To take a page from my colleague Grant Brisbee… if you're not a Cardinals fan, you should probably stop reading right now. Everything that will come after this paragraph will irritate you, and with absolute good reason. Cards fans only from now on. Trust me: You're gonna get mad. If you continue on past this paragraph, non-Cardinals fans, it is only because you are purposely trying to make yourself angry. Don't do this to yourself. Life is too short.
OK. Last chance. Out, all of you.
All right. We cleared out all the Others. Hello, Cardinals fans! Quite a year, eh? Our team, at various points in this season, has been without our three best, most consistent starters, our first baseman, our left fielder, our other left fielder, our center fielder, our other center fielder, our shutdown eighth-inning reliever and, oh yeah, the All-Star catcher who's the soul of our team and the only person on the roster with any remote possibility of ever going to the Hall of Fame. Despite all this, our Cards have won 100 games, securing the best record in baseball and home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs. This is excellent. Of all the years of success St. Louis has had, this has been the wildest, and maybe the most fun.
But that's the thing, isn't it? When you've had as much success as the Cardinals have had over the last two decades -- and never forget how truly fortunate we are -- you end up looking for ways to differentiate this playoff season from that playoff season. This is why everybody hates us, of course, and they're probably justified. But that doesn't make each winning season any less exciting. When you are a fan of a baseball team, they are a part of your life, every day, for six months of the season. To have that rewarded with a postseason berth come October, with more baseball, is a blessing, and something to which we should never get accustomed. Someday this will all be gone. Someday the Cardinals won't make the playoffs. Someday several years will go by without the Cardinals making the playoffs. Appreciate this. It won't be here forever.
Thus, as we enter another October, the minds of Cardinals fans turn to legacy. Specifically, their legacy against other teams. In the last 20 years, the Cardinals have played the following teams in postseason series. (The Cardinals' record against them is in parentheses.)
Los Angeles Dodgers (3-1)
San Diego Padres (3-0)
Atlanta Braves (2-1)
San Francisco Giants (0-3)
Arizona Diamondbacks (1-1)
Houston Astros (1-1)
New York Mets (1-1)
Boston Red Sox (0-2)
Detroit Tigers (1-0)
Milwaukee Brewers (1-0)
Philadelphia Phillies (1-0)
Pittsburgh Pirates (1-0)
Texas Rangers (1-0)
Washington Nationals (1-0)
When you've made the postseason that many times, and played that many teams, you develop some history. The Giants and the Red Sox have owned the Cardinals in the postseason; five of the their last seven postseason exits have come at the hands of those teams. But everybody else has a bone to pick with the Cards. The Dodgers hate them for knocking them out the last two years. The Padres hate them for being the only National League team to ever knock them out the playoffs. The Braves hate them for the infield fly game. The Nats hate them for Pete Kozma. The Brewers hate them for the 2011 NLCS, as well as being an NL Central foe for so long. The Tigers hate them for that fluky 2006 World Series win. The Phillies hate them for hastening the end of their truncated dynasty. The Pirates hate them for ruining their first playoff season in more than 20 years. The Astros hate them for this:
The Mets hate them for this:
And the Rangers have probably earned the right to hate them more than any team of all.
Now, one doesn't want to take pride in breaking the hearts of other teams, or at least one shouldn't want to. But when one has such history, one worries about protecting that legacy, especially entering into a new postseason. Right now, head-to-head, only the Red Sox and Giants have a legitimate claim to postseason supremacy over the Cardinals in the past two decades. Arizona and Houston have a push. (The Mets also have a push, but it just doesn't feel that way, does it?) Everyone else, if a Cardinals fan and a friend who's a fan of one of those other teams are out drinking together, the Cards fan can win bragging rights. (It is inadvisable to actually brag about this. You'll get punched, and you'll deserve it.) A new postseason potentially upsets this delicate balance.
It's possible the Cardinals will make it to the World Series this year, thus inspiring more hatred around the globe. (And know that if we win the National League this year, with four extremely likable teams with long-suffering fans as our opponents, Earth will never, ever stop screaming at us.) But if St. Louis doesn't win, they're going to lose to the Pirates, the Dodgers, the Mets or the Cubs. That is going to change the dynamic. That's going to lead to a different reality.
Thus, I thought I might put together a helpful guide to whom, for the Cards fan, it is most acceptable to lose to, from among those four teams mentioned. Obviously, we'd rather our Birds win the whole thing again. But if they have to lose to somebody in the National League -- losing in the World Series is something different; you can't really build much of a rivalry in the World Series -- here is a sketched-out ranking, from most acceptable to least acceptable, of how much we could withstand losing to each.
- Pittsburgh Pirates. All four of these teams are likable, so Pittsburgh doesn't necessarily get extra-credit points for that. But the Pirates are particularly likable, from their superstar Andrew McCutchen to hometown hero Neil Walker to injured rookie Jung Ho Kang. The Pirates also have a fan base that has shown itself loyal and riotous in the last few postseasons; it's difficult to argue they don't deserve it. They've played the Cardinals crazy tough the last few years, and they've done so without the rancor and beanballing that has come with the Cardinals' battles with the Cubs, Reds and Dodgers. (The Cardinals brass was extremely grateful to and moved by Pirates' fans' collective reaction to the terrifying injury suffered by Stephen Piscotty last week; it's reportedly one of the main reasons the Cardinals didn't celebrate their division title on the field at PNC Park Wednesday, instead waiting until they reached the clubhouse.) If the Pirates were to beat the Cardinals in the NLDS, it would be a worthy opponent finally outlasting their longtime tormentor en route to a potential dynasty of their own, a sort-of baseball equivalent of the Bulls at last beating the Pistons after three failed tries. There aren't many tip-your-cap losses in the postseason, but a loss to the Pirates would be just that. If we have to lose to someone, here's hoping it's the Pirates.
- Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cardinals have caused few teams more pain than the Dodgers, knocking them out of the playoffs two consecutive seasons now, seasons that many had predicted would end in the World Series. The Cardinals' supposed mastery of Clayton Kershaw is overstated, but certainly, they're the primary reason this future Hall of Famer hasn't pitched in the Fall Classic yet. The Dodgers and Cardinals have had some postseason scuffles -- that "Mickey Mouse" thing is never going away -- but that's a little overstated too; these are two excellent teams that are terrific October matchups, and more similar than you think. The Dodgers aren't as wacky and free-spirited as you want them to be, and the Cardinals aren't as stuffy. Anyway, the Dodgers have some of that Bulls-Pistons business going on too, though their $300 million payroll makes it tougher to see them as underdogs. It'd be nice to once again keep the Dodgers out of the World Series, but it's impossible to argue that any team owes us one more than the Dodgers do.
- New York Mets. The Mets hated the Cardinals long before Adam Wainright froze Carlos Beltran, but that secured it for all time: Yadier Molina is going to be booed if he so much as flies over the tri-state area airspace, for the rest of his life. It would be particularly brutal if the Cardinals ended the last dream season since that year in the NLCS. But this isn't about Mets' fans' feelings: It's about Cardinals' fans. Cards fans old enough to remember the NL East fights of the mid-80s will always have a dead spot in their soul for the Mets, and all told, that Wainwright highlight is one that holds a certain sentimental significance to Cardinals fans, something that might be damaged if the Mets beat the Cardinals in the NLCS nine years later. Plus, the Mets were at the center of one of the darkest on-field moments in recent Cardinals history, the Rick Ankiel implosion in the 2000 NLCS. That wasn't the Mets' fault, of course -- if anything, they were appropriately empathetic -- but no Cardinals fan wants to be reminded of that moment. Anyway, losing to the Mets wouldn't be fun, but you'd still probably be a little happy for Mets fans, at least until they flipped you off. That's to say: The gulf between No. 3 and No. 4 on this list is as vast as the ocean is wide.
- Chicago Cubs. So here's the nuclear scenario. Like the Cardinals, the Cubs are one of baseball's signature, jewel franchises, and the two teams, because of geography and because of history, will always be connected. Since the Cubs have last won the World Series, the Cardinals have won 11. St. Louis has ruled the National League Central (and before that, East) while the Cubs have commonly finished in the basement. The Cardinals swindled the Cubs out of Lou Brock. This has been, roughly, 100 years of total Cardinals dominance over the Cubs. But they have never, not once, met in the postseason. Which means that if the Cubs were to somehow beat the Cardinals in the NLDS, almost all of those 100 years of history would be erased. Cardinals fans could cite the championships, Ernie Broglio, Bruce Sutter, all of it, and it wouldn't matter, because all a Cubs fan would have to do is say, "the 2015 NLDS," and it would win all arguments. Losing to the Cubs in the playoffs is, to put it mildly, a Cardinals fan's nightmare. (As I joked to one of my Cubs fan friends the other day, "My favorite team is the Cardinals. My second favorite team is the Cubs not winning the World Series.") If the Cardinals were to beat the Cubs if they play in the NLDS this year, it would be just one more log on the Cardinals Rule campfire. But if they lost, Cubs fans would never, ever let it go, and they would be right to. The Cardinals don't want to lose anyone this postseason. But they really, really don't want to lose to the Cubs. Which is yet one more reason for the rest of America to get behind the Cubs this October.
So, there are the rankings. But let's go ahead and solve this problem by not losing at all, OK?
All right, all non-Cardinals fans, you can come back, you didn't miss anything. Nothing to see here. Good luck this October, all!