There’s this frame inside the frame.
The first frame is a laptop screen. Cardinals slide into it as they hop on a chair and pull masks from their faces. They are downstairs in a Busch Stadium meeting room not far from their clubhouse. They’re calling it “The Zoom Room.” We are up here in a socially distanced press box, asking the players muffled questions through masks, because that’s just how it’s going to be for a while. Survive and advance.
The second frame peeks over the players’ shoulders during interviews. It appears in full only when a Cardinal gets up off the chair, slides on his mask and departs. The second frame is an actual frame, a picture frame, on the wall of The Zoom Room. Inside its polished wood border is a photograph of Hall of Fame Cardinals manager Tony La Russa making his way down a jam-packed line of Cardinals, greeting his players with double fist-bumps before a postseason game.
There will be air-fives instead of fist-bumps this season. There will be socially distanced dugouts instead of handshake lines. There will be more masks than a roster full of catchers could use, more Zoom interviews than headphones can handle, more hand sanitizer than a small nation could pump.
There will be notable names missing. All-Stars have opted out. Others have tested positive, making this season the least of their worries.
There will be no fans in attendance, at least to start. There will be a designated hitter in the National League. There will be a runner on second base at the start of each extra inning. There will be some moments that make us shake our head and shrug.
What there won’t be is an asterisk.
That junk can be tossed out right now. Don’t take my word for it. Ask the Cardinals starter who has been in both frames.
Adam Wainwright knows firsthand the fulfillment of winning a World Series, a sensation he says is, “so special it’s hard to imagine anything meaning more as far as competition.” The 38-year-old three-time All-Star has pitched more innings in the postseason (105.2) than every active pitcher but four: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester and Max Scherzer. From that group, only Lester (2.51) can top Wainwright’s 2.81 postseason ERA. Wainwright’s credentials are as respected as his curve. Here’s what he says to the notion that this pandemic-shortened season will produced a watered-down World Series champion.
“If anybody tries to tell me there is an asterisk involved, I’m going to argue it all day long,” Wainwright said from The Zoom Room, seated in front of that photo of his first manager fist-bumping his old teammates.
“There are going to be 30 teams with the same shot to win a World Series, just like there always is,” Wainwright said. “We are going to show up, and whoever is the best team in those three months is going to win the World Series. Three months. It’s not like you’re playing a one-month or one-week season. Three months. You’ve gotta earn that still. A two-month sprint, with a one-month full playoff. I don’t care how long the regular season is. If you get all the way through a long postseason and win the World Series, you’ve earned it.”
Wainwright was born in 1981. Ask the Cardinals of that year if missing their chance to chase the championship didn’t sting because it happened during a shortened season. A split-season, strike-caused schedule allowed those Cardinals to miss the playoffs despite having the best overall record in the National League East Division. At last check, the Cardinals’ longtime National League rival was not presented rings of fool’s gold. “On the day before Halloween, thousands of Angelenos spilled onto the streets for a victory parade honoring the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers,” read the coverage from The New York Times.
If that championship didn’t matter, it wouldn’t still hurt here, would it?
“I don’t believe it’s diluted,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said as his team was starting its summer camp relaunch after the pandemic derailed spring training. “I think it counts.”
I think you can make the case this championship, if awarded, will count a little bit more.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark’s inability to negotiate like adults cost America’s pastime some good will with Americans, but neither Manfred nor Clark can be blamed for failing to predict a pandemic. Baseball, like America, is simply trying to figure out how to move forward, trying to keep everything from crashing down. Baseball will not solve this crisis. It can help us through it. An on-edge nation will be watching.
Front offices and managers have had to rethink how they handle their rosters and lineups, because the ones that do the best job of switching gears from 162-game marathon to 60-game sprint will be in the best position when a traditional postseason (hopefully) arrives. Risk-takers will be rewarded. Urgency is invited.
Players have had to make hard decisions about whether they feel comfortable playing. Many who opted in, like Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas, will spend the season apart from family to minimize the risk of the pandemic affecting wives and children. Who’s going to tell Mikolas this season and its champion are shams? Not me.
Teams are no longer just responsible for how they play, but how they put themselves in position to play their best. A club’s culture and buy-in, usually amorphous things that don’t mean nearly as much as we like to think, have never meant more than they do right now.
There will be no parade for the 2020 World Series champions. They won’t even be allowed to bump fists. What they will be, though, are frame-worthy pictures of perseverance. No asterisk necessary.