By Joe Starkey
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina drops the ball as Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen scores during the sixth inning of a baseball game Friday, May 8, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
This one feels special.
It feels, in fact, like one of the more anticipated series in PNC Park's 15-year history.
The baseball alone would be enough. The Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals have played 49 times, including playoffs, since the beginning of 2013 and are separated by a single run (the Cardinals have 190 to the Pirates' 189). The games normally are tight and tense and packed with the kind of drama you saw in May at Busch Stadium, where three one-run affairs went a total of 35 innings.
On top of that, you'll have a rare Thursday fireworks night and a rare (for the Pirates) ESPN “Sunday Night Baseball” appearance.
You'll also have a bit of a psychological trauma to deal with, yes?
From what I'm told, the mere sight of Cardinals jerseys makes plenty of Pirates fans see red. One look at the logo, and people want to swat that pompous little bird right off its bat.
With apologies to Madison Bumgarner, the Cardinals have been by far the biggest buzz kill during Pittsburgh's baseball renaissance. They've won three straight NL Central crowns. They beat the Pirates in a playoff series. They are widely regarded as one of baseball's finest organizations, if not its finest, having been to the playoffs 11 times, the NLCS nine times and the World Series four times this millennium.
It's like being stuck in a division with the New England Patriots or San Antonio Spurs.
Which got me to thinking: Exactly how does this town feel about the Cardinals? Have they risen to Ravens- and Flyers-like status, which is to say, an object of pure, unadulterated hatred (in a sporting sense, of course)?
To that end, I conducted a little survey before Tuesday's game. It was by no means scientific, but I did speak with a few dozen fans across several generations.
What I found was a curious mix of envy and anger — lauding and loathing — directed toward not just the Cardinals but also Cardinal Nation as a whole.
Matt Johnson, 34, has been rooting for the Pirates practically since birth. He's been to St. Louis for a game. He came home plagued with an inexplicable rage.
“Cards fans are great,” he said. “They're smart. They really pay attention. They know the game. And I despise them for it. They think they're better than everybody.”
That is probably because their team has been better than just about everybody for some time, Johnson conceded.
North Side native Jim Snyder, 40, was wearing a Roberto Clemente T-shirt and eating dinner on the Clemente Bridge with his daughter, Morgan, when I asked if the Cardinals had reached Ravens-Flyers levels.
“It's been that way for years, mostly because of their smug fans,” he said. “You ever watch a baseball game with a Cardinals fan? It's tough. They've been successful for so long, and they know it.”
He added, as so many did in one form or another, “You're more envious than hateful. They do it the right way.”
That has come into question, what with the FBI seizing a bunch of Cardinals computers in recent weeks in the wake of an alleged hack into the Houston Astros' database. Some fans clearly took glee in seeing the Cardinals' pristine reputation take such a major hit.
“I can't stand the entire organization, from (manager) Mike Matheny on down,” said Tim Regan, 50, of Scott. “They just seem arrogant, pretentious.”
Next up was a group of four college students who answered emphatically and affirmatively when I asked if they loathe the Cardinals as much as any opponent in Pittsburgh sports. One pointed out it's not just that the Cardinals have beaten the Pirates when it's counted. It's how. They have seven walk-off wins in the past three years.
This season, the Cardinals, even with a recent slide, have overcome massive injuries to put up baseball's best record. That is admirable, obviously. But some find it extra aggravating.
It became clear there's just something about the Cardinals, kind of the way there was something about Danny Ainge in his day, that makes people want to elbow each one of them in the gut.
From this vantage point, the rivalry still is growing. It's not close to old Pirates-Phillies or even Pirates-Mets in the Jim Leyland years. To force it to a higher level historically, the Pirates need to win something significant, like a division title or a playoff series.
This series merely is a prelude to bigger things. The teams play nine more times after Sunday.
Julie Younkin of North Huntingdon has been a Pirates season-ticket holder since 2002. She still despises the Milwaukee Brewers more than the Cardinals, though that has begun to change.
Weekends like this could push her completely into the red.
“I don't have a visceral hatred for the Cardinals,” she said. “But it's getting there.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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