Maybe it reflects the man, maybe it reflects the world he’s found himself in, and probably both, but Mike Shildt arranged to be the last St. Louis Cardinal out of town on Friday afternoon.
He buckled into the last rental car available and steered toward Chicago, where, in a day, the Cardinals would resume a season that had twice appeared to succumb to the coronavirus. Eighteen of them had become infected.
Shildt, in his third season as manager of the Cardinals, 52 years old, and about as real as they come, had shagged for batting practice, gotten his things together for the three-hour drive and five-day trip, and intentionally allowed dozens of other cars — carrying his players and staff — their head starts.
“I loved it,” he said. “I thought it was great. You know, driving toward playing baseball and getting back into competition and doing it separately, but together, took me back to some grassroot days of Legion ball, driving three hours to playoff games and tournaments and all kinds of fun stuff. … Gave me an opportunity to catch up on some phone calls, connect with some of the guys and then meditate a little bit about some of the questions you’re asking about, how the best way to navigate this.
“I was the last one to leave from my shagging responsibilities and a few organizational things. And I wanted to make sure I was the last one to leave in case somebody had something on the highway, that I could pass by and pick them up.”
Mike Shildt, Cardinals manager, baseball lifer, sweeper bus driver.
Out of the game since July 29, the day before the first positive tests arose, the Cardinals have played five games, none in 2 ½ weeks, and have endured two quarantines. They gathered — if one player and one coach can be a gathering, and staggered across most of a day — in St. Louis beginning Tuesday, pitchers feeling the dirt and grass under their feet again, players weighing bats in their hands. They’ll play two games Saturday against the Chicago White Sox, leading with veteran Adam Wainwright and a bullpen game on day one, then Dakota Hudson on day two, then deal with two more doubleheaders in the following three days. Also, the Cardinals will have reworked their coaching staff, as some were afflicted by the virus and another — Willie McGee on Friday — opted not to continue.
“Everybody’s as optimistic as possible,” Shildt said. “Excited about getting back to playing. One of the things we talk about, and it’s true, it’s easy to complain. It’s the easiest thing in the world to complain. But winners find solutions. … Yeah, there’s been a ton of challenges facing this group over the last couple, three weeks. But we accept them and move forward.”
When it was pointed out to him he has herded a baseball team into Chicago that by body calendar is back in spring training somewhere, and that every team they see from here is well into their regular season calendars, Shildt grinned slightly and said, “That’s a factual assessment. That’s correct.”
He sat with his back to a window whose curtain — khaki, with something like a crossword puzzle design — could only accessorize a hotel room. The clouds puttering outside the window, encircling his head, were fluffy white and gray on the fringes. As he spoke, they cleared some, revealing the last blue in an evening sky.
The Miami Marlins had returned from an eight-day isolation to win their first five games. The Cardinals will double that layoff and roll into a schedule almost too thick with baseball to imagine. This is what the job is now, this and keeping the healthy healthy, and one day bringing back the quarantined, and showing up and seeing what’s to come. Shildt admitted to a moment’s despair, when a second outbreak seemed to threaten the season, when it seemed to Shildt, “We’re not fulfilling our obligation right now to the league.”
He said he spent two minutes there, then got back on the phone, tending to players and coaches and staff who’d need to hear from him. Soon enough, and after what must have seemed like forever, he’d be in that Yukon, headed north, three hours from a place where there’d be baseball, then two, then one. In a sign, perhaps, that their luck might be turning, Shildt came across not a single fellow Cardinal. No steaming radiators. No flat tires. Just open road, a little music on the radio, another few miles covered.
They’d tried this once and, for whatever reason, failed.
“There is always going to be some hole somewhere,” he said, “with an invisible virus that has shut down the world.”
They’ll try again.
“It’s a challenge,” Shildt said. “But we accept it.”
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