COMMENTARY | The national media can say what it wants about the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox rivalry but west of the Appalachians, the over-hyped matchup has become the latest example of East Coast interests pushed on the rest of the country. Aside from being forced to watch when it's the only game available on Fox's game of the week, we just don't care anymore.
And the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals rivalry? Please. The Small Bears' century-long struggles have turned the once-proud contest into little more than a slap-fight. I'm still waiting for the Cubs to institute a "sudden death pillow fight" rule to settle extra-inning games that dare to stretch past that infamous Chicago curfew.
But the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds? Now there's a rivalry with some bite to it.
As two of baseball's oldest and most storied teams, the Reds and Cardinals have a long history of Hall of Fame players and managers contributing to winning baseball. It's the perfect stage for baseball's best rivalry to play out year after year. But despite the historical success of both franchises, the Reds and Cardinals have only recently found themselves contending with each other atop the National League.
Recent Head-to-Head Contention
When Cincinnati's Big Red Machine was dominating baseball in the National League West from 1970 to 1976, the Cardinals, led by Hall of Fame manager Red Schoendienst, were also regular contenders -- in the NL East. It wasn't until baseball re-aligned the divisions in 1994 that the Reds and Cardinals found themselves in the same division.
Cincinnati and its Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin won the Central in both 1994 and 1995, but the Cardinals, mired in the tail end of the Joe Torre years, were never really a threat. After 1996, when St. Louis replaced Torre with future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, the Reds and Cardinals flirted with simultaneous contention, but nothing consistently serious developed for years. In the meantime, the Albert Pujols and La Russa partnership produced one of the most prolific decades in franchise history for the Cardinals.
And then the Cardinals fired general manager Walt Jocketty -- the GM that oversaw the Torre-to-La Russa transition, two World Series appearances, and one championship -- at the end of the 2007 season. As one of baseball's most respected GMs, he quickly found a new home in Cincinnati in 2008 and a willing partner in his quest for revenge against the club that dared to release him. Just three seasons later, the Reds won the NL Central and established themselves as a consistent contender in the National League.
But the Cardinals weren't ready to step aside just yet. Finishing second in the division three times since the Reds' ascendance in 2010 (twice to the Reds and once to the Milwaukee Brewers), the Cardinals have thrived in postseason play, winning the World Series in 2011 and finishing one win shy of another World Series appearance in 2012. The Reds, on the other hand, have managed to win the NL Central in two of the last three seasons but failed to advance beyond the NLDS in either year.
Now the Reds and Cardinals appear deadlocked and on their way to a head-to-head brawl for the division crown in 2013.
Things Get Personal
In 2009, when then-Cardinals pitcher John Smoltz and longtime ace Chris Carpenter complained of improperly rubbed baseballs in Cincinnati, the Reds responded with accusations of "whining" and "excuse-making" from the Cardinals -- a characterization the club had routinely heard from other teams frustrated with St. Louis' continued dominance in the Central. Almost instantly, a feud was born.
It didn't help that the two teams were managed by two of the most competitive and polarizing managers in all of baseball in Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker, a duo with years of dugout-to-dugout screaming matches during Baker's seasons as the manager in Chicago. Or that Jocketty developed a habit of acquiring former St. Louis fan-favorites -- including Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Ryan Ludwick -- in his attempts to overtake the Cardinals. Fans in St. Louis took the acquisitions as a personal betrayal, and the gulf between the two franchises widened even further.
But things didn't turn truly aggressive until August of 2010.
Motivated by antagonistic comments made by Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips about the Cardinals, the Redbirds came into Cincinnati with a sizable chip on their shoulders. When Phillips stepped into the box for the first pitch of the game and tapped Yadier Molina's shin guards -- routine for the Reds' leadoff hitter -- Molina took the move personally, and an argument ensued that more closely resembled an NHL faceoff. Before long, both benches had cleared and the teams found themselves yelling at each other near home plate.
Chris Carpenter -- pseudo-enforcer for a team modeled after La Russa's own ferocity -- quickly became the center of attention when his comments pushed Rolen and the Reds to the point of chaos. He soon found himself pressed to the backstop by a hoard of Reds and Cardinals players and coaches.
Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto, running around the Reds' side of the fracas to reach Carpenter from behind, also found himself entangled in the net by the press of his own team. Perhaps fearing for his own safety -- or perhaps simply continuing the fight in the only way available to him (depending on which version of events you believe) -- Cueto began kicking his cleats at the back of the only Cardinals player he could reach, backup catcher Jason LaRue.
LaRue suffered a concussion from a resulting blow to the head and has never played again.
Despite a suspension from Major League Baseball that essentially meant skipping one start for Cueto, the Cardinals were furious that more was not done to discipline what they saw as aggressive intent to harm a player with spikes. The Reds, on the other hand, were livid that the brawl was not only initiated by the Cardinals -- referring to Molina's confrontation with Phillips -- but also escalated by Chris Carpenter's involvement.
Two years later, when Tony La Russa managed the 2012 All-Star game after his retirement at the end of 2011, Baker accused La Russa of letting the brawl influence his decision to pass over a clearly deserving Cueto as an All-Star selection.
Three years later, as the Cardinals prepare to play the Reds in Cincinnati for a divisional showdown between the National League's two best teams, Tony La Russa is no longer in the St. Louis dugout. His replacement, Mike Matheny, is known as a calmer, less-polarizing figure.
But the animosity between the two teams is clearly still present, and on June 7, baseball's best rivalry between two storied franchises will once again be renewed at Great American Ball Park.
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast every Sunday evening at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
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