ORLANDO, FL --- By most any measure, the St. Louis Cardinals are one of Major League Baseball’s most successful teams, on and off the field.
Their 11 World Series titles are the most outside of the New York Yankees (who’ve won 27 times). Their 19 National League pennants are the third most of any team in that league, behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
St. Louis has drawn at least 3 million fans for 16 consecutive seasons and 21 of the past 22 years (with no fans allowed in any MLB ballparks this season, that streak obviously will end). According to Forbes, the Cardinals are the seventh most valuable MLB franchise, trailing the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, Giants, and Mets – all of which play in much bigger markets.
Those are all impressive numbers for a mid-market-size team such as the Cardinals.
Back in 2015, when St. Louis was going through a five-year stretch in which it won one World Series, three NL pennants and three consecutive Central Division titles, much was made of “The Cardinal Way,” an organizational philosophy adopted at every level from the major leagues down to rookie-level minor league. It covers everything from roster management and player acquisition, to the correct way to conduct practice drills and execute plays, to proper off-field etiquette.
The idea of the 100-page manual written by late coaches George Kissell and Dave Ricketts was to foster conformity and continuity throughout the Cardinals’ organization.
Image Takes a Hit
That carefully crafted image, though, has taken a hit recently. Because today, much to the club’s dismay, the Cardinals are the face of the coronavirus pandemic in MLB, roundly criticized on social media supposedly for not adhering sufficiently to the league’s safety and health protocols. The Cardinals have become a test case for the league on how to handle a team that’s been quarantined for an extended period.
The Cardinals went 17 days – from July 29 until Saturday, Aug. 15 – without having played a game, twice sidelined by the coronavirus. As of last Saturday morning, St. Louis had played just five games total out of the scheduled 60 games. Meanwhile, MLB’s other 29 teams each had played about 20 games – or, one-third of their seasons.
According to various news reports, the Cardinals believe the outbreak resulted from at least one player coming into contact with an asymptomatic individual who was outside of the team’s testing protocol, prior to the team leaving on its first road trip of the season, to Milwaukee. The virus spread in the clubhouse soon after.
After beginning their season with five home games, the Cardinals flew to Milwaukee, and were hit with the first wave of infections, of seven players. After spending six days in isolation at a Milwaukee hotel, the team flew back to St. Louis. Following two team workouts, three additional players tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, resulting in the team being quarantined again, for another week.
In total, 10 Cardinals players and eight staff members have tested positive.
This was one of the scenarios that, absent teams being in a “bubble”, concerned MLB: an individual outside of a team’s approved circle infecting one player, and then having the virus spread throughout the club.
‘Makes Us Look Bad”
As Cardinals’ veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright told Rick Hummel and Derrick Goold, the widely respected baseball writers for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the outbreak “makes us look really bad.”
“What really got us was the timing of everything, because when it got into our clubhouse, we didn’t know. Then we traveled. Then we played. And then we found out after traveling and playing that somebody had tested positive. You don’t know who that person came in contact with. Apparently, you don’t have to touch somebody. It’s not like we’re going around giving hugs... It’s crazy how easily this thing spreads.
“I get people who contact me and say, ‘Dude, quit going out.’ I tell them we’re not out gallivanting around. Everybody needs to stop thinking we were out gallivanting around.
“If we had gone out to a club and had a big team party and did something we weren’t supposed to do, I’d be the first one saying, ‘We don’t deserve anything. We were a bunch of idiots.’
“We didn’t ask to be sick. As a team, we didn’t do anything that warrants punishment.”
Did the Cardinals make mistakes? Absolutely. Were players lax in adhering to the health and safety protocols established by the league? Yes. There were instances where players didn’t wear masks or social distance in the clubhouse. There were high-fives exchanged after plays, and post-game victory celebration lines.
But, similar violations took place throughout the league, so much so that Commissioner Rob Manfred threatened players with fines if such conduct continued. As with the general public, players throughout the league have struggled to adjust their routines in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Could the Cardinals have been more diligent in enforcing the league’s protocols? Yes. Could the team have waited a couple more days before flying back from Milwaukee? Probably (although the club insists that it had received medical clearance to travel).
In hindsight, the club likely would have handled some situations differently. But there was nothing as egregious as, if news reports are true, two Cleveland players sneaking out of their team’s hotel to go to a bar during that team’s recent road trip.
Everything is an educated guess when dealing with COVID-19, because nobody in baseball – or, the public in general -- has gone through something like this.
Infections are Inevitable
Part of the problem is MLB flying players around the country during a pandemic, and then letting the players commute between their stadiums and their homes during home games. An outbreak could come from something as innocent as a player going for a haircut, or from a family member’s trip to the grocer.
(According to the Post-Dispatch, when the Cardinals traveled to Chicago for eight games with the White Sox and Cubs that began on Aug. 15, instead of flying, the 41 members of St. Louis’ travel party drove 41 rental cars from St. Louis to Chicago, and the players drove those individual rental cars from their hotel to the stadium.)
And, part of it is just misfortune, similar to how two people can be exposed to a virus and only one becomes ill. For instance, the Miami Marlins had 17 players test positive after their first series of the season, yet Miami missed just eight days. And, the Indians have not suffered an outbreak after the players reportedly visited a bar.
With protocol violations having occurred throughout the league, why have only the Marlins and Cardinals been impacted so adversely thus far? Sometimes, it’s simply bad luck.
It was inevitable that players would become infected, and likely that more players around the league will test positive for the highly contagious virus as the season progresses. What will MLB do if other teams suffer outbreaks like the Marlins and Cardinals?
By the time St. Louis resumed playing, with the sixth game of its start-stop-start-stop-fast start season on Saturday, Aug. 15, most of the league’s other 29 teams already had played about one-third of their 60-game schedule.
Now, the Cardinals must race to catch up with the rest of the league, with games backed up like airplanes awaiting takeoff at New York’s LaGuardia International Airport following a four-hour ground stop.
A Demanding Schedule
So, the Cardinals find themselves having to play 53 games in 44 days, including 11 doubleheaders, as they try to reach 60 games for the season. A team that hadn’t played in 17 days (from July 29 until Aug. 15) and still is missing 10 of its regular players was scheduled to play eight games in five days in Chicago – three doubleheaders alternating between two single contests. Even with the abbreviated, seven-inning games in doubleheaders, that’s 60 innings in five days.
The team is scheduled for only two days off the rest of the season, both in September. And, that’s if there are no additional postponements due to weather, or the Cardinals or any of its opponents contracting the virus. According to news reports, one Cincinnati Reds player tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday (Aug. 14), postponing two games against the Pirates, and potentially impacting the Cincinnati-St. Louis series later this week.
In essence, the Cardinals must play their schedule in two-thirds the amount of time as other clubs. That’s a heavy workload for any team, much less one that is emerging from a 17-day layoff and still is missing 10 regulars – one-third of its Opening Day roster – due to the quarantine.
The Cardinals will not reach 60 games; even if they complete their current schedule with all its doubleheaders, they will have played 58 games. It is possible, even likely, that other teams will not play their full schedule, either.
Manfred has said that in such cases a team’s winning percentage, not the most victories, will determine the division standings. For instance, say Team A plays a full, 60-game schedule and finishes with a 32-28 record, for a .533 winning percentage. Meanwhile, Team B loses four games to the virus, and posts a 31-25 record, for a .553 winning percentage. As a result, Team B draws a higher playoff seeding – and possibly prevents Team A from reaching the playoffs -- because it finished ahead of Team A, based on winning percentage.
Even in a season when the number of playoff teams has been increased to 16, it can tough to swallow. In that case, about all one could say to Team A and its fans is, “Sorry. That’s baseball.” That seems somehow appropriate in a season as crazy as 2020.
Following a Precedent
MLB is willing to accept winning percentage to determine division standings because it wants all teams to feel as if they have an incentive to complete the season. There also is precedent.
In 1972, the first two weeks of the season were wiped out because of a players’ strike. When play resumed April 15, it was decided to simply pick up the schedule from that point. As a result, because of some teams’ scheduled days off during those first 13 days of the season, teams wound up playing different numbers of games.
Only one of the four division races was impacted, the American League East. The Detroit Tigers were declared division champions because they played and won one more game than the Red Sox; Detroit finishing with an 86-70 record and Boston at 85-70.
As Red Sox’s fans in 1972 recall, “Sorry. That’s baseball.”
John Mozelliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, described his team’s revamped schedule as “daunting.”
“It’s the hand we’re dealt,” he told Goold. “No one is going to listen to us complain…Come 1:15 Saturday (Aug. 15), we’re expected to play. Those are the rules.”
Well, asking a team that’s been idle for 17 days – and during the second quarantine had only 20-minute, individual player practices, “with never more than one player or one pitcher, and one coach and one trainer” on the field at any given time, according to the Post-Dispatch – to play a doubleheader its first game back, and three doubleheaders in the first five days could better be described as bordering on reckless rather than daunting.
For one, it increases the risk of arm and shoulder injuries, and pulled hamstrings as players go from being idle for two-weeks-plus to game-speed in such a short period of time. And, this in a season in which two dozen pitchers around baseball already have been sidelined with injuries. Many experts blame on pitchers’ not having enough time to properly stretch out their arms during the abbreviated, three-week “summer training” prior to the season’s start. Cardinals’ pitchers face a similar risk.
Second, it puts the team at a significant competitive disadvantage. While St. Louis’ opponents are in mid-season form, the Cardinals will be in almost spring-training mode the first week or so back, with pitchers trying to regain arm strength, stamina, control, and velocity; and hitters trying to regain their “batting eye” and swings against game-speed pitching.
It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals plan to regulate their players’ playing time, especially in the beginning, to lessen the risk of injuries.
Expediency, Not Credibility
Manfred has said that he thinks the Cardinals can still have a “credible” season. But “credibility” is strained, not just for the Cardinals but all clubs, when teams play an unequal number of games, when teams play a differing amount of home games, and when one team that wins the most games in its division might not be the winner.
MLB has replaced credibility with expediency. For instance, in order to reduce travel, all 10 games between the archrival Cubs and Cardinals this season will be played in Chicago. From a player safety standpoint, that makes sense. Plus, the fact that fans are not allowed to attend games negates some of that home-field advantage. Still, it creates an uneven playing field for two division opponents.
One could argue that there are no easy answers to playing during a pandemic, no way to make the playing field entirely level, and that nothing makes sense in a season as convoluted as this one. Just play the hand that one’s dealt.
It’s clear, though, that baseball doesn’t necessarily care how it reaches the playoffs this season, only that it somehow navigates the COVID-19 minefield to get there. Major League Baseball has reduced 2020 to a string of exhibition games designed to get to that pot of gold at the end of the regular season: the billions of dollars in TV networks’ playoff contracts.
As the saying goes, time waits for no man. And, major-league baseball’s push for the playoffs waits for no team. That’s “The Major League Baseball Way.”
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.