Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. MLB.com reporter Jenifer Langosch contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
MILWAUKEE -- Tony La Russa called the Brewers something very close to cheaters. Nyjer Morgan called the best player in baseball "Alberta." Zack Greinke called Chris Carpenter a phony. Albert Pujols and Ryan Braun both took baseballs in the back. The Cardinals and Brewers did not like each other last season, and they showed it. Here they are again. Last year's National League Championship Series combatants will open Miller Park on Friday afternoon in the first of 15 matchups in 2012. The big question is, given the big changes in both clubhouses, will this NL Central rivalry stay hot?
"Oh yeah," Cardinals first baseman Lance Berkman said. "There's no question that it's going to continue. They don't like us and we're not fond of them. I'm sure that will continue." Brewers outfielder Corey Hart is not so sure. He notes that three of the biggest personalities involved in past tensions between the teams are gone. La Russa retired from managing and took a job in the Commissioner's Office. Pujols signed out west with the Angels. Equally intense Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder went to Detroit. Carpenter has not left, but he will not be a player this weekend. The Cardinals ace is on the disabled list with a nerve issue in his neck. "It might be a completely different dynamic," Hart said. "Their two biggest personalities [La Russa and Pujols] and our biggest [Fielder] are gone. I think a lot of our conflict is because of the way Tony did things. Great manager, but he rubbed people the wrong way. "I'm curious. A lot of the guys over there [with St. Louis], we like. So it's interesting. It's actually nice to open up with them to see what it's like, what kind of feelings are out there." The St. Louis-Milwaukee dynamic went very public beginning Aug. 2 at Miller Park, when both clubs were warned after Pujols and Braun were hit by pitches. In that same series, La Russa filed a complaint with Major League Baseball about the LED ribbon boards at Miller Park, contending the Brewers were airing brighter ads when home hitters were at-bat, presumably aiding those hitters' vision in a ballpark where it is notoriously difficult to see. Later, Brewers outfielder Morgan and Carpenter took the spotlight. On Aug. 12 in St. Louis, veteran umpire Gerry Davis took the unusual step of warning Morgan to stop screaming at Carpenter from the dugout. A month later, back in St. Louis, Morgan and Carpenter and Pujols cleared the benches after Morgan struck out, Carpenter yelled an expletive toward the plate and Morgan threw a wad of chewing tobacco toward the mound. After that game, Morgan took to Twitter, chiding "Alberta" Pujols from stepping in and saying, "I hope those crying birds [enjoy] watching tha Crew in tha Playoffs!!!" Wouldn't you know it? They saw each other up close after the Cardinals beat the Phillies and the Brewers beat the D-backs in the National League Division Series. That set up an all-Central NLCS, which began with Greinke characterizing Carpenter's attitude on the mound as phony and La Russa responding with his "disappointment." Get the picture? These clubs do not exchange holiday cards. "We did have a little bit of a rivalry, but I think it made for some pretty good baseball," Cardinals closer Jason Motte said. "It made people want to tune in more to see if something was going to happen. It made for better baseball. When it comes down to it, you can have rivalries, you can have bench-clearing brawls, you can do whatever the heck you want, but at the end of the day, you just want to beat them. All that matters is getting the win." In that area, the Cardinals finished on top. After playing so evenly throughout the regular season, splitting 18 matchups, St. Louis took the NLCS in six games. Morgan, who dialed back his energy for that NLCS, has been equally serious in Spring Training. He says he wants to be "more wise," and to lead the Fielder-less Brewers by example. But Morgan said he had no regrets about last season. To the contrary, he characterized the Cards-Crew shenanigans "great for the game." "You want to beat your rival," Morgan said. "You want to have the last say. It's going to be two competitive teams leaving it all out there on the field, playing their hearts out. That's great for fans." Won't the Cardinals be different with no La Russa and Pujols? "They're still the champs," Morgan said, "and everybody has to chase the champs. You can't lose track of that. They might [have a shift in personality], but the only way to know is to watch the way they approach the game. By the All-Star break, that's when you tell what kind of team you have." Both the Brewers, who won the NL Central last season, and the Cardinals, who made the playoffs by taking the NL Wild Card, expect to be contenders again in 2012. La Russa, Pujols and Fielder will be watching from afar. "It'll change some," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said, "but I think they'll still try and play the same game they have been playing. They have a lot of veterans there and they know what they want to do. Tony, being there so long, has instilled certain things in them that they feel helps them win ballgames. I don't see that will change a lot, but they will take on some of the new manager's ideas if they are different than Tony's." Roenicke added, cracking a smile: "It wasn't all on their part, either. We had a couple things."