It began last season, when the Brewers got off to a hot start, leading the Cubs by 5½ games at the All-Star break. But the then-world champions found their stride, leaving Milwaukee in their rearview mirror as they cruised to a second consecutive division title. In between, a little war of words took place, about rainouts and start times.
Where will things go this season?
“It’s Hazleton versus West Hazleton,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in reference to his own high school rivalry in Pennsylvania. “You can’t contrive it. People that attempt to contrive a rivalry I’ve always gotten a kick out of it. It’s an organic thing. You cannot force rivalry.”
“You have to have another good team,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Thursday as the teams began a four-game series. “We gave them a run [last season]. It wasn’t good enough.”
After a breakout season for the Brewers, they added dynamic outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. The Cubs lost a Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta but replaced him with Yu Darvish. And they’ve been to the playoffs three consecutive years.
“I don’t think there is any dislike,” Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw said. “We have respect for those guys. They’ve done it. They’ve won it. There’s respect from my end to them.”
There might be respect, but that doesn’t mean the teams haven’t gotten on each other’s nerves, particularly off the field.
To review: Last May, the Cubs postponed a Saturday game due to rain on a day that never got wet, prompting Counsell to utter this famous line: “It's the first time for us that we've had players treated for sunburn after a rainout.”
The Cubs were only mildly amused. Milwaukee was even less so, having to return for just one day before the All-Star break. They promptly took it out on the Cubs, beating them 11-2 in the makeup game.
“It was a joke,” Counsell said Thursday of his sunburn quip. “Some people maybe didn’t like it. It was funny.”
The shenanigans weren’t over. Later in the season, the Cubs petitioned the city of Chicago to play a first-ever Friday night game at Wrigley Field, as they were returning home from a night game in Pittsburgh the day before. The rested Brewers were ready to play the scheduled day game but lost out as the city gave in to the Cubs.
Fast-forward to this season. The Brewers were tired of seeing so many Cubs fans make the short trek north, so they instituted a "Wisconsin only" presale for all Cubs-Brewers games in 2018. Only those with a valid Wisconsin ID were sold tickets for one week in February.
“It seems logical to me,” Counsell said with a smile at the time. “The first opportunity for the tickets will be for Brewers fans. If there are tickets left over, they’ll be offered to Cubs fans.”
When told there might be fewer Cubs fans in attendance at Miller Park due to the ticket policy, first baseman Anthony Rizzo didn’t miss a beat.
“We might just sink into a hole as players,” he joked.
Counsell added Thursday: “I don't know what to expect. We'll see if the plan they hatched has any positive results. I hope it does. I hope it has positive results for Brewers fans.”
As it turns out, the only thing that can keep fans away from a rivalry series is midweek April baseball, so both sides were disappointed: Miller Park was half full for the first game of the series. But that doesn’t mean things won’t heat up as the weather does. Both stadiums will be packed soon enough.
“We’re in this area, and the Cubs have a large fan base,” Brewers first baseman Eric Thames said. “It is what it is. We expect it.”
For years, it was the Cubs and Cardinals who could lay claim to the best rivalry in the Midwest, but Milwaukee is making strides to join the elite in the Central Division. And the Cubs know it.
“They’re a good team,” Rizzo said. “They’re hungry. You have two teams with high aspirations.”
And two that will try to one-up each other, even if most of it is in good fun -- sunburns during rainouts notwithstanding.
“It adds some intensity and some general angst, but that’s more up top than it affects the players,” Shaw said. “I love it.”
So does Maddon, an old-school rivalry guy if there ever was one. Tampa Bay-Miami wasn’t exactly bringing the intensity when he managed in South Florida. Maybe Cubs-Brewers in 2018 can top the battle they fought a season ago.
“I love it,” Maddon said. “It’s good for the game, the proximity, all that stuff is neat. I hope it continues.”