By Rob Rains
If this had been a normal baseball season, the 200 minor league players in the Cardinals system would be completing the regular season this week and getting ready for the playoffs.
As everybody knows, however, there was nothing normal about this season. For all but the 30 or so players who have been part of the Cardinals’ satellite camp in Springfield, this summer has been a season without baseball games.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development.
The players still tried to get their baseball fix, however they could, but it wasn’t the same. Throwing off a mound in the backyard; giving hitting lessons to youngsters; finding pitchers who could throw live batting practice; watching major-league games on television – it was something, but it wasn’t the real thing.
A sampling of some of the players found that what they missed the most was the competition, the games, and the chance to do what they wanted to do that was taken away from them because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“People come up and say they feel bad, but everyone is affected with their jobs,” said first baseman Brady Whalen, who played at Peoria last season. “It’s a tough time for everybody.
“I’ve been missing it. I would rather be playing every night than being here in the summer with my friends, I can tell you that.”
The Cardinals stayed in touch with all of the players, monitoring their activities. LaRocque said many of the players tried to give back by coaching youth teams in addition to working out on their own.
“The kids have been very good about doing their work and doing what they had to do,” LaRocque said. “There were no at-bats or innings. That’s the challenge as we move forward and prepare and bring kids along appropriately after a year when they weren’t able to play.”
So how did players get through a summer without baseball games? Here are some of their stories:
Back home in Vancouver, Wash., for the first time in five years, Whalen tried to use this summer to do some of the things he isn’t able to do while playing baseball.
While making sure he was getting in his workouts, and getting as much live batting practice as possible from fellow minor-leaguers who live in the area, Whalen also was able to step away from the game.
“I was able to go see my family in Idaho, we went camping and fishing and played a little golf,” Whalen said. “I tried to make a negative a positive and tried to stay in shape and stay ready. It hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been ideal.”
What this summer also did for Whalen, however, was remind him how much he enjoys baseball.
“It makes you appreciate everything about the grind and what goes into a baseball season,” Whalen said. “I’ve played with guys who miss their girlfriends, or miss everything about being at home or miss their summers at home. I’ve always loved baseball. I have a passion for it and I think that gives me an edge.
“I would love to be playing every night. It’s given me some perspective. I’ve always had that fire, but I’m itching to get back out there.”
When he reported to spring training in March, the 22-year-old Whalen was motivated to show the Cardinals that how he played in the first half of last season at Peoria – when he became a Midwest League All-Star – is the type of player he can be, not the one who saw his numbers dip in the second half.
“I went into the off-season with that sour taste in my mouth and kind of had a chip on my shoulder,” Whalen said. “I was excited to get back in there.
“This was a big year for me. I knew that going into it. I was ready for it.”
The son of a Brewers scout and the brother of a prospect in the Rays system, Whalen had resources available to him this summer to pursue baseball training. One of the motivators was a quote from Matt Carpenter, included in Whalen’s copy of the Cardinal Core book given out to prospects each year.
“He wrote a quote in it for us, and it said, ‘Luck favors the prepared.’ That kind of stuck with me,” Whalen said. “If you are prepared, you don’t need luck.”
Whalen did need a way to find a substitute for the lack of competition he was missing in baseball, so he turned to other pursuits – bowling and golf.
“For a few months when the weather was bad I got so into bowling because it was the only thing I could do,” he said. “I was competing against myself. The last few months I’ve been golfing with my friends, maybe putting a little money on the line to make it more interesting.
“I would probably say I got better at bowling. The more I play golf it seems the worse I get. I can’t figure it out. I guess it’s for pitchers.”
What Whalen has figured out, however, is what it will be like when baseball does come back – and he is determined to be ready.
“I really feel like when we show up and get back at it it’s going to be obvious who stayed ready and worked their tail off and who thought to themselves, ‘Hey I’ve got more time off I can mess around’ and not put everything they have into it,” he said.
“This was an opportunity I think for the guys who love it and have a passion for the game. They are going to thrive when we come back because they didn’t skip a beat. They used this time to better themselves physically and mentally.”
Redmond was hoping to build on a successful 2019 season at Johnson City, his first as a professional, but found himself back at home in Greenville, S.C., after barely spending enough time at spring training to unpack before having to pack and leave.
When it slowly began to sink in that there would not be a minor-league season, Redmond knew he had to find a way to keep making progress even when he wasn’t playing if he wanted his career to continue.
A 32nd round pick out of Gardner Webb University in the 2019 draft, Redmond hit 12 homers in Johnson City in the regular season and added three more in the playoffs to help the Cardinals win the Appalachian League championship.
Being drafted in a round that might not even exist in future drafts, Redmond realized his performance was going to be more closely monitored than some of his teammates.
“I was putting a lot more pressure on myself than some of the other guys,” Redmond said. “They were like, ‘Why are you so uptight?’ I was like, ‘You don’t understand. I’m a late-round guy. If I don’t hit good one year, I’m gone. I’m getting released. You guys who got drafted early, you can have a bad season and still get a chance.’ I’ve just got to hit, that’s all I can say.”
So what the 23-year-old Redmond had to do this summer was find a way to keep improving, even if he wasn’t playing games. He found it in two places, one against major-leaguers and the other working with youngsters.
“The Red Sox have a team in Greenville, and the GM said any minor leaguer in the area could come work out, they had the facilities open,” Redmond said. “There ended up being like three or four big-leaguers there and five or six minor-league guys. We would meet up four times a week to hit, and just talk.”
Redmond got to hit against Daniel Bard of the Rockies, Chad Sobotka of the Braves and David Hess of the Orioles. One major-league hitter who offered him a lot of advice was Mike Freeman of the Indians.
“Training with those guys was really cool,” Redmond said. “I can crank up a pitching machine but it’s not the same as facing guys live. I think what I missed the most this summer was the timing of live pitching.”
When he wasn’t going through those workouts, Redmond was teaching. He returned to his part-time job at a baseball academy and taught lessons, sometimes to kids six to eight years old.
“When you are trying to help a little kid you’ve got to dumb it down to where they can understand it,” Redmond said. “You have to really simplify everything. That made me think so much more about hitting that I probably learned more than they did.”
The biggest surprise of the summer for Redmond came when he found out his success in Johnson City had caught the attention of Topps, the baseball card company. They signed Redmond to a contract, eventually sending him about 5,000 cards to sign.
“I was grinning from ear to ear,” he said. “Seeing my picture on an actual baseball card was an unbelievable experience.”
That card deal has provided even more motivation for Redmond for when he and his fellow minor-leaguers do finally get back to playing.
“I don’t think I ever took anything for granted, especially realizing it was a business,” Redmond said. “I was going out there every day trying to play as hard as I could. But my love for baseball has grown even more from not being able to play it for so long.”
As one of the youngest players in the Cardinals organization, the 17-year-old Burns doesn’t really know what he missed by not playing this summer – for a good reason. Having signed as an international free agent last fall, this would have been his first year as a professional.
So instead of starting his career, likely in the Gulf Coast League, Burns was back home – in perhaps one of the more unusual settings for a player in the organization – his home just outside of Sydney, Australia.
“I am making the most of this opportunity to better myself every single day to be in good shape and to as ready as possible come spring 2021,” Burns said in an email.
Burns, a left-handed hitting catcher, said the coronavirus has not hit Australia as hard as some other countries.
“I have had full access to a gym and training facilities where I have been continuing on my strength and conditioning program and also working out with other professional ballplayers from a variety of minor league levels,” he said. “Having the opportunity to work with these guys has certainly helped me learn and work hard during this winter (or summer for you guys in America.
“Missing a year of competition in any sport is tough to bounce back from. Obviously, I miss the game and am disappointed I didn’t get to play my first professional season this year as well as missing out on seven months of development.”
Burns was only in Florida for less than a week before he had to turn around and take the all-day flight back to Australia.
“Honestly it only feels like it was a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “I still remember the sights, smells and noises. I cannot wait to have baseball back. It will be fantastic not just to overcome this virus together to return to ‘normal’ again but to be back playing the game we love safely.”
There might not be a player in the organization who benefitted more from the shutdown of the minor league season than Denton, a second-round pick in the 2015 draft who has battled injuries throughout his career.
Denton tried to play through the injuries and did not have the level of success either he or the Cardinals expected when they lured the outfielder away from a scholarship to Vanderbilt.
The cancelation of this season gave Denton the chance for his body to heal. He freely admits that, “COVID saved my career.”
“I didn’t have time to heal,” he said. “I was fighting through injuries for three years to try to be on the field. This was a perfect opportunity for me to get healthy.
“There’s no chance I would have healed if I had played this year. I’ve told people that this time, regardless of what is going on, COVID saved my career.”
In 2017, Denton had appendicitis, then in 2018 he tore his labrum on a play at home plate while playing for Peoria. That injury continued to bother him in 2019, when he finally had a second operation.
Denton, 22, believes all of the injuries have been what has kept him from developing into the power hitter he expected, and still expects, to be instead of a .227 hitter, his career average, with 19 homers in 344 games.
“I felt I could play through anything but in the end I wasn’t able to perform at a high level if I kept doing this,” Denton said. “I didn’t ever play to my potential. I didn’t feel like I was ever out there as myself.”
Physically healed, Denton has become a workout warrior this summer, posting videos almost every day on social media. He changed his diet, and said he has lost about 15 pounds and lowered his body fat percentage from 19 percent to 12 or 13 percent.
“I haven’t felt this good since I was a junior in high school,” Denton said. “There hasn’t been a time since then that I have felt anywhere near this good. The next time I put on a uniform and get on the field, I know I’m going to be able to tell the difference.
“I’m going to bring it. Baseball has always been a numbers game. I want to prove what I’ve worked on can translate to my numbers. I had to knock all the rust off from everywhere. When you aren’t healthy it makes it a lot more complicated.”
Not playing baseball this summer gave the 20-year-old Gil time to do something he hasn’t been able to do for a long time – actually watch baseball games.
“During the past two years I haven’t had time to watch baseball really because when you get home you’re tired,” Gil said. “I have been watching so much baseball because I want that competitive feel. I don’t really know how to describe it but it’s by far what I’ve missed the most.”
An infielder, Gil was the Cardinals’ third-round pick in the 2018 draft and turned down a scholarship to TCU to sign. He spent last season at Johnson City and was looking forward to perhaps making a full-season team this year.
Instead, he worked out on his own at home in north Texas.
“I hit as much as I can in the cages, but most of the fields shut down,” Gil said. “I’ve been able to hit live off a few guys, but not many. I worked out basically every day, trying to stay in shape and gain strength and I feel like I’ve done that.”
Gil is going to try to make up for the lost season by playing winter ball in Mexico. His father, former major-leaguer Benji Gil, is the team’s manager and is bringing his son with him for the entire season when they begin training soon. Gil spent some time with the team last winter, but did not play much.
“I think it will be very beneficial,” he said. “The competition down there is better than I would have faced in the minors (this year). There are a lot of older guys there, and former major leaguers.”
Gil hopes that experience will have him prepared for 2021.
“I feel like this year would have been a very important year for me,” he said. “I would have been 19 for most of the year, and I think I was prepared for it.”
With almost all minor leaguers having missed this season, that will make 2021 even more important, Gil said.
“I think for a lot of guys it will be a make or break year,” he said. “Everyone’s taken the year off, so everyone should want it. I feel like I’ve always kind of gone after it, grinding it out, being competitive and now it will be even more so. It’s almost like you were injured for the whole year and can’t wait to get back on the field, but it’s like that for everyone.”
Jew knew when he got drafted in 2019 that his professional debut would be on hold for a while, the result of breaking both his tibia and fibula in his left leg in a collision at first base while playing in an NCAA regional game for UC-Santa Barbara.
“My body went forward and my leg didn’t,” Jew said about the collision with the first baseman.
He just didn’t know his debut would be on hold for another entire season, which had nothing to do with his recovery from the injury.
Jew spent most of the 2019 season rehabbing from the injury at the Cardinals’ complex in Jupiter, then came back this spring ready to play. He got cleared by team doctors one day before all of the minor leaguers were sent home because of the pandemic.
“It was a huge disappointment, especially when you built it up all off-season going through rehab, what you were looking forward to, getting back on the field,” Jew said. “Ten months of being off, then all of a sudden I’ve got to go home again.”
The mental aspect of not being able to play again this season was more challenging than the physical part of his game, and Jew said luckily he was able to work out with several other minor leaguers who played at Santa Barbara and they were able to motivate each other.
“I built it up so much and was so ready to go, I felt I put in a great off-season of work and then to get blindsided by something nobody saw coming, it was pretty tough,” Jew said. “We have a great group here of six to eight other guys. They got to play in 2019 so they haven’t been out as long as I have, but we are all kind of going through the unknown together.
“We just train in the morning and then try to relax and hit the golf course or the beach in the afternoons.”
What Jew does know is how much this time away has increased his desire to play – enjoying the simple beauty of finally being able to get out on the field again.
“This is a great opportunity for me to close some gaps on other people who were able to play,” he said. “I know I’m a little behind game-wise but I am going to do everything I can to be ready for next year.
“I haven’t been on the field for much longer than most people so I am going to appreciate every inning I get out there from here on out. I haven’t put on a uniform for a long time and running out onto the field for the National Anthem. That whole feeling of being on the field and competing. You work to play. Just stepping out on the field is what I miss the most.”
For Oxnevad, not being able to pitch this season unfortunately was not a new experience. He already had missed all of 2019 after undergoing surgery.
“It’s been a long couple of years,” he said. “This (missing the season) was a huge bummer. I had high expectations for the year. Now I’m trying to take a positive approach that I just threw less pitches and already am looking forward to next year.
“My body and arm feel way better than they did before the injury. I can’t wait to get going.”
The left-handed Oxnevad, who will turn 24 next month, was the Cardinals’ eighth-round pick in 2015 out of a Washington high school. He had moved up steadily as a starter in the organization, reaching Palm Beach in 2018, before he was injured. He had primary repair surgery on his elbow in March 2019.
Oxnevad spent this summer back home, where he was able to throw off a mound in his backyard that his dad built for him when he was in high school. He also worked out with a couple of high school friends who still live in the area.
Being injured was a new experience for Oxnevad, and he tried to take the same approach to missing this season as he did while recovering from surgery.
“I had never been on the disabled list except for one week because of a blister,” he said. “That’s the only time I was hurt. Being away from baseball was strange for me, longer than ever, and I’m itching to get back.
“I have only positive thoughts now. Physically and mentally I’m looking forward to getting back.”
The Cardinals’ seventh-round pick in the 2019 draft had an outstanding beginning to his pro career, part of the reason he was looking forward to his first full season in 2020.
“I was bummed when everything shut down because I was excited to play a full season, which is so much different than college,” he said.
Ralston broke into the organization at State College in 2019, posting a 1.07 ERA and earning five saves for the Spikes. He allowed only 12 hits in 25 innings.
Instead of moving up to Peoria and perhaps Palm Beach this year, the 23-year-old Ralston spent his summer back home in southern California. He got one task accomplished during the break from baseball, completing the on-line classes he needed to earn his degree in sociology from UCLA.
Taking classes that way, instead of on campus with other students, added to his feeling of missing out on being part of a team.
“I just missed the feeling of playing and competing,” Ralston said. “We take it for granted going to the field every day. Sometimes you are tired or don’t want to do it, but then you get to the field and see all of the guys and it’s fun. I’ve been basically by myself.
“It’s nice to have other guys around you. It’s a motivational thing when you are with other people and not by yourself.”
Ralston had to find fields where he could play catch and just tried to stay in as good of shape as possible, which he said at times was more of a mental challenge than a physical one.
“This whole thing is like a big mental toughness thing,” he said. “It’s not fun doing stuff by yourself. You have to try to find things to work on that you wouldn’t have time for in a normal off-season.”
Ralston also had to deal with a problem that affected thousands of people in the U.S. Both his mom and dad, and sister, tested positive for COVID-19.
“My dad got it first,” he said. “At first they told him he didn’t have it, and then they found out he did. It was kind of a weird situation. My mom and sister then got it, they were sick but they are all OK now.
“I don’t think I had it, even though I was around them a little bit. I didn’t have any symptoms. I tried to get tested and they said they wouldn’t test me because I didn’t have any symptoms.”
What Ralston does have is the desire to resume his career.
“This has been the longest off-season I’ve ever had,” he said. “I got to do some things I usually wouldn’t have been able to do. It’s the longest I’ve ever been home since I left for college. Being able to spend time with my family was nice.”
The time away from the game for Ralston, as for all of those in the organization, has been a source of motivation.
“You’re going to see who wants it more and who didn’t take it (the break) as seriously as you should,” he said. “This is all I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid.”
Williams knew going into 2020 that it would likely be one of the most important seasons of his career. He is eligible to become a minor-league free agent this winter, and wanted to prove his ability to the Cardinals.
Instead, he spent the summer at home in Miami, and even though he still is eligible to become a free agent, he has no idea what the future will bring.
“I got really lucky,” he said. “I know a guy who owns a private gym and a warehouse and he let me work out there the whole time. As soon as they sent us home, I was in the gym the next week and have been doing it the whole time.”
Unfortunately for Williams, he had prior experience of not pitching in a season, missing the 2018 season after undergoing primary repair surgery on his right elbow.
A second-round pick in the 2014 draft, Williams split the 2019 season between Palm Beach and Springfield, and at age 24, he knows the clock is ticking as he needs to keep advancing to the higher levels of the organization.
“The Cardinals are always very competitive and I will be competing for a spot when I come back so I want to be ready,” Williams said. “All I did all summer was act like I was in rehab again and just keep grinding.
“This was going to be my season. It (the shutdown) came at a bad time for me.”
Since Williams knows that decision was out of his control, he has chosen to focus on what he can control, how hard he is working and dedicating himself to getting in the best shape possible.
“The year I was in rehab I pretty much learned to deal with it,” he said. “I think my mental state of mind was better this year.”
Williams is hoping he can pitch this winter in Puerto Rico to try to make up for some of the time he missed.
“I missed competing the most,” he said. “I missed just being in the clubhouse with my teammates and being out on the field. It’s not normal to be at home.
“I just would work out, then come home and play video games. I really didn’t do anything else. There just wasn’t that much to do. I really didn’t have a life other than that.”
Having to miss another season, and watching people he played with or against in the minors who have now made it to the majors, has only increased Williams’ desire when he gets back on the field.
“I always tell my dad the next time I take the mound, I realy won’t be able to explain the feeling,” he said, “just the feeling of being out on the field again – that I get to play and throw a baseball. I’m grateful for that.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Main photo courtesy of Brady Whalen