Theo Epstein had flashbacks to the Red Sox taking down the Evil Empire while watching this rivalry reach a boiling point. Cubs-Cardinals isn’t just for tourists anymore.
What a weekend at Wrigley Field with 122,802 fans combined, two one-run games, seven hit batters and Cubs manager Joe Maddon comparing the Cardinals to Tony Soprano’s crime family.
There was Cubs shortstop Addison Russell withstanding the hard slides into second base, St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina tearing a ligament in his left thumb on a play at the plate and the possibility of a rematch in October.
“It reminded me a little bit of 2003 when we were starting to get the Yankees’ attention,” Epstein said Monday. “Talent-wise, we could play with them. You could see how those games were back-and-forth and all close and played at a really high level. (It was) really intense – involving some extracurriculars as well.”
This is what Epstein wanted to see when he left Boston after the 2011 season for a president’s title, a direct report to ownership and the autonomy to run a baseball-operations department without interference.
The Cubs always understood they would have to go through St. Louis and its “Foundation for Sustained Success” (11 World Series titles and one losing season since 2000).
“We should stand up for ourselves,” Epstein said. “I think it says more about sort of how we feel about the Cubs and ‘The Cubs Way.’ We’re not going to take anything from anyone.”
Epstein now has something better to talk about than complaining about how the Cardinals get handouts from Major League Baseball in the form of competitive-balance draft picks.
All this action happening in a year where the FBI and Justice Department have been investigating the Cardinals for allegedly breaking into Houston’s “Ground Control” database.
A narrative that had been all about “The Cardinal Way” and how much “The Plan” had closed the gap between these two rivals will now revolve around the actual games.
“I think Joe was referring to a certain code, a certain reputation that they have (for) retribution,” Epstein said. “They’ve sort of handled their business in a certain way. That’s on the field. I think it was really appropriate for us to stand up for ourselves.
“But the way they run their shop in the front office – just because we hate them on the field doesn’t mean that we can’t respect the job they’ve done for almost a hundred years with how they can acquire young talent and create a certain (culture).
“I think ‘The Cub Way’ is starting to develop a certain reputation, too. It’s gone pretty well here the last few years and there are probably some organizations looking at how we do things and might want to copycat something, too.”
Yes, the Cubs are a very confident third-place team (beginning the day on pace for 95 wins and tied with Kansas City for the third-best record in the majors).
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
But the Red Sox needed some attitude to recover from Aaron “Bleeping” Boone and a Game 7 loss in the 2003 ALCS, storm back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and win the franchise’s first World Series title in 86 years.
Even if all the fireworks just sound like noise now.
“None of that stuff matters,” Epstein said. “All that matters is how our players feel about themselves, how they feel about their teammates, how they feel about being Cubs and how they perform at the most important times. It’s hard to watch our team and not feel good about the way our players are feeling.”