Last Saturday was a Bears kind of day in Chicago. At Wrigley Field the wind beat in across the leftfield bleachers and a chilling light rain coated the crowd. But Cub manager Don Zimmer refused to leave his post at the exposed front rail of the dugout as he watched his team battle the St. Louis Cardinals in the late innings of a one-run game. "I was drenched, I was freezing, but I wasn't about to sit for this," Zimmer said. "I know what the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was like in '76, '77 and '78, but this is the best. The Cubs and the Cardinals in first and second place, September, playing for the pennant. It doesn't get any better than this."
From the sixth inning on, the fans packed into rainy Wrigley had exchanged antiphonal chants: "Go, Cubs!" would thunder forth, only to be met by "Go, Cards!" rising from the myriad ponds of Cardinals red shirts. Last weekend's three-game series, and the final Cubs-Cards showdown of the year, beginning Sept. 29 in St. Louis, have been de facto sellouts since the beginning of the season, though back then nobody thought that either team would be playing for the National League Eastern Division crown. Whenever these two rivals tangle, club officials estimate that a third of the crowd in Wrigley will be made up of Cards fans, and vice versa in St. Louis's Busch Stadium. Every play brings some sort of cheer. In the ninth inning of Saturday's game, with the score tied at 2-2, Chicago's Dwight Smith launched a fly to deep leftfield and a roar erupted from the blue majority. When leftfielder Vince Coleman caught the ball, an altogether different cheer exploded from the red minority.
The cheering isn't confined to the stadiums. Last Friday morning St. Louis outfielder Tom Brunansky made a visit to the floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange. When he entered, heads turned. "All of a sudden all these people in suits were chanting 'Go, Cubs! Go, Cubs! Go, Cubs!' " said Brunansky. "Fortunately, the few brave Cardinals fans in the Exchange—the ones with the red pins and red ties with their suits—started yelling 'Go, Cards!' "
It's a five-hour drive from Chicago to East St. Louis, the Illinois town across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. "It doesn't matter how bad either team is," says Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. "They pack the joints. This September, though, it is a little different."
A little different? Only once since World War II have St. Louis and Chicago been in a pennant race together. That was 1973, a strange year in which the 82-79 New York Mets were the only team to finish over .500 in the National League East. "The last time the Cubs and Cards were one-two in September was 1945," says Herzog. "I remember. I saw every Cub game in St. Louis."
Herzog, then an eighth-grader in New Athens, Ill., 30 miles from St. Louis, would skip school to watch the games in Sportsman's Park. "The principal knew where I was going," says Herzog. "He knew I wasn't going to be any scholar. I'd hitch a ride on a coal truck to Belleville [Ill.], then take the bus and the streetcar to the park, sneak up into the upper deck, get about 10 foul balls and sell them to soldiers in the stands for a buck apiece to finance my trip. I'd usually save a ball or two, because the one thing the principal would say to me was, 'Get me a ball.' "
Back then the Cubs and the Cardinals had names like Lennie Merullo and Claude Passeau and Blix Donnelly. "People look back and say, 'It was only wartime baseball,' " Herzog says. "But it was great baseball and a great race. It was first-place Chicago playing second-place St. Louis. It was baseball, and no one analyzed whether or not those teams should be fighting for the pennant. They just enjoyed it."
Forty-four years later, as the first-place Cubs hosted the second-place Cardinals, there were a lot of people who wondered how these two teams could be fighting for the pennant. "Right from jump street, people have said Chicago doesn't belong in the race," rookie centerfielder Jerome Walton said last Saturday. "But we haven't gone away." And St. Louis? Wednesday afternoon in New York, as Herzog made out his lineup for the opener of a two-game series with the Mets, he announced the names of his starting pitchers for the series—Ricky Horton and Ted Power. Said Herzog, "The Mets are starting two guys making $4.6 million [Ron Darling and Frank Viola], and we're starting two guys who were released during this season. What the hell. The Mets and Expos are the two teams capable of running off nine out of 10 and winning this thing, because they have the pitching, but they haven't done it yet."
Nevertheless, back in early August the Cardinals brass virtually conceded the race, figuring that in fourth place and six games out, the team was too far back to recover. So they made a waiver deal to send potential free-agent Tony Pena, the Cards starting catcher, to the then contending Boston Red Sox for reserve outfielder Kevin Romine and minor league third baseman Scott Cooper. The Expos blocked the deal. "The dumb——s should never have done that," said a Mets executive the next day. "Don't let the Cardinals get close."
His fears were well-founded. "Pena is a key for us, the best defensive catcher there is," says St. Louis reliever Dan Quisenberry. The Cards got back in the race with a starting rotation that includes Horton and Power, who were released by the Dodgers and the Tigers, respectively. "The unsung hero around here is [pitching coach] Mike Roarke," said Quisenberry last weekend. "He's a biomechanical genius. I'd always tried to bend more to make my ball sink; he showed me that because I'm older and my back's less flexible, I need to stand straight up, just the opposite of conventional wisdom."