Lessons from the Cardinals

I don’t believe that any of us can fathom what they went through.  Nothing in our common baseball experience will help us connect with the enormity of the situation.  The baseball game on TV often serves as background to dinner, or you listen on the radio as you pick up your kids from soccer.  Sometimes, after the first game on TV is done, you’ll flip the channel to find another.

At softball games, you show up a few minutes before the game starts, toss the ball around for a bit, and you’re ready to go.  The game will run about an hour, and then you’re on your way home (probably listening to the end of the Cardinal game on the radio).  It’s all a far cry from the 10 hour days exacted from this team as it fought to reclaim its season.

Nothing in our experience communicates the magnitude of 53 games in 44 days.  It was a 440-inning gauntlet – an average of 10 innings of baseball every day – even with the two scant off days tossed in.  When he first looked at the altered schedule, manager Mike Shildt said that his had nearly blew up.

The early roster juggling – done out of desperation to find any available arm that could give them an inning that night – became a survival technique later on as the team was challenged to replace the injured players that seemed to be going down one a day.

At the conclusion of the 58 game schedule, the Cardinals had accrued 532 player-games lost to injuries (9.2 injured players for every game played) – a total that doesn’t even include Jordan Hicks, who opted out of the entire season.  In John Brebbia, John Gant, Dakota Hudson, Carlos Martinez and Miles Mikolas, the Cardinals approach their improbable playoff competition with nearly an entire pitching staff unavailable due to injuries.

Look at it how you will, this was a very significant achievement.  I’m not at all sure if there is another team out there that could have fought its way into the playoffs under these circumstances.

In the aftermath, in this moment of glory – for however it lasts, it is, I believe, instructive to make a note of how this team managed.  Especially during the year of turmoil that 2020 has been.  Lessons, if you will, from the 2020 Cardinals.

Before I start this, though, a little context.  Yes, I am fully aware that nothing in the artificial sports universe can truly compare with the heart-rending realities that the rest of the world is dealing with.  With over 200,000 Americans perishing with the virus, with many thousands more facing pronounced financial distress, with fires ravaging the one coast and floods inundating the other, I acknowledge freely that the world’s accumulated tragedies far out strip the trials of one collection of professional sportsmen.

I categorically do not equate the Cardinals trials with everyone else’s.  How many thousands of people would love to trade their nightmares for the challenge of playing 53 baseball games in 44 days?

Even beyond the large global challenges, there are the personal sorrows that beset us all.  Whether in the eye of a global pandemic or the relative silence of your own personal tragedy, the world certainly has heartbreaks and challenges far beyond the simple cares of a beleaguered baseball team trying to make the playoffs.

I really don’t want to make too much of this.

So what I present to you here is a metaphor.  Lessons wrought under the most adverse conditions imaginable in a controlled arena that are broadly applicable to others in the crucible of life’s larger arena.  They are mindsets – perhaps, at best, footholds in the cliff of the mountain.

Let me present four valuable takeaways from a most improbable season, for whatever comfort and inspiration that it might provide.

Live and Die as a Team

Even in the ugliest of times – and this season had some particularly ugly moments – the team was always there for each other.  They played for each other, even when they were too weary to play for themselves.  There were several points where catastrophe loomed, but the team would never let the season spiral out of control. 

The first lesson is find your team.  In any extremity – especially in hours of serious difficulty – we are less likely to pull through on our own.  Even an oppressive burden – distributed on the shoulders of a team – becomes endurable. 

Most people, I think, don’t realize how desperately we need each other – even in times of ease.  Find your team.  Find them somewhere.  Trust your team, and make sure that they can trust you.

Eye on the Prize

For the Cardinals, at the end of the gauntlet was a playoff berth for the taking.  They had a great advantage in that they knew going in how long the trial would last.  They would succeed or fail, but by the end of September it would be over.

Real life seldom comes so nicely packaged, with expiration dates on all our trials.  But even at that, we know that they will not – cannot – last forever.  There is a post-COVID day coming.  A day when damaged cities will be rebuilt.  Even if you don’t know exactly when that day is, hold on to that eventuality with both hands.  Even as gritty as the Cardinals are, they could not have continued in this fashion indefinitely.  But they knew that they didn’t have to.

You know that, too.

Face the Challenge

One of the important aspects of the Cardinal playoff push was that no member of the team offered the faintest complaint or shied away at all from the challenge ahead.  In the COVID year, any player could opt out of the season at any time.  None of them did.  To a man they embraced the unique challenge before them.

I remind you that when their season re-started, they didn’t even have so much as the luxury of a workout before they were dumped into the cauldron of games.  Throughout, this team offered no excuses and sought no mercy.  The schedule was what it was, and theirs was only to fight their way through it.

From our experience, we know that trials won’t just go away.  No amount of pulling the covers over our head will make things better.  The bitterest trials can’t really be embraced.  But they can be faced.

Surviving is Thriving

At no point during this process did the Cardinals ever thrive.  They never hit their stride as a team.  Things never came together for them.  They spent the entire mini-season hovering around the .500 mark.  In their last 8 games, in fact, they evenly alternated losses and wins.  They won as many as four in a row only once (in their final series against the lowly Pirates) and were absolutely pummeled more times than I can remember ever happening in the same season.

Every hitter sustained at least one major slump. And several never had anything but struggles at the plate.  It seems there were about 25 times (in 58 games) that they were dominated by the opposing pitcher.

Nearly every pitcher on the staff experienced at least one very humbling outing – and many experienced several.

Daniel Ponce de Leon – one of the heroes at the end of the season – was dropped from the roster and returned to camp when his persistent early season struggles reached rock bottom in a 14-2 loss against Cleveland (a game in which he lasted just 2/3 of an inning.

But no matter how humbling the loss or how thorough the beating, they kept coming back to win the next game.

I will be honest with you.  There were moments when this team (especially the offense) was so unwatchable that I almost hoped that they wouldn’t make the playoffs, simply because I didn’t think I could take watching this offense get dominated any more.

But they always rose up to take the next game.  That simple act – the mere act of keeping their heads above water – is the thing that saved them in the end.

Thriving is all well and good.  Everyone wants to thrive.  But when life capsizes your boat, then just keeping your head above water is enough.  Stay alive long enough to fight again tomorrow.  Keep your head above water until the rescue boats arrive.  Don’t overthink things.  Don’t pressure yourself into doing more that you can.

In the worst of circumstances, all you really need to do is just stay afloat.

NoteBook

Summer made a quick pit stop on its way out of town over the weekend, as the first game of the Milwaukee doubleheader was played in 80 degree temperatures.  Over the previous 16 games, the Cards had played in an average temperature of 69.8 degrees.  Their last 80 degree game came against Cincinnati on September 11.

Then the Saturday game weighed in at 81 degrees.  The games of the doubleheader against Detroit the day before (September 10) were the last games that were that warm at the beginning.  The first game was 81 degrees, and the second was 82.  In all, three of the five Milwaukee games topped the 80 degree mark.

The 8-run margin of victory in the second game of the doubleheader was the Cardinals’ largest win since they battered Detroit 12-2 in the first game of that September 10 doubleheader.

A problem earlier in the season, St Louis finished out the regular season scoring first in 5 of its last 8 games.

When Matt Wieters started the second game of the doubleheader, it broke a streak of seven consecutive starts at catcher by Yadier Molina.  He had been tied with Paul Goldschmidt for most consecutive starts at one position on the team.  Goldschmidt finished the regular season with 10 consecutive starts at first base.

Series’ Wrapup

St Louis ended the season playing 17 separate series, winning 8, losing 7 and splitting 2.  They had 4 separate opportunities to sweep series, but never managed to claim that final game.  In 4 opportunities to be swept, they succumbed twice.  Six of the series went to rubber games, with the Cards losing 4 of those.  They, in fact, had lost 3 straight rubber games before Sunday’s win.  Average time of all Cardinal games – 2:52.4.  Average temperature of all Cardinal games – 78.5 degrees.

They played 9 series at home, going 4-3-2 in those series (14-13 record).  Two of their opportunities for sweeps came at home, and three times at home they faced being swept, avoiding that fate twice.  They were 2-1 in rubber games at home.  Average time of the home games – 2:56.4.  Average temperature at Busch – 82.7 degrees.

They split their 8 road series (4-4 with a 16-15 record), losing all three rubber games played on the road.  Most of their 7-inning doubleheaders came on the road, so the average time of the road games was only 2:49.0.  The average temperature on the road was 74.9 degrees.

Eight times they won the first game of a series, going on to win 6 of those series, with one loss and one split.  They were 2-6-1 when they lost the first game.  Three times they lost the first game of a series and fought back to force a rubber game.  They lost all three of those rubber games.

They played 5 series against teams that had won their previous series, and held their own.  They went 2-2-1 in those series (7-8 record).  In three of the five they entered the last game facing a possible sweep, but avoided that fate in two of the three.

Eight of the 17 series were played against teams coming off losing series.  We lost 5 of the 8 (15-16 record).  All 6 of the rubber games the Cardinals played came against these teams.

There were three series played against teams that had split their previous series.  We could have used more of these games.  We were 6-3 against these teams (2-0-1 in the series).  Two of our four sweep opportunities came in these series.

The longest series played by average time was the Cleveland series (Aug 28-30).  That series (which averaged 3:27.0 per game) featured a 12-inning game and the 14-2 loss that took almost 4 hours.  The shortest series (by average time) was the quick doubleheader just before the Cleveland series against Pittsburgh (Aug 27).  The Pirates won both of those games in an average of 2:25.0.

The longest road series was played in Cincinnati right after that Cleveland series (Aug 31 – Sept 2).  That series averaged 3:10.3.  The shortest road series averaged 2:33.7.  It was the three games played at the White Sox just after the Cards came out of quarantine, and featured the first of the doubleheaders.

The warmest series by average temperature was the first one.  The late July matchup against Pittsburgh (July 24-26) averaged 90.7 degrees for the 3 games.  The hottest road series of the year was also that White Sox series, which averaged 83.0 degrees.  The coolest series of the season was also against Pittsburgh – the last 5 game series that we played there (Sept 17-20).  St Louis won 4 of 5 in 65.6 degree weather.  The coolest series they played at home this year still averaged 76.3 degrees.  Cincinnati was in town from September 11-13.

The longest game of the year was a 4:09 marathon in Chicago.  In a 6-3 loss to the Cubs, Ponce de Leon and Yu Darvish (and their respective relievers) combined to walk 13 batters.

The longest home game of the year was the 12-inning loss to Cleveland on August 29.  The longest nine-inning home game this year was the 14-2 blowout loss to the Indians the night before (August 28).  That one checked in at 3:51.

The shortest games of the year were the September 16 doubleheader in Milwaukee.  Both games, oddly enough, clocked in at exactly 2:01.  Of course, they were 7-inning games.

The shortest nine-inning came of the year was a 3-0 victory at home against the Reds on August 22.  It took 2:15.

At 2:25, the shortest road came was a 5-1 loss in Pittsburgh on September 17.

The highest game-time temperature of the year was 95 degrees on August 24.  The Cards took care of the visiting Royals that day, 9-3.  The hottest road game of the year was, again, that first game back.  The first game of the August 15 White Sox doubleheader was played in 86 degrees.

The second game of the September 18 doubleheader in Pittsburgh was – at 61 degrees – the coolest game of the year.  The coolest home game was still 71 degrees.  That was the Thursday game of the just concluded Milwaukee series (September 24).

My Designated Hitter Rant

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.

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