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Hoping Day: On afternoon Cardinals were supposed to open, baseball remains closed

Hoping Day: On afternoon Cardinals were supposed to open, baseball remains closed

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St. Louis Cardinals Opening Day 2019

The Cardinals and Padres line the base paths during Opening Day ceremonies at Busch Stadium April 5. (Post-Dispatch photo by David Carson)

On the same day the Cardinals’ 129th season in the National League was set to start with the traditional opening-day pomp in Cincinnati, the leadoff hitter who would have seen that first pitch of 2020 instead will go to the nearest ballpark and do one thing before anything else.

Kolten Wong will have his temperature checked.

One of the few remaining Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla., Wong, like all of his teammates there, goes through a quick exam before being allowed into the facility to determine if they have any of the symptoms associated with COVID-19, the coronavirus that has stopped sports and seized the world. The number of players who can be present at one time is limited, and days they have remaining to work at the facility could be too as more and more states and cities issue "stay at home" mandates.

On the opening day that won’t be, Wong will be among those at work readying for what they hope is an opening day that will be.

“You can look at this in two ways,” he said this week from Florida. “You can be (ticked) off that we’re not playing and give into that, just surrender. Or you can look at it like we’ve just been given time to see what we need to work on, some spring games to see what we have to fix and now time to go clean it up. You don’t have to recreate your whole game. You know where it needs work now. So when this starts up, be ready to play. There’s no waiting. There’s no wondering. There’s no time to get back to speed. It’s go. We’re going to play.”

If not for Major League Baseball’s indefinite postponement of the season, the Cardinals’ defense of their National League Central championship would have begun Thursday with the 101st opening day in Cincinnati, complete with the usual parade through downtown and sellout crowd at Great American Ball Park. Instead, ballparks around the country will be empty, quiet enough to hear the ongoing negotiations between the leagues and the players’ union.

Agreement is expected shortly on what a condensed season means for player salaries and for service time, and what a canceled season would mean to both and the industry. Both sides want to play as many games as possible, officials say. How to cram that into the calendar is the question.

Baseball is shuttered until at least mid-May, commissioner Rob Manfred said last week, and teams are bracing for a May without baseball and possibly a season that doesn’t start until the All-Star break. The owners are taking cues from experts and government officials during the global pandemic. Too much remains unknown.

So instead of leading off the season, Wong will be working out. This would have been Wong’s sixth opening-day start in the past seven, and he’d be one of seven position players returning from last year’s opening-day lineup. It’s possible only left field would be different. And pitcher. Instead of making the first opening-day start of his career, Jack Flaherty will be three time zones away in California. He has increased his social media activity, running his own all-time NCAA Tournament bracket on Twitter and participating in some of the tweet trends, such as making out the lineup he’d have for a winner-take-all baseball game. Bob Gibson is Flaherty’s starter.

For Cincinnati, opening day would have been an introduction — the unveiling of a new, improved, and contending Reds team. While other division rivals flushed the winter, the Queen City had the offseason’s royal flush. The Reds snagged a primo free agent (Nick Castellanos), made a sexy hire with a modern-day pitching guru, kept a strong pitching staff together and even hinted at the future with a young spring sensation (Jose Garcia). The Reds had some cayenne coming into the season.

“We felt a lot of excitement as an organization and from our fans in Cincinnati,” wrote Cincinnati manager David Bell in an email. “We came up short last season, but close to our team know we made progress and built a solid foundation. During the offseason, we made some great additions to our team and added to a group of players who already are motivated and who are expecting to win together. The delay to the season is unfortunate for so many reasons that are much bigger than baseball. When we all get through this, we are looking forward to playing baseball and being an inspiration to everyone who watches us play.”

At the Cardinals’ Roger Dean Stadium spring complex, the handful of players working out in shifts talked last week about the odd feeling of warm weather and no baseball.

Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, John Gant, Tyler Webb and Wong have been some of the players on the 40-man roster utilizing the facility. A few of them tried to recall recently when they last spent a day of March without baseball, let alone a day of April without a baseball game to play or watch. Wong said a few, like him, thought it had to go back 20 or more years — maybe before they picked up a glove.

That’s part of the challenge as players try to keep their focus when they don’t know when the game will return and they can easily be overwhelmed by the crisis already here.

“It’s really about keeping mentally focused, being mentally tough,” Wong said. “Baseball will be played this year, hopefully. And you have to stick to it and this will be a test. It can bring down morale if you let it, if you think about not knowing when. So, act like it’s still spring training.”

To do that, Wong wears his cleats for workouts. He makes sure to spend a lot of time on his feet — like he would during spring training, like he would during a game. He’ll strap on a weighted vest for an evening walk or a bike ride, just to try and recreate as much of spring training as he can. Wong has been hitting Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and along with some of his teammates has been running and working out every day. This week, he said he and DeJong intend to start taking groundballs again.

With limitations on who is around, they’ll hit them to each other.

He’s not sure how DeJong compares to coach Jose Oquendo.

“I’ll find out,” Wong joked.

For the eighth time in the past nine years, the Cardinals would have opened on the road. They invite such a schedule in order to reduce April home dates — and they can count on fanfare, red jackets, Clydesdales, and a sellout whenever they open at home. Whenever, indeed. After a three-game visit to Cincinnati, the Cardinals were supposed to swing north for a three-game stop in Milwaukee. The home opener was set for April 2, against the Baltimore Orioles, the American League team formerly known as the St. Louis Browns. There will be no bunting, no fanfare, no logos at these ballparks in the coming week. There will be no crowds.

Whenever Wong sees a pitch or snags a groundball in the coming week, it will be in front of a sparse audience of mostly teammates, at most. And he will known his body temp before he slips on those cleats.

“You have to understand that baseball is going to come back at some point — this year, next year, but we hope that some point is soon. But it’s going to happen, and players have to be ready to lock in,” Wong said. “This is the season. This is the time we would be playing. We have to treat it that way, so when it’s back — and it will be back — we’re ready to go.”

Boston adds Munoz

Infielder Yairo Munoz, who curiously bolted from the Cardinals’ spring training and was released by the team, finalized a minor-league contract with the Boston Red Sox.

Munoz, 25, injured a hamstring in his final appearance with the Cardinals. But before the severity could be determined he flew home to the Dominican Republic, did not appear at an appointment with team doctors and did not return messages and calls made by manager Mike Shildt.

Rather than try and trade the AWOL infielder, the Cardinals released him, making Munoz a free agent. As a utility infielder for the Cardinals the past two seasons, Munoz hit .273 with a .723 OPS in 196 games.

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