Being the best often means beating the best, and the bond of goodwill amongst baseball players remains iron-clad.
That's why it's fitting that the news that St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright is out for the year because of a right elbow injury reverberated throughout the spring camps of the National League Central and caused a general reaction of somber concern for a wounded competitor.
In fact, when a published report surfaced claiming that Reds outfielder Jonny Gomes was rejoicing upon hearing the news that his team, which won the division last year, wouldn't have to face the 20-game winner who finished second to Philadelphia's Roy Halladay in the 2010 NL Cy Young Award voting, Gomes denied it vehemently.
"To clear up everything, I came up with Wainwright," Gomes said Wednesday, before Wainwright's diagnosis became official. "I know Wainwright. I think he's one of the top-notch pitchers in the National League and baseball. Outside of different uniforms that we wear and different cities we play in, playing in the Major Leagues, we're all brothers. There's a brotherhood there. There's one thing you would never wish upon any other player and that's an injury.
"Off the field, we're still human and we have families. There's one thing you don't wish upon anyone, and that is an injury. Even if they are on the other team, you wish them the best of health. If Wainwright is gone, it doesn't mean anything to us. It maybe gives them the opportunity to make a trade for another big ace."
If the Cardinals don't get that big ace, there's no denying that the loss of Wainwright, 29, is a huge blow to their chances of upending Cincinnati, a beefed-up Milwaukee team, a retooled Cubs club, and the young and promising Astros and Pirates. Houston second baseman Bill Hall said he felt for Wainwright on a personal level but couldn't deny that the reality of the situation could tilt the balance of power in the Central.
"Obviously, he's a big piece to that puzzle, and I feel like without him they're definitely going to have a little tougher time competing in the division with how strong the division has gotten over the last couple of months," Hall said. "Milwaukee's gotten way strong with their additions, and this team has gotten strong, and the Cubs got stronger. It's going to be a tough division.
"I played in the AL East last year and this division is a tougher division, and I'm sure everybody is going to bring the Cardinals down and give a couple of other teams more chances to win the division. ... Staying healthy is the main part. For them losing him, it's going to be big for them and hopefully something we can take advantage of."
While the Cardinals struggle to come to terms with such a huge shakeup to their plans so close to Opening Day -- Wainwright had a 2.42 earned run average in 33 starts and 230 1/3 innings last year, won 19 games the previous season, and has pitched more than 200 innings in three of his four big league seasons as a starter -- the Brewers' arms will start to look that much stronger.
They traded for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and already have a powerful lineup that features Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Casey McGehee.
WAINWRIGHT VS. NL CENTRAL IN 2010
Braun said he was sorry to hear about Wainwright's plight but quickly added that it doesn't change what the Brewers have to do from now until April and beyond.
"Our focus has to be right here on what we need to do to get prepared for the season," Braun said. "I hate to see anybody get hurt. There's no doubt that he's one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he's proven that every year for the last couple of years. Losing a guy like him would make it more difficult for any team to win."
The news had a familiar feel to Marcum, who missed all of 2009 because of the same surgery but came back to post a career year in 2010 for Toronto before heading to the Brewers in a winter deal.
"It's not a fun process if it goes to Tommy John," Marcum said. "You'd be out of baseball for 12-18 months, and it's a long road. The good thing is that it's an elbow, and the success rate is pretty high on those, way better than shoulders. But you never wish anyone to go through that."
Marcum echoed the popular sentiment that losing Wainwright would take a bit of the luster off the race for the league title in 2011.
"You never wish anyone to get hurt just to help yourself," Marcum said. "You want to go out as a competitor and beat the best. I think we'd like to see him in their rotation, but part of this business is that people get hurt. I'm sure [the Cardinals] will find a way to cover it, and we wish Adam the best for his recovery."
Out in Arizona, several members of the Cubs who have admired Wainwright over the years from near and far were in agreement.
"He's on one of our rivalry teams but I still wish him the best as a friend," reliever Sean Marshall said. "You don't wish that on anyone, for sure, even if it is your 'sports enemy.' Adam's a great guy and I wish him well. He's definitely one of their staples in their rotation and a Cy Young contender the last couple years, and it helps our team if he's not in the rotation, but you don't wish anything bad on anybody."
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said that from a competition standpoint, a team never wants to see a rival lose a step because of a serious injury.
"Hopefully, he'll get better down the road and come back and be terrific," Hendry said. "He's got a great future ahead of him. Besides being a quality pitcher, he's a quality young man."
And Hendry also said it would be unwise to count the Cardinals out in 2011.
"I've always said that as long as [manager] Tony [La Russa]'s running the club and they have the people they have, it's a great franchise and they always have the ability to get better and add on, and I fully expect them to be right in the thick of it no matter what."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.