St. Louis Cardinals

Cards-Cubs rivalry is about to get real

The Cardinals’ Jhonny Peralta slides into an out at home plate during an August game at Wrigley Field.
The Cardinals’ Jhonny Peralta slides into an out at home plate during an August game at Wrigley Field. Associated Press

A couple years after Harry Caray died, the late-great Jack Buck donned a Cubbie blue baseball cap and conducted the Wrigley rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

“Let’s sing this song for the greatest rivalry in the history of baseball, the Cubs and the Cardinals,” he told the Chicago crowd.

When they got to the “root, root, root for ...” part, Mr. Buck ditched the Cubs hat in favor of Cardinals red and sang on through the chorus of boos. It was all in good fun, of course, which is really all this rivalry has been for the last 100 years or so.

Sure, loyalties may be debated in central Illinois and in the state’s college towns, where Cardinals and Cubs fans cohabitate. On the field, though, this hasn’t been a rivalry since the Cardinals were still called the Brown Stockings and the Cubs still played at West Side Park.

You can talk about the “Sandberg Game” or those “Three Nights in August” all you want. The Cardinals and Cubs still don’t have what the Giants-Dodgers have in Bobby Thomson or what the Yankees-Red Sox have in Bucky Dent. Just in terms of championships, the Cardinals have 19 NL pennants and 11 World Series championships since 1926, while the Cubs have won just one postseason series since 1908.

But there is a shift in the wind on Chicago’s north side that’s as plain as the prevailing gale off Lake Michigan, and it could send chills across Cardinal Nation.

Let’s sing this song for the greatest rivalry in the history of baseball, the Cubs and the Cardinals.

Cardinals announcer Jack Buck, singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ at Wrigley Field

Theo Epstein has rethought, retooled and redone the Cubs just as he did the Red Sox before they ended Boston’s 86-year championship drought.

The Cubs won 97 games in 2015 despite being just seven games over .500 at the All-Star break. Their third-place finish in a historically strong Central Division came with the third best record in all of baseball, which in the wild-card era is good enough for a postseason berth.

Now, with their 4-0 defeat of the Pirates in Wednesday’s play-in game, the Cubs will blow into St. Louis for the divisional series and first-ever playoff date with the Cardinals.

Oh, I know we’ve all been here before. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Cubs’ fans declare that their proverbial “next year” has finally arrived. In the last 70 years, even the good Cubs’ teams have managed to string together more than two consecutive winning seasons only twice.

But whether or not the Cubs won Wednesday’s game didn’t really matter, at least not beyond this season. This is not their last, best chance.

Epstein’s home-grown Cubs, with manager Joe Maddon at the dugout’s top step, are going to be a factor for the foreseeable future.

Five of their eight position starters are 26 or younger. They include two-time All-Star and MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo and likely N.L. Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant.

Pitcher Jake Arrieta, whose 0.75 earned-run-average since the break is the best in baseball history, won’t be a free agent before 2018 and ace Jon Lester is in just the first year of a $155 million contract that will keep him in Chicago through 2021. And with the revenue of a major-market franchise, Epstein should have no problem augmenting a $120 million payroll that ranks just No. 13 in baseball.

0.75 Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta’s ERA since the All-Star Break

Does this all mean the Cardinals’ reign in the N.L. Central is about to end? Some national media suggest it, but they’ve forgotten that the team with the best record in baseball still runs young and deep on its roster, too, especially on the pitcher’s mound with the likes of Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Anthony Reyes, Trevor Rosenthal, Alex Reyes, etc., etc.

Speaking as a lifelong Cardinals fan and not as an unbiased sports columnist, I should admit that I have, on occasion, lorded my team’s competitive superiority over Chicago’s so-called “die-hards.” The prospect of a prolonged playoff series and the chance I’ll get my comeuppance is frightening.

On the other hand, maybe there are some moments to be made here? Maybe Jason Heyward will tag Hector Rondon for a series-winning walk-off and inspire a whole new curse that will take the billy goat and Steve Bartman off the hook. Or maybe — gasp! — Brandon Moss will get his wickets split like Bill Buckner and the Wee Bears will go on to their first taste of champagne since Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House.

This is what I know for sure: Mr. Buck had the temerity to throw his hat out the press box window, but Cardinals and Cubs fans better hold on to theirs.

Because this rivalry is about to get real.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman