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Dodgers and Cardinals would be smart to make it all about baseball

Dodgers and Cardinals would be smart to make it all about baseball
Dodgers teammates greet Justin Turner #10 with high-fives and a flurry of bubbles after he hit a home run against the Nationals last month at Dodger Stadium. (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images)

It's a short series. It's only five games. There shouldn't be enough time for tired stereotypes and weak generalizations.

But when it comes to the Dodgers and Cardinals, things can get real silly, real quick, so prepare for the worst. Based on the narrative that lamely dominated last year's National League Championship Series, the division series beginning Friday at Dodger Stadium will be about more than just the baseball.

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Some folks will compare the Cardinals to the Dodgers as if they are comparing a quaint Midwestern farming community to an L.A. street gang.

Others will espouse the virtues of "The Cardinal Way," while implying the Dodgers are too dumb to play it.

One of the Dodgers will make a celebration gesture on second base and the Gateway Arch will go, tsk, tsk. One of the Cardinals will draw a two-out walk and everyone will swoon.

Somebody will rip Yasiel Puig for throwing a bat, and praise Matt Carpenter for fouling off a pitch, and just wait until the world gets its first good look at the bubble machine.

Can we stop all this? Can this National League division series simply be about two traditional powers who are meeting in the postseason for the fourth time in 11 years? The baseball for the next week will be big and bright enough without any makeshift fireworks.

"Let's get down to it, let's go, let's kick this thing off, all about baseball," agreed Dodgers reliever J.P Howell before Thursday's workout. "You celebrate, fine, I won't pay attention. I celebrate, you get over it. Let's just play."

That will hopefully be the focus of teams who should be above the playground pettiness, teams who are more alike than they would care to admit.

Clayton Kershaw is baseball's best pitcher, Adam Wainwright is one of its best postseason pitchers. Adrian Gonzalez leads the major leagues in runs batted in, Matt Holliday leads in game-winning RBIs. Kenley Jansen has blown only two saves situations since late June, Trevor Rosenthal has an 0.87 earned-run average since late August.

How close were they this season? The Dodgers won one more game, and five of the seven regular season games were decided by two runs or less.

How close has it been since the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958? The teams have played 676 times, and the Dodgers have won two more games.

This is going to be splendid hardball. Can we make it all about the hardball?

"Any time you have two very good teams going at it like we did last year…you're going to have some squabbles every now and then," Wainwright said. "I don't think any of that carries over this year."

It was Wainwright who threw the first, um, pipe shot in last year's culture clash. After the Dodgers' Gonzalez loudly celebrated a Game 3 double with an exploding clap, Wainwright accused him of doing, "some Mickey Mouse stuff." Gonzalez had used the same gesture against the Atlanta Braves, and nobody said a word, but suddenly, against the Cardinals, it was cartoonish?

Gonzalez responded later by holding his hands up to his ears in a Mickey Mouse imitation, further soiling the Cardinal Way.

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Several Cardinals began muttering about the Dodgers' unprofessionalism, and the Dodgers muttered back, then a St. Louis columnist dragged the Dodgers fans into the mess by writing about fans flashing gang signs on the Dodger Stadium video board. Hint: The interlocking L and A gesture is not a gang sign.

By the time the series ended, the results were being portrayed as good triumphing over evil, and other uncomfortable and awkward stuff that failed to address the series' key moment.

Joe Kelly threw a fastball into Hanley Ramirez's ribs in the first inning of Game 1, causing a fracture and basically rendering their biggest offensive weapon useless for the rest of the week. Amazingly, the Dodgers didn't retaliate. In fact, Ramirez had to be hit once more by the Cardinals this year before Kershaw finally hit Holliday on his rear right after the All-Star break.

"Let's make sure we get the inside part of the plate correctly this year, let's not miss too much in, OK?" Howell said Thursday. "We let a few go last year ... and this isn't what we're about, but it ain't happening again."

The Dodgers say they aren't going to back down, not from the whispers or the whining or the fastballs wailing at their midsections. The Cardinals are not the kind of team to back down either, evident after they clinched their division title in Arizona and made a point of not jumping into the Diamondbacks' swimming pool.

"We have a lot of respect for what they do, how they do it is how they do it," said Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly. "But …we are here to play, too. We're not that much different. I'm sure we rub some guys, some teams the wrong way, but that's who we are. We're trying to play the same game."

In some ways, the Dodgers are a better fit for the Cardinal Way than the Cardinals. It's a philosophy that leans heavily on playing smart, and while this season they may hold the record for acting foolish, the Dodgers have certainly played smarter. They have a better on-base percentage, more than twice as many stolen bases, and have drawn 48 more walks than the Cardinals. They have more sacrifice flies. Their pitchers have issued fewer walks. Their style has been as much brains as wallbangers.

"It's baseball way, not the Cardinal Way," Howell said. "I respect them, man, but I'm not head over heels for them either."

Mike Matheny, Cardinals manager, doesn't seem bothered that folks view their standards as elitism. Like Mattingly, he won't apologize for who they are.

"I believe that our organization takes a lot of pride in the history and the tradition here and put a name to it,'' said Matheny, later adding, "I think that it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way … but we're not going to shy from the fact that we hold ourselves to a high level.''

It's the sort of high level shared by both teams as they take the field Friday for what should be another memorable chapter in their rivalry. Let's hope they keep it there.

Twitter: @billplaschke

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