is probably going to be done in three or four years. ... Guys like that are what really introduced me to the St. Louis Cardinals' organization. I felt like if I was to look up and in three years see a completely different team, that would be difficult."
"You saw those guys having fun over there just like I was doing on the other side of the field. We all brought out the best competition in each other. With the young group that [the Cubs] have here, they didn't shy away from it. And that's special to see.
"It says a lot about the leadership, coming down from ownership to the front office to Joe [Maddon] and the things he's instilling with them on a daily basis to let them know that they're good and they belong."
I don't want to put words in Jason Heyward's mouth, but it sounds like a more eloquent way of saying that he is glad to be on the right side of the rivalry, doesn't it?
So take that, Theriot.
The Cardinals are every bit as miffed as Cubs fans were back then. First Mike Matheny took umbrage...
"I don't think it's going to ring too well with our club," Matheny said. "I told Jason this before. I’ve got a lot of respect for Jason as a person. He’s got to go make the decisions he’s going to have to live with. If that (core group comparison) is a big deal to him, he’s just being honest with people.
“But I don’t think we have anything to apologize for in having a group like a Holliday, a Molina, a Wainwright. Those are the kinds of guys everybody wants on a club.
“I see where he’s coming from. I mean, look at what Chicago’s done. It’s very unique in this game — to have that many impact players at that young age. And he’s a young player. But I can’t say I’m in any kind of agreement with that (Chicago) core being better than any kind of core that we have.
“That veteran group (that the Cardinals have) also helps drive what the younger group turns into.
“I don’t blame him. But I don’t like it. I thought we created a really good atmosphere and he had to weigh what was most important to him.
“Say if we hadn’t won. ... That would have made a difference. Say if we hadn’t created an atmosphere where he was a major part of what we’re doing. ... Neither of those is true.
“Say we hadn’t made an offer. We made a terrific offer. With all that being said, it comes down to what does a guy want? (Staying in St. Louis) just wasn’t what he was looking for.”
Now today, it was Adam Wainwright's turn in which he implies Heyward left the Cardinals because he was afraid to lead and that he didn't want to stick around to see a team built around him.
"He knows that we’re going to be in a position to win every year. and what it comes down to is this: he didn’t want to play there after myself, and Yadier (Molina) and Matt (Holliday) were gone, on such a long contract. it really comes down to a personality trait to me. The person that we want to give that kind of money to, that big money to, he needs to be a person that wants to be the guy that carries the torch. He needs to be a guy that wants to be the person, that after we leave, he carries on the tradition. And that’s just a personality thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re looking for that guy who wants to be the man.”
Wainwright then insists the decision did not irritate him, yet he goes on to take thinly veiled shots at Heyward's leadership qualities.
“We’re not mad about that at all. We love Jason. And it really comes down to a personality trait. If he’s the guy wants to carry the torch, if he’s the guy that wants to be ‘The One’ — the cornerstone guy that you build a team around, then he takes that contract. But he wants to be a part of a system that he knows is going to be there for years and years"
Whether Heyward is or wants to be a leader isn't as important to the Cubs. This is a young team that is growing up together. Leaders will emerge organically. They don't need to be annointed. If the 26 year old Heyward does emerge as a leader, that is only a bonus for the Cubs. They signed Heyward because they believe he is an outstanding baseball player who fits their lineup, philosophy, culture...and timeline.
But the fascinating aspect to me is how the Cardinals have struggled to come to grips with a new reality --the Cubs are now among the preferred destinations in baseball.
What the Cards loyal base love so much to jeer about -- the fact that the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908, has ironically become a selling point. Players want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They're less interested in looking back at history as they are at helping make it. Most importantly, they see an ownership and front office that is fully committed to that goal. Jon Lester (another FA the Cardinals had interest in), Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward all took less money to be with the Cubs and in at least one of those cases, they took less money than the Cardinals themselves offered.
For a long time, it was the Cardinals that felt entitled to such status. Players like Theriot would openly say they signed with St. Louis for the opportunity to win. They came to expect that as the norm.
Unlike Theriot, I am not going to say there is a "right side" to this, but I will say there is a serious challenge to the old order in the NL Central. A dormant rivalry has awakened. It has gone from a nostalgic rivalry that was more about small scale bragging rights to a legitimate rivalry that will likely have implications throughout the baseball universe.
They can joke all they want about how long it has been since the Cubs have won, we've heard it all before -- but we know the laughter has changed in tone to one that is now nervous and forced as the focus has shifted to 2016 and beyond.
It may not be have been much of a rivalry to look back on. Cubs fans will concede that.
But it's on now.
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