Here’s the thing about that sand-in-the-face phrase Chicago Cubs fans detest and St. Louis Cardinals fans get such a kick out of, “Completely Useless By September“: It’s a load of crap.
It’s richly deserved, mind you. The Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908, long have been embarrassments to themselves, to a city, to a nation; indeed, to an American pastime. (Is that too much?) Yet they are furiously on the come, loaded for bear with the best crew of 25-and-under position players in baseball and, with August nearing, holding on to a top-five record in the National League. It seems there will be many such runs toward the playoffs in the future.
But there’s another derogatory phrase with which both fanbases are well acquainted: “The Cardinal Way.” It’s more than a compliment to a franchise that has produced 11 World Series championships since the Cubs’ last one and has torn up the National League over the past decade. It also captures the disgust many fans – in Chicago and elsewhere – feel toward a franchise that couldn’t be more delighted with its own specialness and the Cardinal Nation of supporters who revel in it.
What the hell’s so great about the Cardinal Way?
“I think it’s very real,” says Michael Wacha, this season’s ace of the staff at 11-3 following Tuesday’s victory in Chicago against – sorry – the White Sox. “It seems there’s a culture. Everyone is here to work. Everyone drops their egos at the door and comes together as a team. A lot of teams don’t see that too much.”
A lot of teams don’t have the antidote to what the Cubs are building. A lot of teams don’t routinely have the answer to every challenge that arises. A lot of teams don’t lose one of the best starting pitchers in baseball – Adam Wainwright, who tore an Achilles in April, ruining him for the season – and respond by setting a 100-plus-victory pace on the strength of the most effective starting rotation in the game. The thing is, Wacha just turned 24. He and 23-year-old Carlos Martinez (10-4 entering the second half) were the two youngest arms on the NL All-Star Game roster.
The Cubs, and the rest of the league, are going to have to deal with these ass-kickers for the foreseeable future. In the Cubs’ case, all those talented position players will have to grow up in the game trying to topple a Cardinals staff led by Wacha, who was reared in Texarkana, Texas, but was born in Iowa City – Cubs country – and, thus, was a fan of the Baby Bears.
“We were Cubs fans growing up,” he says. “We were raised Cubs fans: me and my brothers and sisters. We were all Cubs fans growing up down in Texas. Once I got drafted, everyone in my family seemed to change pretty quick.”
Now, all Wacha – a 6-foot-6 Wainwright lookalike who made his bones with four straight victories and an NLCS MVP award in the 2013 playoffs – wants to do is crush the Cubs, fellow NL Central competitors the Pittsburgh Pirates and the rest of baseball. He has the heater and changeup to do it, not to mention the curveball and cutter that have been added with Wainwright’s tutelage.
“When you think about an ace,” Wainwright says, “you think about a guy who shows up to the field knowing the whole team thinks they’ve got a great chance to win that game. You know they’re going to carry you deep into the game. There’s a presence there, a presence on the mound when you look out. Some people don’t have it; they have ace-type stuff, but they don’t have that presence that’s only natural, that you can’t fake. Michael has that sort of aura when he’s out there.”
Wacha was 7-0, with a sub-2.00 ERA, by the time the rest of baseball realized Wainwright’s injury wouldn’t sink the Cardinals. The team was victorious in Wacha’s first nine starts and has a 14-4 record when he takes the bump. It’s ridiculous. It’s maddening to everyone who saw Wainwright go down and hoped the Cardinals were DOA. It’s typical.
“Michael is too young of a guy, without enough experience, to get a title of ‘ace,’ but ‘ace’ has all kinds of qualities that go into that,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny says. “Part of it is having success and having talent, but most of it has to do with makeup. He has been putting himself in position to be an ace since the first day he got here.”
The competitor in Wacha hopes the Cubs get their act together. “I think it’s a lot more fun if they’re good,” he says. “The Central has always been a very tough division. The Cubs getting better only strengthens it. But we embrace the challenge and embrace the competition.”
Wainwright understands this rivalry business better than anyone.
“The whole world wants the Chicago Cubs to be great,” he says. “The whole world wants to see the Chicago Cubs win a World Series. We don’t, obviously. But I do love the rivalry we have with Chicago. It’s a friendly rivalry, but it’s also one that’s very, very intense. When the Cubs are playing well, it’s just fun.”
Notice there’s no mention of when the Cardinals are playing well – because they’re seemingly always doing so. You know, the “Way.” It’s annoying to many, but it’s also undeniable: St. Louis playing winning baseball is as reliable as the sun.
“I’m very proud to be able to put on this Cardinals uniform every single day,” Wacha says. “I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in baseball.”
And one of the best – just when the Cardinals needed it. But why would anyone be surprised about that?