HAZLETON, Pa. – Joe Maddon told diehard Cubs fans exactly what they wanted to hear, blasting the Cardinals, sarcastically saying he never read Branch Rickey’s sacred book on how to play baseball and wondering if Tony Soprano had ordered the hit from the St. Louis dugout.
This rivalry needed some new attitude, missing big personalities like Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. Maddon delivered with that rant inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon in September, calling out the eye-for-an-eye retaliation after the Cardinals drilled All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo with a purpose pitch.
It took 123 years before the Cubs finally got their shot at the Cardinals in the playoffs, and they went through almost 500 bottles of champagne after they eliminated a 100-win team in October, partying in Wrigleyville as if they had just won the World Series.
With Jason Heyward and John Lackey defecting from St. Louis, this rivalry will only escalate in 2016. You know the Cubs manager will be right in the middle of the action.
“You got to be a little bit tough to survive around here to be successful,” Maddon said this week while staging charity events for his Hazleton Integration Project. “So when it comes down to a fight, you’re not going to take that from anybody.”
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Maddon competed on the basketball playgrounds, baseball diamonds and football fields in this old Pennsylvania coal-mining town. He absorbed blue-collar values from his late father, Joe Sr., a plumber who never seemed to take a vacation, and his mother, Beanie, still working to this day at Third Base Luncheonette, which looks unchanged since its opening in 1949. He grew up in an Italian-Polish family in a neighborhood filled with shot-and-a-beer bars, learning how to talk fast and use his street smarts.
“I love it, man,” Maddon said. “I absolutely love it. I grew up a Cardinal fan – a fierce Cardinal fan – and now I get to work against that feeling that I had as a kid.
“They got us early. We eventually were able to catch up later in the season. I think it’s healthy for both organizations. It’s healthy for baseball for a significant, proper rivalry between those two teams.
“I know they’re not going to back down. I know we’re not going to back down. (We’ll) hopefully continue to nurture it in the future. It’s no different than the Red Sox versus the Yankees (because) Cardinals-Cubs – as two relevant teams – is very good for baseball. I’m jacked up about it.”
There should be fireworks with the Cubs and Cardinals playing each other at least 19 times in 2016. Heyward looked at the young Cubs and the aging core in St. Louis and reportedly turned down $200 million offers, taking eight years, $184 million and opt-out flexibility, signing the biggest contract in franchise history.
The Cardinals will have to replace Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field and across-the-board offensive contributions (13 homers, 23 stolen bases, .797 OPS). After getting blown away by the Red Sox in the David Price negotiations, St. Louis will also have to account for Lackey’s 33 starts and 218 innings.
“The Cardinals are going to be a formidable opponent next year – and for years to come,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “They’re going to take the resources that they didn’t commit to Jason Heyward and John Lackey and reallocate them to other players. The approach I take with the Cardinals is the same I used to take with the Yankees when I was in Boston – I don’t pay too close attention to their moves in the offseason.
“I kind of forget them and focus on our own club and expect them to win 95 to 100 games every year. That’s the standard we’ve set for ourselves. We want to win the division. We know we’re going to have to win close to 100 games in order to give ourselves a chance to make that happen.”
Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright is 34 years old and Lance Lynn will miss the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Yadier Molina has caught more than 12,000 innings in the big leagues and will turn 34 this summer. This could also be the last year in St. Louis for seven-time All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday, who will turn 36 in January.
St. Louis also didn’t win 11 World Series titles by accident. The Cardinals know what it’s like to be the hunted team in the National League. After winning the offseason, the Cubs will now have to play with a target on their back.
“What’s gone on (with) the ascension of the Cubs – and where the Cardinals have been forever – we had to catch up to them,” Maddon said. “That was our responsibility. We did it for one year. We still have a lot to prove. And I understand that.
“But based on what happened this year – Johnny coming over, Jason coming over, (the fact) that we did catch them a little bit towards the end of last season – that should really stoke the fires. But we have to go out there and reprove ourselves.”