Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals: The Real “Natural” Interleague Rivals


The Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals meet this weekend in an intriguing matchup of interleague rivals, each vying for the title of best team in baseball.

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The Tigers and Cardinals have experienced a long and colorful history against each other dating back to the 1934 World Series. It was the Tigers’ first appearance in The Fall Classic in a quarter century and was truly a classic with the championship hinging on a Game 7 at Navin Field in Detroit.

The more experienced Gas House Gang stepped on the throttle, winning 11-0 in a game which saw St. Louis’ Joe Medwick slide hard into Detroit third baseman Marv Owen. Losing 9-0, fans knew it was a lost cause and were angered with Medwick’s perceived dirty slide so they showered him with bottles and debris when he returned to the field.

Legendary Commissioner Keneshaw Mountain Landis forced the Cardinals to remove Medwick from the game to restore order.

Thirty-four years later, the rivals met again in 1968. After winning 103 games it looked like the Tigers would lose the World Series, but they rallied down from 3-1 to win their third title.

After a decade plus of irrelevancy, the Tigers won the AL Pennant in 2006 but fell apart in the World Series to St. Louis, losing in five games. Despite the loss, the team rejoined the Cardinals as one of the class teams in MLB. Thus the rivalry was reignited.

When interleague play began in 1997, it could have served as a way for baseball to rejuvenate the brief spark of rivalry that arose from World Series of the past. Instead it was flawed and it remains flawed.

In order to boost ratings and interest, baseball put an emphasis on “natural rivals” instead of using a pure rotation. Natural interleague rivals are composed of teams that reside in the same city or state that compete for the same fan base. This has worked for teams located in Chicago, New York, California, Ohio, Texas, etc. It did not, however, translate to most teams that do not have a nearby rival from the other league like Detroit.

In order to provide more Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, Reds-Indians et al, MLB randomly assigned NL teams for the Tigers to play. Early on they tried to establish a rivalry with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but both franchises stunk. Later there was tinkering with the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks. Now we’re back to the Pirates, but nothing has really moved the needle.

This has led to a general eye-roll in Detroit when it comes to interleague games. We have to endure the pitcher batting and playing against nondescript teams with no passion on either side. Even before the 2006 World Series, the matchups with the Cardinals seemed like what I imagine it would be like to be a fans of the Mets, Yankees, Giants or A’s, etc. playing the other team: passion, history, dislike and grudging respect.

The Cardinals are the best team in the history of the National League. They are the “Yankees” of the NL, a team that every member of the senior circuit hates and loves to beat. St. Louis never seems to have any prolonged periods of irrelevancy and are often used as a measuring stick for Tigers’ fans because the two teams have been very good at the same time now for a decade.

Sadly, St. Louis already has a natural interleague rival in their fellow Show-Me-State residents, the Kansas City Royals. The Royals are relevant now so that rivalry is meaningful again for the first time since the 1985 World Series, but for all those years fans on both sides of the Tigers-Cardinals rivalry probably would have loved to play more games against each other.

It just feels different when the Tigers and Cardinals play. It is the feeling we all had when interleague action first started, believing it was a fun novelty instead of being a stale and tired concept like some view it today.

Enjoy this weekend in St. Louis. We just don’t get enough of these games.

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