CHICAGO -- From the outside, the small box looked intriguing. But there was nothing inside, unless you count the air of disappointment.
Ernie Banks found the package in his mail one day in the winter of 1964, bearing the return address of an old friend. Lou Brock had sent him a box that had contained the World Series ring that Brock won after being traded to the Cardinals.
It was his answer to Banks kidding that he'd get Brock tickets when the Cubs went to the Series. Cruel, but funny.
More than 50 years later, that box serves as a metaphor for baseball's most seemingly one-sided rivalry, the one between the Cubs and Cardinals.
It will be renewed this weekend when the Cards visit Wrigley for a three-game set, with excitement among Chicago fans and a little more concern than normal for St. Louis. For the first time, September games between the division rivals will carry significance for both teams. Joe Maddon's Cubs have been one of the best stories in baseball this season, and it appears that they, like the Cardinals, may finally be built to last.
As usual, it's the Cardinals with the upper hand, thanks to their deep pitching staff. With a five-game lead in the National League Central, they're headed toward their fifth consecutive postseason appearance and what could be their 12th championship -- the third in a decade -- and their 20th pennant. The Cubs haven't been to the World Series since 1945, and they haven't won one since 1908.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and Maddon have taken up the challenge that has frustrated scores of other executives and managers: to end a a drought that must seem so foreign to those in Cardinal Nation. The Cubs occupy the second NL Wild Card spot, with the third-place Giants eight games behind them.
"How do you balance admiration and contempt, right?'' Epstein asked last September when the Cardinals were visiting Wrigley. "I'm a Cub, so I have to hate the Cardinals. But I also have to admire the way they run their baseball shop, and they have for basically the better part of a century."
Blessed by the brilliance of baseball men like Branch Rickey, Whitey Herzog, George Kissell and Tony La Russa, who have always seemed to get the Cards on the right end of trades like Brock-for-Ernie Broglio, October baseball is viewed as a birthright by St. Louis fans. The Cubs, by contrast, are the neighbor who won't stop trying to get into the party, even when it's based more on undying hope than reality.
At its core, of course, the rivalry has more to do with geography than history. Chicago and St. Louis are separated by 262 air miles or, more commonly, a 297-mile drive along Interstate 55, through Illinois corn country. That's more distance than lies between Boston and New England, but there's not much neutral territory.
In his book "Three Nights in August,'' Buzz Bissinger writes that while the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is about money, ego and sound bites, Cubs-Cards is about "territorial rights."
While making the 1998 commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis, George Will told how he made a life-shaping decision when he was growing up in Champaign, Ill., choosing to root for the Cubs when all his friends cheered Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst and the Cardinals.
Will said his friends came to believe "the world is a benign place,'' while he became "gloomy, pessimistic, morose and dyspeptic."
It's always surprising to be reminded that the Cubs hold an edge in the series, winning 1,195 games against the Cardinals while losing 1,146. You'd think that's a misprint, given how the franchises have handled their biggest moments.
No single contest in the rivalry smacks of more significance to Cubs fans than the "Sandberg game" in 1984.
Playing on a Saturday in late June, Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg homered off Cardinals righty Bruce Sutter in the ninth to tie the game at 9 and in the 10th to tie it at 11. The Cubs would win, 12-11, in the 11th inning, and they rolled on to the NL Championship Series but no further, thanks to the infamous grounder through Leon Durham's legs in San Diego.
When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were locked in their home run race in 1998, it was the Cubs fighting to make the playoffs in a down year for the Cardinals. This would be a prelude to the most heated years of the rivalry, when Dusty Baker managed Chicago against La Russa in St. Louis.
Desperate to grab the lead in the NL Central in early September 2003, the teams played five times in four days at Wrigley Field. They traded beanballs and rhetoric, and this time it was the Cubs who grabbed the upper hand. Baker's team took four out of five, including one win in 15 innings and two by one-run scores.
When it was over, Baker said: "Really, if [La Russa] thinks [the fight] has been on so far, he has a whole decade full of us coming. This is just the beginning."
History would reveal that Cubs team to be as fragile as the health of its 1-2 combination of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, whom Baker extended to 131 and 120 pitches, respectively, in that emotional series. Baker would be replaced by Lou Piniella after 2006, and even though the Cubs went to the playoffs in 2007 and '08, the Piniella era would be just another tease for Chicago fans.
Finally, thanks to the long-term vision of owner Tom Ricketts and the stockpiling of talent by Epstein and the staff led by Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, the Cubs have built an organization capable of upholding its end of the rivalry, which should get really good over the next few years.
Epstein isn't about to trade away the talented players he's accumulated -- the guys like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell, among others -- and the Cardinals show no sign of exhausting their supply of pitching talent. Both teams are loaded in terms of player inventory and the financial flexibility.
When Epstein was in Boston, his goal was to build a team capable of winning 95 games every year, because that was what he felt it would take to beat the Yankees. Now that the Cubs have joined the fight, he'll be in that same mode as he works to flip the script on the Cardinals.
It won't be easy, not with the resources that Bill DeWitt Jr. is providing the Cardinals from a monster television contract and the Ballpark Village development. But the Cubs are deep into their renovation of Wrigley Field and have their eyes focused on a new TV deal of their own, which should hit about the same time that the players in this year's deep rookie class no longer qualify as bargains.
As much history as there is between the Cardinals and Cubs, we're just getting to the really good stuff.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.