When the Cardinals and Reds met for the first time this season in April, shortstop Ryan Theriot, in his first year with St. Louis, walked across the field prepared to give a big hug to his manager for three years with the Cubs, Dusty Baker, who is now the manager of the Reds. Then, just in time, it hit Theriot: Oh no, the Reds and Cardinals hate each other, I'd better not do that. "So,'' Theroit said with a nervous laugh, "I just gave Dusty a little wave.''
In this era of fraternization in baseball, of fist-bumping and hugging behind the cage during batting practice and in the outfield minutes before the start of a game, there is none of that between the Cardinals and Reds. "It is very, very intense,'' Theriot said. "A lot of times, a rivalry forms from proximity [geographically], but this rivalry comes mostly because we're both at the top of our division. Proximity in the standings is more important.''
Given how irrelevant the Cubs have been the last two years, this rivalry has, at least temporarily, replaced Cardinals-Cubs as the most heated in St. Louis.
"Like in boxing, you need two fighters from the same weight class to fight for the belt,'' said Reds outfielder Jonny Gomes. "You can't have one team at the top of the division beating a team at the bottom, and create a rivalry. The David and Goliath show is not going to keep selling out, you're going to need two Goliaths. When I was with Tampa Bay, we fought every game with the Red Sox, but this rivalry comes from all angles. Our managers went at it, they were stirring it up. Scott Rolen and [Chris] Carpenter went at it, and they're not two hot-headed guys. They are two of the most respected players in the game. That says a lot.''
Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman, in his first year with the team, said, "The guys who were here last year, they don't like the Reds very much.'' And the guys with the Reds don't like the Cardinals very much. "It's kind of a renewed rivalry, it's fresh, it hasn't been around very long, not like the Yankees against the Red Sox,'' said Reds right fielder Jay Bruce. "We're fighting for we're competing for the division each year.''
And now, it's a fair fight.
"In some years past, the competition wasn't the same because the players were better over here,'' said Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker. "Now with [general manager] Walt [Jocketty] over there, and Dusty over there, with the free agents and the drafting they've done, and their young players have blossomed, they have Scott Rolen, they are winning. It's a pretty good rivalry now. But we're not out to fight anyone.''
The feud began in 2009 when several Cardinals pitchers, including John Smoltz and Carpenter, complained that the baseballs used for games in Cincinnati were not properly rubbed with the special mud, claiming they were too slick and felt "like cue balls.'' Major League Baseball was therefore summoned to make certain that the baseballs used in Cincinnati were correctly rubbed up with mud, something the Reds didn't appreciate at all.
From that, and perhaps for other reasons, last August, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips called the Cardinals "whiny little bitches,'' a quote that a St. Louis writer took to some of the Cardinals players for their reaction, and the reaction was the calling of a team meeting. That night -- Aug. 10, 2010 -- in Phillips' first plate appearance against the Cardinals, he did what he often does: He tapped the shin guards of the opposing catcher, a way of saying hello. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina didn't appreciate it, he told Phillips, and the two went nose-to-nose right there at home plate. It was on, and has been on ever since.
The benches emptied. Rolen, a former Cardinal, and Gomes knew something might happen when Phillips went to the plate, so they were positioned on the top step of the dugout, ready to react. Sure enough, when the benches emptied, Rolen and Gomes were the first to the scene for the Reds. Rolen went as a peacemaker, he looked at Carpenter -- a former teammate and close friend -- and mouthed, "This is not going to happen,'' then grabbed Carpenter in a bear hug to keep the peace. But, it was too late. Before long, Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto was trapped against the stands behind home plate and, fearing for his safety, he said, he began trying to kick his way out of the pile. He spiked Carpenter, who was still in Rolen's grip, and he kicked Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue in the head. LaRue retired after the season due to a concussion that some say was a result of that fight.
Amazingly, there were no ejections. But there were suspensions that stemmed from the fight, and the ill will remains today.
"The rivalry existed before the brawl, but it escalated after the brawl,'' Berkman said. "The [Cardinals] players that were there that day said [Reds] players didn't do right in that brawl. I guess you could ask, 'How do you do right in a brawl?'''
The feud extended into this season when, on April 22, the Reds went to St. Louis. The game was delayed by rain just before game time for two hours and 10 minutes. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had studied the radar, and realized that the start of the game might be delayed significantly, so he had reliever Miguel Batista warm up in the bullpen instead of his scheduled starter, Kyle McClellan. Baker wasn't fully aware of the impending weather, saying "we didn't get the same information they got,'' so he had his scheduled starter, Edinson Volquez, warm up, but when the game was delayed, Volquez was unable to pitch. After the delay, McClellan warmed up, entered the game, and the Cardinals won, 4-2.
Baker was angry that day, but La Russa says whatever contempt there is between the Reds and Cardinals, it does not exist between the managers.
"That's what aggravates me, that it's between me and Dusty,'' La Russa said. "I've always been close with him. I still am. When his dad died, I called him. I had Dusty as a player in Oakland . He helped me police the clubhouse. The next spring, we didn't have a spot for him, but he told me that he might have another job, and he ended up being a coach for the Giants, and from there, he became the Giants manager. This is not about me and Dusty. But, when the game starts, then he has to take care of the Reds, and I have to take care of the Cardinals.''
How would I describe this rivalry? It is alive.
”-- Reds outfielder Jonny Gomes
Baker agreed, saying, "This is not between me and Tony, this is between the Reds and the Cardinals. But he wants to beat the heck out of me, and I want to beat the heck out of him.''
And that's part of the feud, the intensity level of the managers.
"Dusty is one of the managers that relates to the players, he is a motivational guy, he'll do anything available to get his guys ready to play,'' Theriot said. "And Tony is the same way.''
La Russa was home in St. Louis, sick with shingles, when the Reds swept the Cardinals in Cincinnati, May 13-15. During the final victory, Reds closer Francisco Cordero hit Albert Pujols with a pitch in the ninth inning; clearly, it was not intentional, Cordero and Pujols are close friends, but Cardinals backup catcher Gerald Laird yelled at Cordero during that ninth inning for hitting Pujols. When Cordero recorded the save, he was demonstrative after getting the final out, throwing his hands in the air, and the Cardinals, especially pitching coach Dave Duncan and Carpenter, were not pleased. Duncan screamed at Cordero, "Get off the field.'' After the game, Cordero thought Duncan was too loud for "someone who didn't play.''
There have been no altercations since between the two teams, not even on July 4 when Cueto pitched against the Cardinals for the first time since the brawl. But baseball players are vengeful men, they have long memories, they never forget, especially when they feel one of their players have been disrespected, or hurt, in any way. Chances are, with all that is at stake, and all that has happened before, we haven't heard the last from the Cardinals and Reds.
"How would I describe this rivalry?'' Gomes was asked. "It is alive.''
Alive, and kicking.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN