There’s a famous line from one of the Peanuts cartoons where Linus is walking with Charlie Brown discussing the holiday season. Charlie is explaining how sad he is even though he should be happy. Finally, an exasperated Linus says, “Charlie Brown, of all the Charlie Brown’s in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”
For more than two decades, since he was acquired as one of three players in a trade from Atlanta, it can be said that of all the St. Louis Cardinals, Adam Wainwright has been the St. Louis Cardinaliest.
The Cardinals are a fascinating franchise, or they aren’t, depending on your point of view. If you’re a Cubs fan or a Mets fan or a Brewers fan, or hell a Giants fan or a Dodgers fan, you may not think much of the Cardinals. You probably loathe them.
The Cardinals are the only franchise whose fans get more publicity than the team. To be a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals is to be among the “best fans in baseball.” How that phrase has been mythologized to the point of becoming maudlin, is something that makes other fans around the league want to puke. It’s gotten to be so cliché that it’s been shortened to BFIB.
Among the BFIB, there’s no player who epitomizes the Cardinals, who is more beloved, who is more “Charlie Browniest” than Wainwright.
How did a kid relief pitcher tossed into the J.D. Drew trade become the most iconic Cardinal pitcher since Bob Gibson, and even more respected?
Early Days as a Cardinal & the 2006 Fall Classic
It didn’t start with a splash. In Wainwright’s first appearance, as a 23-year old out of the bullpen on the fourth anniversary of 9/11 in 2005, he was unimpressive. In a mop-up inning against the Mets, he gave up two hits, a walk, and a three-run bomb. He didn’t pitch again for nearly two weeks. Manager Tony La Russa did not include him on the postseason roster. When the Cards won the division series over the Padres that October, Wainwright was on his couch in Georgia watching it all unfold. He flipped off the TV, and promised he was never going to be an October outsider again.
That’s when Wainwright says he accepted Jesus Christ into his life. That’s when he says he stopped trying to control every outcome, every situation. The following spring he made the opening day roster. He pitched out of the pen for La Russa in 2006, setting up Jason Isringhausen, who closed out games. The Cards were not a great team, they only won 83 times, but they squeaked into the playoffs. Isringhausen was hurt, and La Russa resorted to a bullpen by committee approach.
Wainwright found himself on the mound in Game Five of the 2006 World Series, pitching the ninth inning. He struck out a befuddled Brandon Inge to end the game and the series, clinching the tenth championship in Cardinals history. He looked like he had just won the lottery as he celebrated with his teammates while the BFIB went crazy in the stands. Given his rise from unknown pitching prospect to closer on a World Championship team, he did win some sort of lottery.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Wainwright has lived a charmed life since that rookie season. Sure, he’s faced adversity: missing the entire 2011 season after going under the knife for Tommy John Surgery; he made only four starts in 2015 due to a ruptured Achilles tendon; and in 2018 he made just eight starts because his right shoulder was injured during a two-season struggle to pitch pain-free.
Cy Young Candidate and Redbird Ace
But, for the most part Wainwright has been a constant in the Cardinal red. Four times he’s won 19 or 20 games, and twice he’s been runner-up in Cy Young voting. While he’s often been second fiddle in the National League to the likes of Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, or Clayton Kershaw, in St. Louis, to the BFIB, he’s #1 in their hearts.
The Cardinals have fielded some of the most iconic hitters and fielders in baseball history. Albert Pujols was the most recent slugger to wear the famed “Birds on a Bat” jersey, but before him there was Mark McGwire, the wildly popular Willie McGee, baseball’s greatest defensive shortstop Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, and the most iconic of them all, Stan Musial.
But the Cardinals have only had a handful of great pitchers who spent the bulk of their career in The Gateway to the West. There was Bob Gibson, the ace of any St. Louis all-time pitching staff, but Gibby was not a lovable character. He was more like a bully on the mound, a fierce competitor, respected by fans, but from a distance. Other successful pitchers in St. Louis over the last 50 years have spent little time there (like Steve Carlton and John Tudor), burned out quickly (like John Denny and Joaquin Andujar), or inspired little passion (Bob Forsch, for example).
Wainwright is the most personable, most cherished, most Musial-like pitcher the Cardinals have probably ever had.
“He’s the rare pitcher who is a team leader,” says former teammate Matt Holliday. “Adam has the respect of everyone in that clubhouse, and though he’s not a loud guy, he leads on the field where it matters.”
Wainwright has pitched 28 games in the postseason and made 15 starts, records for the franchise. The right-hander has been the opening day starter six times. He’s made more starts for the Cardinals than anyone other than Gibson, Forsch, and Jesse Haines (a Hall of Famer from the 1920s who was more like Bob Tewskbury than Bob Gibson). Wainwright’s 167 wins entering the 2021 season rank third all-time in franchise history.
There’s nothing more Cardinal than a pitcher who pitches great in the postseason, who loves to wear his pants high, and who credits his success to God. At 39, Wainwright is the oldest pitcher in baseball, and in his 17th season as a teammate of catcher Yadier Molina (the two have formed one of baseball’s longest-running batteries).
It seems likely that Wainwright will end his career having pitched for one team, in the same uniform, and in the same city. That’s just fine with the BFIB.