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Hochman: Cards-Cubs rivalry gets a winter warm-up as Molina defends St. Louis’ honor | Benjamin Hochman


I’d like to think that if Instagram was a thing 50 years ago, this is how Bob Gibson would’ve used it.

Not to post photos of his meals or sunsets, but to spit virtual venom at “stupid players and losers.”

During a playful exchange at the Cubs’ version of Winter Warm-Up, Kris Bryant publicly said to the interviewer, former Cubs All-Star Ryan Dempster: “Who would want to play in St. Louis? Boring. So boring. I always get asked, ‘Where would you like to play? Where would you not like to play?’ St. Louis is on the list of places I don’t like to play. It is rough.”

Dempster laughed and said, “When I was getting traded, and they were like, ‘Hey, how about St. Louis?’ I’m like, ‘Zero chance in hell.’”

So on Saturday, Yadier Molina posted a few photos on Instagram of Bryant and Dempster — including one of Dempster allowing a homer to the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman. And under the photos, the Cardinals’ catcher wrote: “All stars, elite players and leaders of their teams do not speak bad about any city. There should be respect and you should play and compete with respect … only stupid players and losers make comments like the ones made by bryant and dempster.”

It was many things. It was awesome. It was petty. It was funny. It was silly. It was, most importantly, everything that makes Yadi Yadi — he’s unabashedly passionate about his team and town.

And it ignited the Cards-Cubs rivalry in the middle of January.

The stakes have seldom been higher for the Cardinals — they’ve missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, the first time since 1997-99. They acquired an MVP candidate and an All-Star, game-altering reliever. And the Cubs, after winning it all in 2016, have been bounced from the postseason the past two Octobers.

But the Cards have more to prove. And yes, we’re talking about silly social media posts here. But if anything, it showed how fired up some of these Cardinals are heading into spring training. And fans should love that. In an era of bro-hugs and gushing mutual respect, it should stoke your winter fire that Yadier Molina, the thumping heart of the Cardinals, might actually feel about the Cubs what you feel about the Cubs. And Yadi took to Instagram Saturday to defend the city from verbal attack from enemies afar. He even made a hashtag: #QuevivaStlouis

And perhaps the biggest impact of Molina’s post? It pumped up Marcell Ozuna.

In October, Cards president of baseball operations John Mozeliak was candid about accountability with players such as Ozuna, preparing their bodies properly in the offseason.

“We can show you where the water is, but we can’t make you drink,” Mozeliak said at the time. “I think in his case he’s going to have to take that very seriously.”

On Saturday at Winter Warm-Up, Mozeliak shared he didn’t know whether Ozuna, recovering from shoulder surgery, had begun hitting yet — and that Mozeliak wished Ozuna was spending the offseason near the Cards’ complex in Florida, not home in the Dominican Republic. But Mozeliak will visit Ozuna next week in the DR, and Mozeliak said he’s received verbal assurance from Ozuna that “he’ll be ready” for 2019. It is, after all, kind of a big year for everyone involved, from the Cards to the free-agent-to-be.

But on Saturday, Ozuna sure sounded ready and hungry for Cubs pitching. He chimed in on Yadi’s Instagram post, saying the following about those Cubs: “From outside they speak and talk like (a) Tiger but at the end they (are) gonna be like (a) little cat.”

So we’ll see in spring training if Ozuna’s shoulder is recovered and properly strengthened for the season, but at least it’s nice to know the Cards’ projected cleanup hitter is fired up. Also fired up? Matt Carpenter, who responded to the Molina Instagram with the fire emoji. Who else responded? By deadline Saturday night, nearly 4,000 comments were on Molina’s Instagram — and Yadi himself responded to some of the negative ones with emotional emojis or messages.

On Saturday afternoon, while Dexter Fowler — the Cards outfielder and former Cub — was signing autographs at Winter Warm-Up, “I was like, ‘Why is my phone blowing up?’” Fowler shared. “My wife and my daughter are home sick, so I was like, ‘Oh, I hope it was nothing (with them).’ I look at it and it’s Yadi, (Adam) Wainwright, everybody, they’re all just texting. I get 50 text messages, and I’m like, ‘What is going on?’…

“I think it’s good for the rivalry. These are going to be some fun games. I’m looking forward to the Cardinals fans coming out and showing up. … Yadi is a fiery guy, which is awesome. I love it.”

As for the division, Fowler said of the NL Central: “You have the Brewers, and I know the Reds picked up some people. It’s a good division, a really good division. Every game is going to be a battle. I love it. Playing meaningful games all the time is awesome.”

The last Cubs-Cards game was meaningless. It was Sept. 30 at Wrigley Field, the final game of the regular season, and the Cards had been eliminated from playoff contention the day before. It was a symbolic game because it showed how far apart the two teams were – one playoff-bound, the other Playa del Carmen-bound.

The Cards made changes in the offseason. And on Jan. 19, one of the Cards called one current Cub a loser. I suppose the winner was the rivalry itself. First Cards-Cubs game this season? May 3.

And this year, the final three games of the season are Cards-Cubs at Busch Stadium.

The first day of the three-day Warm-Up was as much a lighting of the fuse on the roster as a showcase of new stars.

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