Sports rivalries tend to run hot and cold, and sometimes even burn out entirely–the Cubs used to be archrivals of the New York Mets, the White Sox of the Cleveland Indians. But the great rivalries endure, and flare up at critical moments. The Cubs’ pennant drive was especially sweet last year in that it started with them taking four of five from the Saint Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. It was a series full of brushback pitches and verbal sparring, with Cubs manager Dusty Baker at one point accusing his Saint Louis counterpart, Tony LaRussa, of “selling woof tickets” in an attempt to inflame controversy and inspire his team. The Cubs entered the series in third place, two and a half games behind the Cards, and ended it in second, half a game behind the Houston Astros, whom they would run down the last week of the regular season as the Cards faded.

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is one of the oldest and most traditional in baseball, going back decades, and it’s especially intense downstate, where from era to era the teams have lost and captured fans the way the French and Germans have handed Alsace-Lorraine back and forth. Cubs fans invade Saint Louis in their blue shirts and caps, while Cards fans bring their red to what is for them the Unfriendly Confines.

Which brings me to a Glamour don’t: What Cubs management moron outfitted the Wrigley Field ushers in red shirts this season, thus giving the impression that the Cards are even more strongly backed than usual when they visit?

The Cards’ first trip to Chicago last weekend found the teams appropriately knotted up in the NL Central. With the first quarter of the season complete, the Cubs entered play Friday a game behind the Astros at 23-17, with the Cards two and a half back at 22-19. Yet the Cubs were at a noticeable disadvantage, with pitching aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and slugger Sammy Sosa all on the disabled list. The Cubs had done an admirable job all season of keeping their heads above water without Prior, who’s recovering from a strained Achilles tendon and a sore elbow, only to lose Wood to a tender arm and Sosa to–of all things–a strained back brought on by a sudden bout of sneezing in Los Angeles. All three figured to be back soon–Prior even made a rehab start with the Class A Lansing Lugnuts last week–but with the Cards coming to town, the Cubs looked depleted, especially in pitching.

This shortcoming manifested itself right away. The Cubs drew first blood Friday when catcher Michael Barrett–moved up to the second spot in the Sosa-less order in a move reminiscent of LaRussa’s shift of catcher Carlton Fisk to number two with the 1983 White Sox–homered in the first off Chris Carpenter. But the Cubs’ young starter Sergio Mitre–the minor leaguer who moved up to take the fifth spot in the rotation when Prior went down–couldn’t hold the lead. He gave up four runs in the second and another three in the fifth to put the Cubs down 7-2. Moises Alou threw a jolt into the crowd of 39,298 with a three-run homer in the seventh to pull the Cubs within one at 7-6, but the Cards’ Cal Eldred, Ray King, and Jason Isringhausen shut them down from there.

The Cubs had lost the opener, and things looked dire for the rest of the series, as they would have to face the normally reliable Woody Williams and Saint Louis ace Matt Morris. What’s more, with a gale blowing out Saturday, the Cubs would have to go with starter Glendon Rusch, who enjoyed a few decent years with the Mets early in his career but fell on hard times last season in Milwaukee, where he went 1-12 and posted a 6.42 earned run average. Dumped by Texas during spring training (if the pitching-poor Rangers can’t use you, nobody can), he signed with the Cubs to pitch for their AAA Iowa farm team and returned to the majors when aches suffered by Mike Remlinger and Kent Mercker opened a spot for a lefty in the bullpen. With Wood out, Rusch was pressed into service as a spot starter under the harshest possible conditions.

Yet when he fanned two hitters in the first inning he aroused some small hope, even if he also allowed a shot by Edgar Renteria, caught up against the right-field ivy by Sosa’s replacement, Todd Hollandsworth. Even better was the rough greeting the Cubs gave Williams in the bottom of the inning. Throwing little but fastballs early on with that pitching-machine motion of his–his right arm rises stiffly behind him, then catapults forward–Williams gave up a single to Todd Walker, a single to Alou, and a single to Aramis Ramirez that produced a run, then walked Hollandsworth (who already had two career homers off Williams) before giving up a double into the ivy to Derrek Lee that not even the Cards’ acrobatic center fielder, Jim Edmonds, could get to. A Corey Patterson sacrifice fly scored a fourth run, and from there Rusch was able to pitch confidently, throw strikes, and concentrate on not allowing the Cards to string together too many hits.

Pitching with an efficient, classic motion in which his slightly bent right arm led him down the mound as if he were the Shadow emerging from behind a cape, Rusch mowed down the Cardinals. They scored on a windblown double by Renteria in the third, but the Cubs got that run right back with interest when Hollandsworth pounded a letter-high Williams fastball out to right field for a two-run homer. The Cubs added another in the seventh thanks to a couple errors by Williams–one on a pickoff, another on a sacrifice bunt–and that was all the scoring in a 7-1 rout.

The pocket of red shirts in the left-field bleachers (on this occasion, right field was totally justified in chanting “Left field sucks!”) and the other Cards fans sprinkled throughout the grandstand were quieted by the outcome. With tickets notoriously hard to obtain this season, Cubs fans vastly outnumbered the visitors in the crowd of 40,131, and they rose to their feet to salute Rusch for his yeoman’s work as he came out in the eighth. Some Saint Louis fans tried to mount a late last chant of “Let’s go, Cardinals!” in the ninth, but they were drowned out by Chicago boos, and two Cubs fans down near the field rose to their feet with a white W flag for the final outs.

Rusch said afterward he was gladdened by his own performance and elated by the fans. “That’ll give you chills, when the fans get on their feet and show you they appreciate it,” he said, adding that the atmosphere surrounding this rivalry was even more intense than the one at the interleague games in New York between the Yankees and Mets.

The Cubs built on that momentum with the help of a Ramirez homer and scored four runs in the first inning off Morris in a nationally televised ESPN game Sunday night. That was all they’d need. Matt Clement survived a couple of solo homers by Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen to hand a 4-3 lead to the bullpen, and Joe Borowski finished in the ninth, getting Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen in order. The win left the Cubs in a tie for first at 25-18 with the Cincinnati Reds, fresh off a drubbing of the Astros, the team the Cubs were traveling to Houston to face.

Meanwhile, the White Sox were enjoying a similar swing in momentum against a more recent archrival. The weekend before the Cardinals came to town, the Sox played host to the first-place Twins, who led them by a game in the AL Central. With typical Sox luck, a chilly daylong drizzle held attendance to a paltry 15,962 for the opening game of the much-anticipated series, and the Sox played down to the weather. They failed to take advantage of an error, a walk, and a hit batsman in the first and left the bases loaded. The Twins immediately pushed a run across in the second, but the Sox took a 2-1 lead in the fourth, as Aaron Rowand hit a line-drive opposite-field homer. Huddled in the cold of the upper deck, we urged the Sox to end it quickly–the new roof offered no more protection from the cold mist than the beers we consumed–but they couldn’t. Damaso Marte committed the cardinal sin of walking not one but two men with a one-run lead in the eighth, and both scored as the Twins won, 3-2. The next night the Sox lost again, 4-1, their seventh straight loss to the Twins going back to last year. Returning to their old ways of responding to humiliating losses with the odd bludgeoning victory, they won the Sunday finale 11-0, but that still left them two games back.

Yet the Sox kept it going when they traveled to Minnesota last weekend. They pounded the Twins 10-3 in the series opener to give Esteban Loaiza his fifth win, and won 8-2 behind Mark Buehrle the next night. That was when things, as usual, started to fall apart. Last September the Sox had won the first two games of a key series with the Twins at White Sox Park to move two games ahead of them in the standings, but then let the Twins off the hook with two losses that started the seven-game skid. The Sox lost 9-1 Saturday to the Twins’ Brad Radke and fell behind 6-3 in Sunday’s finale as starter Jon Garland struggled. Then, however, something miraculous happened. The Sox scored eight runs in the fourth–they started mashing the ball and just never stopped–and Garland steadied himself. When the dust cleared the Sox had won in the Metrodome by the football score of 17-7. They were tied for first with the Twins and had a 25-18 record identical to the Cubs’.

In recent seasons the Cubs and Sox have seemed to pass their baseball abilities back and forth in their home-and-home series, as if team strength in Chicago were a finite quality the weaker could regularly take from the stronger. Yet more than a quarter of the way into this season, both teams have shown strength, lending even greater drama to the late June and early July renewals of the biggest rivalry in town.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen Green.