As the 1980's dawned, baseball was in crisis. Free agency was in its infancy, and ownership still believed it could be restricted or even stopped. As negotiations over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement wore on in 1981, ownership was determined that teams signing free agents give up what they called "meaningful compensation." Their goal was to require the team signing a free agent to give up an established major leaguer to the team losing that free agent, thereby making players switching teams via free agency more like trades, which they hoped would reduce free agent activity significantly and return the business of baseball to its pre-1975 status quo, when ownership controlled players for life. Two owner representatives emerged as hard liners on the issue: the Reds' Bob Howsam, who was among the most powerful general managers in baseball and represented the team in owners' meetings, and the Cardinals' Lou Sussman, who was an attorney representing the Anheuser Busch corporation.
Unfortunately for the owners, the players were equally determined not to give up their newly won free agency rights, and a 50 day strike ensued. There was acrimony on both sides, but in the end, compromise was reached. Only two owner representatives voted against the compromise: the hard liners from the Reds and Cardinals, Howsam and Sussman. Despite their objections, the season resumed with the All-Star Game on August 9.
Ten days later, baseball announced a modified playoff system to deal with the split season. Instead of letting the season play out and allowing the division winners to play each other in each league's championship series, MLB decided to have the team that was in first place in each division the day the strike began play the team that had the best record in each division for the period between the end of the strike and the end of the season in the first ever Division Series. This meant not only that the teams who had been in first place before the strike began had nothing to play for, but it also meant two teams got screwed out of playoff appearances entirely: the ones who happened to be represented by the hard liners who were opposed to any compromise, the Reds and the Cardinals.
The Reds had baseball's best record in 1981 at 66-42. They were in second place to the Dodgers when the strike began and finished second to the Astros for the second half of the season. The Cardinals, at 59-43, had the best record in the National League East division, but missed the playoffs for the same reason in favor of the Phillies and Expos. Had MLB simply allowed the postseason to occur naturally, or had the strike not happened and the Reds and Cardinals continued to play well in those missing fifty games, then the Reds and Cardinals would have faced each other in the National League Championship Series, and that would have marked the first time the teams met in the postseason in their long histories. Ironically, 1981 was the only year when the Cardinals shut out the Reds on their season series, going 5-0 against them, finally returning the favor from 1896 when the Reds swept the Cardinals. Presumably the Cardinals were strike assisted in this accomplishment, because it’s easy to assume the Reds would have won at least one of the seven head to head matchups that the strike eliminated.
As the decade wore on, the two teams continued to just miss each other. From 1985 to 1988, the Reds finished second in the National League West four years in a row. The Cardinals appeared in the World Series twice in that span, in 1985 and 1987. In 1990, however, as the Reds swept Tony LaRussa’s Oakland Athletics to win their fifth World Series, the Cardinals were mired in last place in their division. Despite each making a cameo appearance in the playoffs (the Reds in 1995, the Cardinals in 1996), both teams posted mostly fairly mediocre records throughout the 1990’s.
The difference, however, is that the Cardinals were gearing up for big things in the future. They hired Walt Jocketty as General Manager in 1994, who in turn installed LaRussa as manager in 1995. The two had previously worked together in Oakland, where Jocketty had been Director of Minor League Operations and later Director of Baseball Administration. In 1986, Jocketty, LaRussa and Dusty Baker all worked together, as LaRussa was hired to replace the fired Jackie Moore in July, becoming Baker's manager in Baker's last year as a player. In his stint in St. Louis, Jocketty not only rebuilt the Cardinals farm system, but he also traded for Mark McGwire, Darryl Kile and Jim Edmonds, among others, who catapulted the Cardinals back into prominence. The Cardinals also drafted and developed their players exceptionally well, ensuring that their success would continue. Since 2000, the Cardinals have missed the playoffs only four times, winning the National League Central division fully half of the years in this century.
As all this was going on, the Reds were messing around with Jim Bowden and his, shall we say, opinions on how to build a baseball franchise.
Despite the Cardinals' success, Jocketty was fired by the Cardinals after the 2007 season. There were reports that he lost a power struggle within the organization over the importance of modern statistical analysis, but regardless of the reason, the way was clear for him to become yet another general manager to spend time with both the Cardinals and the Reds. He was hired as a special adviser to Reds owner Bob Castellini (who had formerly been a part owner of, guess who, the St. Louis Cardinals) in early 2008 before being named general manager in April of that year.
It was under Castellini and Jocketty that the Reds returned to relevance in the National League. There has been an unmistakable trend of former Cardinals being brought on to play for Cincinnati, including, but certainly not limited to, Scott Rolen, Ryan Ludwick, and, coming soon to a Great American Ballpark near you, Skip Schumaker. But despite the crossover, the rivalry between the two teams has heated up in recent years. I'm certain everyone reading this will clearly remember every incident of the last four years or so, but in the interest of history:
A few months later, Brandon Phillips told Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News "All [the Cardinals] do is bitch and moan about everything, all of them, they're little bitches, all of them." Phillips also added, "Let me make this clear: I hate the Cardinals."
The very next night, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina started an argument with Phillips and the benches cleared. Chris Carpenter escalated the argument into a brawl, and the Cardinals' backup catcher (and, naturally, former longtime Red) Jason LaRue sustained a concussion (which he estimated to be his twentieth concussion of his playing career) and retired from baseball. Johnny Cueto, Dusty Baker and Tony LaRussa were all suspended and fined, and Carpenter, Molina and Phillips were fined.
The following spring training, Hal McCoy once again reported on a Reds player breaking the unwritten rules regarding the Cardinals. This time he reported that Jonny Gomes "sang joyously" at the news that Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright would miss all of the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Gomes disputed the claim.
That May, the Reds and Cardinals faced off for a three game series in Cincinnati, which the Reds swept. In the ninth inning of the final game, Francisco Cordero hit Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols with a pitch. Despite the fact that it was an 0-2 count, and the fact that the Cardinals were rallying, and the fact that Cordero often didn't have great control of his pitches, some Cardinals players and their pitching coach Dave Duncan were convinced that the plunking was intentional.
The next day, legendary Reds radio broadcaster and Ford C. Frick award winner Marty Brennaman weighed in on the situation, saying that the Cardinals "might be the most disliked team in baseball" and calling Chris Carpenter a "whiner and excuse-maker."
In 2012, despite having retired from managing the Cardinals, Tony LaRussa took advantage of his position as manager of the National League All Star team to snub Brandon Phillips and Johnny Cueto, and then gave an invalid reason for the snub of Cueto.
Since then, however, the rivalry has quieted down. The Reds and Cardinals have continued to fight for first place in the same division, but they've kept the beanings and public insults to a minimum. Undoubtedly the retirement of both LaRussa and Carpenter has had a lot to do with that. It's likely that Baker's ouster as Reds manager will further cool heads between the two teams. But as long as both teams are contending for division championships, which looks to continue for at least a couple more years, the possibility for tempers to flare again will remain.
The one thing missing from the Reds and Cardinals rivalry is that there has still never been a post season meeting between the two. However, in both 2012 and 2013, such a meeting was one Reds win away from happening. Unfortunately, the Reds were unable to put the Giants away in 2012, and lost the wild card game in 2013, denying baseball fans the opportunity to see these storied franchises finally face off when it's win or go home. Given the Reds and Cardinals success and the current playoff and wild card setup in major league baseball, it seems likely that these two teams will meet in October at some point. And when that happens, the historic rivalry will escalate to a new level of intensity.
Other Sources: The Lords of the Realm by John Helyar