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The baseball season is a long, smooth-flowing river. That’s its great beauty and also its inherent advantage over other sports. There’s little doubt the teams that have risen to the top by the end of the regular season deserve to be there; the teams have all been tested over a great distance, and their ups and downs have evened out.

Rivalries are the bubbling eruptions–the rapids, if you will–along the way. They bring the heightened excitement of a battle for honor or bragging rights to a short series whose pressure mimics the playoffs and the World Series. If these games between intense rivals are also likely to have an important effect on the final standings far downstream, so much the better.

From 1969 into at least the mid-80s, the Cubs’ strongest rivalry was with the New York Mets. If it wasn’t quite the Athens and Sparta of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, it was still the Big Apple versus the Second City, occasional champs versus eternal also-rans. But the rivalry lapsed when the National League was separated into three divisions to create an extra round of playoffs in the 90s, the Cubs going into the new Central while the Mets remained in the East.

Over the decades, the Cubs’ most enduring rivalry has been with the Saint Louis Cardinals. It’s been especially fierce downstate and elsewhere in the corn belt, where the Mason-Dixon line separating the two teams and their fans has never been all that precise–blurring from town to town and even from family to family.

The Cubs and Cards played a set of home-and-home series the last two weekends, and the games were marked by high tension and feverish fan involvement. The players and managers seemed to take the games extraseriously, as tempers flared toward the end last weekend in Saint Louis. I caught the middle game at Wrigley Field the previous Saturday afternoon, and just walking to the ballpark one could feel a heightened expectation. It was reflected in the stands by the patches of red–worn of course by Cardinals rooters–that broke up the field of blue shirts and jackets favored by Cubs fans on a chilly afternoon, the wind blowing straight in off the lake. Saint Louis leadoff man Fernando Vina, an infamous Cubs killer who’s a Punch-and-Judy hitter against the rest of the league but slugs like Babe Ruth against Chicago, was booed right away for his grand-slam homer that had tipped the previous day’s 6-3 game to the Cards, though the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano had otherwise outpitched Saint Louis ace Matt Morris. Yet when Scott Rolen homered to right on a 1-0 Kerry Wood fastball in the second, the Saint Louis fans cheered, and it took a moment for the stunned Cubs fans to remember there were enemies among them and begin booing vociferously.

Wood was having one of his difficult days, but he struggled through it. He worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the third, gave up two hits in the fourth, and walked his third man of the game in the fifth. But then he clicked into a rhythm–a car settling into gear–and retired the next six men, four by strikeout. But the pitches were piling up. His counterpart, Woody Williams, made a nuisance of himself in the seventh, fouling off five two-strike pitches before popping up. Vina worked the count full before Wood lost control of one and hit him. Wood got Orlando Palmeiro on a slider for an inning-ending strikeout, but he’d thrown 29 pitches in the frame–the same as in the near-disastrous third–and left with 141 for the game.

Wood had worked hard enough to earn the win, and the Cubs tried to get it for him. Although Williams had confounded the Cubs with that pitching-machine delivery of his–the ball rises behind his head and is slung straight over the top–the Cubs hit three straight flies to center in the sixth, and the third, off the bat of Moises Alou, went out for a game-tying home run. Corey Patterson led off the seventh with a triple down the right-field line–a burst of good news to counter the announcement in the press box that Sammy Sosa was going on the disabled list for two weeks with an injured toe–and Mark Grudzielanek promptly drove him in with a single to right. Antonio Alfonseca held the Cards in the eighth, and Joe Borowski, who’s usurped him as the Cubs’ closer, came on in the ninth. Yet Borowski committed the cardinal sin of walking a man with a one-run lead, and Edgar Renteria immediately stole second and came home on a soft single to center by pinch hitter J.D. Drew.

The Cubs threatened but didn’t score in the bottom of the ninth, and at that point I’d had enough of the warm but stuffy air of the press box. Many fans having left after nine, I worked my way down to the box seats. Even in extra innings, the ballpark buzzed with energy, allegiances tugging in both directions. Mike Remlinger retired the Cards in order in the tenth. Remaining in the game after a nervy ninth, the Cards’ Cal Eldred struck out leadoff man Paul Bako in the tenth on a 3-2 curve, but the count went full on Alex Gonzalez too. “Think curve, think curve,” I sat there muttering to myself, as if trying to transmit the thought. Eldred threw a curve, and Gonzalez ripped it off the left-field screen behind the bleachers for his third walk-off homer (I prefer the Japanese term, a “sayonara”) of the season.

The next day was miserable for all concerned. A needlelike drizzle slashed in on chilly 40-mile-an-hour winds that blew pop flies into the bleachers, and the Cards claimed an 11-9 lead. But the game was called in the fifth before it became official, and it was as if none of it had happened. (Except that the Cards’ Eli Marrero was lost to a gruesome ankle sprain in the soaked outfield.) So the two teams renewed the battle on an even footing last Friday in Saint Louis, though the Cubs were coasting off a four-game sweep in Milwaukee completed with a 17-inning win in which Wood again was victimized by a Borowski blown save but the Cubs persevered.

With Cubby blue now spoiling the monochrome red of the Cardinals fans at Busch Stadium, the Cards brought the Cubs back to earth. Chicago starter Matt Clement didn’t have it–maybe it’s time for him to grow back that Old Man of the Hills chin beard–and trailed Williams 5-4 in the middle innings. That’s when Clement opened the gates by throwing away a Williams bunt. A run came home on the error, and Vina, of course, slapped a run-scoring single to center to make it 7-4, which is how the game ended.

The Cubs sent Mark Prior to the mound Saturday against the Cards’ Brett Tomko, and Prior overmatched him in every way. But for a little disturbance in the fourth, when he worked out of a jam with runners at first and third and no outs, Prior was near untouchable. He extricated himself in the fourth by getting a quick out and then–with the help of a 3-1 strike on a borderline high-outside fastball to Renteria–an unusually complicated strike-’em-out throw-’em-out double play: Renteria waved at a 3-2 curve, with Jim Edmonds running to second on the pitch. Damian Miller threw to Grudzie, and when Albert Pujols broke for the plate Grudzie returned the throw in plenty of time to get him and end the inning. The game remained scoreless through six innings and it seemed that whichever team managed a single run would win. Prior led off the seventh with a double–his third hit of the game–and went to third on a deep fly by Grudzie. Then Gonzalez hit a shot–right at Rolen for the second out. Troy O’Leary coaxed a walk, putting all the pressure on Moises Alou, who bounced a 2-0 pitch over the right-field wall for a ground-rule double to score Prior.

When Patterson made a diving catch to get the leadoff man in the eighth, the day seemed to belong to the Cubs. That’s when Pujols parked a Prior fastball over the left-field fence. Yet Mark Bellhorn, who’d had the day off, came off the bench to hit for the pitcher in the Cubs eighth and smacked a full-count fastball into the left-field seats to put the Cubs back up 2-1. Borowski came on in the ninth and allowed a lobbed leadoff single to Renteria, who again stole second–deja vu–but this time Borowski stopped it right there for a save and a 2-1 win.

Shawn Estes took the mound on Sunday afternoon, but he started slowly, giving up three runs in the first. Hee Seop Choi began the comeback with a run-scoring double in the second, and Estes settled down, but it wasn’t until the seventh that the Cubs tied the game with a pair of runs. The tie was short-lived. Reliever Juan Cruz walked the leadoff man–Vina, natch–then got an out, and lefty newcomer Phil Norton came on to get Edmonds. Cubs manager Dusty Baker–working without pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who like Saint Louis manager Tony La Russa the day before had been tossed for arguing balls and strikes–called on Alfonseca, and he got the dangerous Pujols to tap one in front of the plate. But Alfonseca picked up the ball like a chef reaching for a fallen cutlet on the kitchen floor and heaved it into the garbage down the right-field line. Rolen followed with a homer making it 6-3, and the Cubs were left needing to win the rare Monday-morning series-ender to salvage a split. They didn’t. Morris shut them out and the Cards won, 2-0. Their first run scored with the help of yet another pitcher’s error, this one by Zambrano, who as before pitched well otherwise–small solace.

At almost the exact same time Alfonseca was throwing his game away, the White Sox’ Jose Valentin was trying to complete a 3-6-3 double play with a return throw to first base, but he too threw the ball away, allowing the go-ahead run to score. The Sox, too, were involved in a heated rivalry, and were having a much worse time of it. They were playing the Twins in Minnesota, and over the last two seasons the Twins have replaced the Cleveland Indians as the Sox’ archenemies. They thumped the Sox both the last two seasons, in the process winning last year’s American League Central title, and they dished out plenty of trash talk along the way. The Sox knew they had to play better against the Twins if they were to compete this year, but they lost their first meeting, at Sox Park in late April. The following day, manager Jerry Manuel, in danger of losing his job, put the death watch on hold by getting himself thrown out, an uncharacteristic display of intensity that inspired the Sox to win the next two games and the series.

But they quickly settled back into the doldrums, losing consecutive home-and-home series to the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners. The Sox beat up on the lowly Baltimore Orioles last week, but when they traveled to Minnesota they again needed a good showing against their main rivals to save Manuel’s job.

It didn’t happen. Struggling ace Mark Buehrle got clobbered for his seventh loss against two wins in an 18-3 embarrassment that would have looked better from the Bears and the Vikings. Jon Garland pitched nobly against Sox slayer Joe Mays on Saturday, but fell behind early when a throw home by right fielder Armando Rios (Manuel had shifted Magglio Ordonez to center to get another left-handed bat in the lineup) skipped away from catcher Miguel Olivo. The Twins ran a nifty hit-and-run to score another in the fourth and make it 2-0.

The seventh was the most frustrating Sox inning I’d seen since the 1983 playoffs. Ordonez led off with an infield hit, and Carlos Lee smashed what looked like a game-tying home run to center.

But Torii Hunter tracked the ball and made a leaping catch well above the fence. Rios popped up, but the Sox followed with three straight singles by Paul Konerko, Joe Crede, and Olivo, each hit directly at an outfielder and scoring a total of one run. La Troy Hawkins came in to shut the Sox down, and when reliever Kelly Wunsch threw yet another bunt down the right-field line–D’Angelo Jimenez gave it the alligator arms with the batter barreling down on him–it led to one more run and a 3-1 final.

The Sox’ Sunday loss was worse, because Valentin handed Esteban Loaiza an early lead with a two-run homer, and Loaiza handed a 2-1 lead to the bullpen, which couldn’t hold it. Tom Gordon gave up two hits and a wild pitch that allowed the tying run, and Valentin’s error on a potential inning-ending double play allowed a runner to score from second with the go-ahead run. The 3-2 margin held and the Sox were swept.

Throughout the series, the Sox looked morose in the dugout: Ordonez befuddled, Wunsch with his head in his hands, Konerko just shaking his head in disbelief, Manuel stoic as ever. I was actually watching the Saturday game with the mute on and Lucinda Williams’s World Without Tears playing when the song called “Minneapolis” came on. It’s a breakup song–“I’ve been wasted, angry and sad / Since you left Minneapolis”–and it came off as a dirge for Manuel. Losing can cost a manager his job, and being swept by an archrival will sway even the most reluctant general manager. When the title song came on, a tune about enduring pain and anguish, I thought of a new set of lyrics: If we lived in a world without tears, who would root for the Cubs or the Sox?