JUPITER, Fla. — Something should strike you about this Cardinals roster that will be introduced to a packed Busch Stadium on opening day.
New catcher Willson Contreras not only will be the most recent Cardinal to have slipped on a World Series championship ring.
The 2016 champ, then catching for the rival Chicago Cubs, also will be one of just two current Cardinals players to have experienced the sensation.
And with Adam Wainwright now on the injured list, Contreras will be the only one playing in the game against the Blue Jays.
Yadier Molina, who played in four World Series championships with the Cardinals and won two, spent his first spring training since retirement managing Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. Two-time champ Albert Pujols stopped by Roger Dean Stadium as a visitor during camp, but he’s happily enjoying his own retirement while fulfilling his personal services contract with the Angels. Even Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol’s coaching staff lost a ring recipient, when former Cards champion and bench coach Skip Schumaker took his experience to manage the Miami Marlins, making beloved assistant coach Willie McGee the lone uniformed Cardinals coach in the major-league dugout who has celebrated a World Series championship as either a player or a coach.
The list of current Cardinals who have sipped the sweetest champagne baseball has to offer is down to longtime chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., long-tenured members a baseball operations office led by president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, 41-year-old starter Wainwright and former Cubs catcher turned Cardinals key free-agent addition Contreras.
The team last won it all in 2011.
“It helps,” Marmol said about Contreras’ championship credentials during spring training. “Two things come to mind. You know what it feels like, and the preparation it takes, the dedication and the emotion it takes to get there. And once he tasted it, there was this hunger. He wants that again. That was very clear in how he articulated wanting to be here.”
For some teams, this trend of rings leaving the team picture would not be worth mentioning. I get that. But the Cardinals are not just some team, are they?
They are the National League’s leader in World Series won (11). They identify with the Commissioner’s Trophy enough to build a larger than life replica of it in Ballpark Village, where fans stop to take cell-phone selfies. They like to remind you everywhere you look — in the team gift shop, in the team media guide, in and around the ballpark — of their long and proud history of championship success. As they should. But that also means it’s fair to send out a warning about a growing trend. The Cardinals are growing short on men in uniform who have been there and done that. They once had a spring training tradition where they counted up the rings in the room. It doesn’t take long these days.
And remember, this is Wainwright’s retirement season, his final go ’round before hanging up the spikes, becoming an excellent broadcaster or aspiring country singer, or whatever it is that comes next. Wainwright said this spring that pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic introduced him to the loudest crowd he has experienced in baseball. If that’s not a sign of the glaring need to restore Busch Stadium’s roar during a deep postseason run — not talking about wild-card ejections — then I’m not sure what is.
If the Cardinals don’t win the World Series during Wainwright’s retirement sendoff season, the only Cardinals player to report to spring training 2024 with firsthand knowledge of championship success could be Contreras.
There is a difference, everyone seems to agree, between champions and those who yearn to join the club, such as Cardinals star corner infielders Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. You see it in Wainwright. Contreras, too. You can’t really know what it takes until you have been part of a team that has answered every challenge until the only challenge left is navigating a parade.
“Once you go to the World Series, you expect your team to go back again, even though it might take years,” Contreras said in his first camp with the Cardinals. “This is an organization that works toward that every year. I know it’s been a while since the last World Series, but I know at some point, hopefully this year or the next year, I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I think this team is going to win another World Series. Sooner than later.”
The Cardinals do so many things remarkably well.
They always are in the mix while most others come and go. They produce waves of drafted and developed big leaguers, and the one that will continue to refresh this roster this season could be one of the best to ever swell. They have made critical additions from the outside in leaders such as Goldschmidt, Arenado and now Contreras. They have a great understanding with their loyal fans rooted in the shared belief sustained success is the best way to play, as evidenced by data points such as no losing record since 2007, and a 95% renewal rate on season tickets entering this brand new season. Dreaming big is a staple of every season’s start in St. Louis. It isn’t everywhere.
But whether the Cardinals are embracing World Series championship aspirations, like they tend to do every spring training, or backpedaling away from such talk after another wild-card exit, like they have developed a bad habit of doing after recent short-and-sour postseasons, they must only look around the decorations that adorn their ballpark to see the standard they show with which they want to be synonymous.
And they must only look at their opening-day roster to see how long that wait since 2011 is becoming.
“It takes experience,” Contreras said. “It takes resiliency. It also takes a balance on a team, between veteran players and younger players. A lot of veteran players feed off the energy of the younger players who want to win. Having the right guys to guide younger players is important. The great chemistry, the whole organization looking one direction, is the biggest key.”
Contreras’ addition of firsthand championship knowledge is as important as his powerful bat and strong arm. For the Cardinals, though, the preferred option always will be to create from within. They are overdue.
“It is important, and we have had that for a while,” Marmol said. “Our hope is that this year there will be a full clubhouse of guys that can speak to it for a lot more years to come.”