Due to a stream of classic street rods cruising the interstate like a parade of rainbow-colored Skittles, and a side trip for some solo, socially distanced sightseeing in Commerce, Oklahoma, I arrived late enough at Globe Life Field to watch something I hadn’t seen in months.
Inside Arlington, Texas’ new big-box ballpark the Los Angeles Dodgers had clinched the National League pennant moments earlier. The road to my hotel, Nolan Ryan Expressway, allowed a quick swoop around the stadium and there it was, hard to miss even after all this time of actively avoiding one — a crowd. Of, like, fans.
The limited, lucky, mostly masked few who attended the final game of the NLCS poured out of Globe Life Field. A total of 951 games were played during a pandemic in Major League Baseball’s truncated 2020 schedule; tickets were available to only 13 of them. I was fortunate and cautious enough to cover 64 in person for the Post-Dispatch, 67 overall. All but the final six, at the World Series, were at ballparks emptied of their fans. Baseball is always best when it’s a community event — who was with you is just as memorable as where you were for David Freese’s triple. And one of the best parts of being a baseball writer is the community created in a press box. Along with 102 games of the schedule, so much of that was excised from this season. Many of us were at the games, a part of covering this history, but apart, purposefully.
There were great, reassuring bursts of community and creativity along my route: Boats docked and fans erected living-room TVs along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh to watch a Pitt football game happening a block away, in a mostly vacant stadium. The Twins had video tributes to first responders, medical personnel, police, local organizations, and included a fans collage as part of the ballpark experience they couldn't be at the ballpark to experience. In several cities, including Pittsburgh and San Diego, streets were partially closed so restaurants could stay open with outdoor seating. In Chicago, I got a call from a pizza delivery person to explain the streets around my hotel had been closed and bridges lifted due to possible protests. He was going to find a safe way to me, and he did. In Arlington, a fantastic fried chicken place recommended by Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux had such a slick curbside setup I went back twice. No, not in the same day. But, close.
I got to visit very few friends, but outside and with a gap the size of a picnic table, two picnic blankets, or six picnic baskets. Others helped me pass the time on the road with old-school phone calls that made them feel much closer than the six feet we’d be allowed in person. One friend was an unknowing companion as I listened to him on a satellite-radio show. Well, he was unknowing until I pulled over to swiftly text him because he was reciting his personal contact info on a hot mic.
Required to wear a mask at the ballpark and around every hotel, I chose to wear one for others everywhere else I was indoors expect my hotel room and anywhere I could be in public. I saw mask policies start and evolve from city to city. Application and acceptance was a different as the places themselves. In one football town, masks were common, and commonly worn as chinstraps. At a coffee shop, a few patrons were wearing masks under their chin until asked to lift up when ordering. They did so politely without anyone recording them on Instagram. No moments going viral there. We all learned about the virus as the season progressed, and I watched as practices in some cities changed between visits. Due to the Cardinals' experience, I started thinking about potential exposure in terms of saturation and time, not just distance. If a place was packed or the area around the to-go counter was uncomfortable, I avoided it and anywhere else a gathering of people could be a bonfire for the virus.
The hours spent in a rental car, spent hunkered in a hotel room, or spent at a distance from colleagues and competitors at the ballpark gave the summer the feel of a constant absence and an eerie quiet that even fake crowd noise couldn’t drown out.
Many times it felt somber — and rightly so.
Wherever the season took me the view changed but that sense of isolation we all know so well followed, like a porta-bubble. I began to miss those early-morning questions from the man in the middle seat.
By design, my hotel in Texas was walking distance from the ballpark, so it didn’t take long to complete the drive — or for a throng of people to get there at the same time. I pulled up just as a van did and its passengers spilled out hastily. One was doubled over, unsteady, and looking back at the resurfaced spoils of celebration just left behind for someone else to clean off the floor mat. Seemed like a good time to wait and do what I did all summer because of the lurking, slippery, unseen presence of the novel coronavirus — avoid a crowd.
I’d already spent days at the wheel this season, hours writing from the car, so what’s another 20, 30 minutes?
On the road
When the Post-Dispatch sports staff began coordinating how to cover the Cardinals’ 2020 schedule we looked to the past for guidance and to a roadmap for direction.
The standards set by previous baseball writers at the Post-Dispatch and the expectations of our readers give the beat its true north every season. Where the Cardinals go, we go to report, and the revised 2020 schedule meant it was realistic to go by car.
After discussions with my family and bosses and research about recommended safe practices I must follow — while filling up on gas in West Virginia, purchasing deodorant and postcards in Texas, or getting a meal in Kansas City — we decided it was possible to travel cautiously and cover every game if we put the road in road trip. Policies made it necessary.
Several teams in the majors, like the Cardinals’ first road opponent in Minnesota, adopted quarantine rules that forbade writers from being in the ballpark for a prescribed time if they had traveled by plane. The White Sox said they denied writers entry to the ballpark if they had spent recent time in a state on Chicago’s “emergency travel order” list. (That list was 22 states at the time; it’s now 46, per the city’s website.) I had been in two — Wisconsin and Missouri — so as the Cardinals made their grand return to the field after their COVID-19 outbreak, I sat in my car outside Guaranteed Rate Field for press conferences. Then I retreated to my quarantine headquarters, a hotel room. I attended, in person, 55 of the Cardinals’ 58 games.
When I returned home from the World Series, I had logged 7,168 miles, a few hundred less than a round trip from St. Louis to Anchorage. I drove through 14 states, and despite four different hotel reservations I never did cover that doubleheader in Detroit or get deep-dish PizzaPapalis. The only flights involved were a round trip to San Diego for the postseason. Columnist Ben Frederickson and I took every precaution we could, including goggles, which made writing on the plane feel like typing underwater.
My season ended where it was supposed to begin for the Cardinals – at Globe Life Field. The Cardinals’ had an exhibition game scheduled there for March as the ballpark’s soft opening. It was one of the highlights of an incredible 2020 schedule that included the first National League games in the United Kingdom and interleague series in AL East cities. Instead of a trip to London, I drove by the exit for New London, Iowa. There would be no games at the home of West Ham United, but I did spend a night in South Bend, Ind. I didn't make a trip to Boston but passed by many Dunkin' Donuts all the same, including one in Dayton, Ohio.
The Cardinals’ revised schedule allowed me to see the NL Central and AL Central from street level, trace the lines that exist throughout our country, and also pass many places that will define this year. My drive went near the memorial in Minneapolis for George Floyd, and the Cardinals were the first team to play the Twins at home after his death. The Cardinals-Twins opener was stopped at 8:46 p.m. local time, with Austin Gomber on the mound, for a moment of silence to mark the 8 minutes, 46 seconds a police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck. The route to cover games went into cities at the center of a national reckoning with racism — past Kenosha, Wis., and through Louisville, Ky.
On every drive, I saw billboards, flags, and once a painted hay bale for President Trump up ahead while driving behind a car with a Biden bumper sticker. I eased off the interstate near Joplin, Mo., and before driving through Quapaw, Oklahoma — past a sign that had two hands shaking to symbolize “where east meets west” on Route 66 — I saw a block of signs supporting one presidential candidate adjacent to a block of homes with signs for the other guy. The Main Street of America was better than any poll.
The purpose for this detour on the way to the World Series was personal, the second of two such side trips for me. I wanted to see the street that launched the Commerce Comet, Yankees’ great Mickey Mantle. I hoped to send photos of his boyhood home and a statue of the man back to my father. His favorite player was Mantle and his stories about the switch-hitting Oklahoman fed my fondness for baseball and, as a kid, the Yankees. The stop at Mickey Mantle Field along Tiger Lane on the last road trip of the season was a bookend to a visit I made on the first road trip of the season. On the drive from the Twin Cities to what proved to be a longer-than-planned stay in Milwaukee, I stopped at a cemetery north of Madison, Wisconsin, to visit the grave of the first Cardinals fan I knew, my grandfather, Fran.
He died a decade before the Post-Dispatch gave me an opportunity to cover baseball, so he’s never read a word I’ve written about the Cardinals.
I write many with him in mind.
I found a place to park across the road from the cemetery and decided to do just that: I typed part of my story in my car, to be nearby.
Earlier that day, the governor of Wisconsin declared a “public health emergency” because of rising COVID-19 infection rates. The next day the Cardinals’ season was disrupted by an outbreak that would infect 18 members of their traveling party. A series would be postponed, a season threatened. The next week I would spend inside my room at a Milwaukee hotel several blocks away from where the Cardinals were quarantined and throwing room-service baseballs into mattresses.
There are many things about 2020 we hope baseball never has to do again.
I still treasured a few moments, like writing across the street from my grandparents grave, that I never took the chance to do before.
At the game
Before the first road game of the year, a member of the Cardinals’ media relations staff offered to take a picture of the baseball writers who made the trip for a “record of this unusual season.”
I started to hand him my phone before I remembered our masks and the rules that went with them.
He texted with the photo later.
Major League Baseball organized access to the ballpark by tiers, with Tier 1 being players, coaches, and staff tested most often, and Tier 2 being support staff. Credentialed media was in Tier 3. There were limited seats in the press box, and journalists had to go through non-invasive tests and health questions to get in. The distance from the team and some of those answers helped the writers on the road determine through contact tracing and honest, professional answers from the team that we had not been exposed during the Cardinals’ outbreak.
For baseball to have a season during a national crisis and pandemic it was going to take discipline and flexibility, the dedication of the players, a lot of patience and understanding, and that honesty. A completed season would be an enormous feat of human cooperation, and as a reporter, a tremendous opportunity to write a first draft from on site.
So when the head of Cardinals security asked if I had diarrhea, I adjusted my mask, put my forehead forward for a temp check, and answered, honestly: “No diarrhea, sir.”
Once in the ballpark, the atmosphere, despite teams’ best efforts, could be as empty as the seats. Hallowed Wrigley Field felt hollow. The Cubs had writers visiting from most states sit outside the press box, at a folding table along the upper concourse. We brushed away spider webs each day. I left late after one of the many doubleheaders with a spider bite on my neck but, alas, no superpowers. Yet. At Miller Park, a glitch turned off the fake crowd noise and for several minutes all we could hear was the game — the chatter of players, Paul Goldschmidt talking to other infielders, the din from the dugout, and a groan or two at a pitch call. It was baseball at its playground volume, baseball on a back field. It was bliss.
The route I was told to take along PNC Park's concourse to press box elevator passed an open-air weight room and dining area where a beer and ice cream vendors used to be. And may path crossed the one players took to a Pirates gift shop that had been repurposed for part of COVID-19 testing. I hadn’t seen a player, face to face, in months and then, zoom, nearly bumped into Paul DeJong. We established the required gap before talking, briefly. This is also how I was first introduced to rookie Nabil Crismatt, at a distance.
From opposite sides of a chain-link fence to maintain our tiers, former Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein, who is with the Pirates, and I caught up about his season in the bubble, his entrepreneurial wife, and my son starting high school. I was there as Andrew Miller met him for the first time and talked about his fondness for Eckstein's college team at Florida. There was no handshake, not like normal. There was room to fit two nacho kiosks between all of us, if not for the two fences already there.
The benefit of making the trips to be at the ballpark was seeing and hearing things the cameras and mic didn’t, like the spark that ignited a brouhaha between the Brewers and Cardinals rookie Johan Oviedo’s first steps toward Wrigley's field a day before his debut.
From the press box at the World Series, what I saw was the conclusion of that feat of cooperation. This season wasn’t baseball’s usual marathon or even the advertised sprint. It was an obstacle course. Despite several stumbling blocks — two teams in quarantine, Justin Turner’s on-field celebration after a positive test — baseball made it, as an industry, to the hoisting of a trophy. It took rewriting schedules, revising policies, recommitting to procedures, some luck, and even the Cardinals winning a “home” game at Wrigley. And in the crowd that got to see the end and reporters who got to cover it, I also had this feeling of watching a community celebrate what it came together to do, what resilience, diligence, vigilance and cooperation could get done.
At the end of a long road it felt like — hope.
A wrong turn out of Dallas on the final drive home meant skipping a return trip through Oklahoma and traveling instead along Interstate 30 past Hope, Arkansas, and on toward Little Rock. I veered from podcasts and dialed up some music as the road headed north toward St. Louis. As artist St. Vincent said, I could “just follow the hood of my car.” A 14-day quarantine awaited me at home and an antibody test (I was negative), and an uncertain winter.
Along U.S. 67, on the stretch nicknamed the Rock ‘N Roll Highway, a rainbow stretched across the horizon, arching from one side of the highway, over the lanes, and into the distant treeline.
I've never driven under the arch of a rainbow before.
As lovely as it was, I don’t need to again any time soon, and not in this coming season. Getting off the road and getting back in the air to cover the Cardinals will be welcomed because of what it would mean has happened in these uneasy months ahead. I'll be thankful for the possibility, the wish of what awaits me the next time I go to a ballpark. Not just a ballgame, but fans back at a ballgame. A packed house. A healthy crowd.
The more the merrier.