Dear St. Louis

Jonathan Daniel/Getty

Dear St. Louis,

I thought I’d always be an Atlanta Brave. I grew up in Brunswick, Georgia, and like everyone else from around there I was a ride-or-die Braves fan. Ten years old, watching the ’91 World Series … that feels like yesterday to me. Still hurts, too!!! I hung on every pitch. So when I was 18 and I actually got drafted by the Braves — I mean, what can I say?? I had the future mapped out pretty good: Marry my high school sweetheart, Jenny. Join up with Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine and them. Win a bunch of games. Probably never leave the state. The end!! Legendary. Perfect life.

Only it didn’t turn out that way.

Well … for a while it was turning out that way. I played minor league ball for the Braves in ’00, ’01, ’02, ’03. Eventually I became their top prospect. Plus things with Jenny were going great. But then in December of ’03, I flew up to Jenny’s parents’ house (in Gainesville, GA) to have an important conversation. And this is where it gets a little crazy. 

I’m sitting with her dad in their living room, in my best clothes, trying to find the right words: “Sir, as you know, I love your daughter, and—” When all of a sudden I hear this sound. BZZZ. BZZZ BZZZ. It’s my cell phone vibrating. This is 2003, remember, so I’ve just got one of those old Nokias with a keypad and probably some “20 minutes per day” plan. And the darn thing is blowing up my pocket. “Like I was saying, sir, Jenny and I’ve dated for five years, and—”

BZZZ. BZZZ BZZZ. BZZZ. BZZZ BZZZ. I’m like, Are you kidding me right now?? It just keeps going. So I apologize, take my phone out, turn it off. “And what I wanted to ask you, sir, is, it’d be great if I could get your blessing, to—” Alright now their home phone starts ringing. Mr. Curry gets up and answers it, then looks over at me, like, “Adam. It’s for you.” I’m thinking, Did someone die??!?

I pick up. It’s a three-way call, and on the other ends are my mom and Dayton Moore (from the Braves). I can tell instantly — Mom has been crying her eyes out. I’m like, “What’s wrong? Is everything OK?” And (still sobbing) she goes, “NO. You’ve been TRADED.”

Then Dayton starts in with the details: where I’m headed, how nobody wants to see me go, but they need an outfielder, this and that. And on one hand I’m just relieved no one died. But then on another hand I’m completely shocked, and trying to process the news. And then on another hand I’m like, “Hey … guys … Mom? I hate to cut this short, but I’m actually in the middle of … I’m doing that thing we talked about.” And she’s like, “Oh my goodness! You’re doing it right now?? Call me later!!” So I hang up the phone, and turn toward Jenny’s dad.

And I ask him — Georgian to Georgian, man to man — if he’d be willing to give me his blessing to marry his daughter.

Even if I was now the newest member of the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

Jenny’s dad said yes. (Jenny did, too.) And it’s wild to look back on, but that was 20 years ago, almost to the month. And it’s kind of like I joined these two families in one day: the amazing family my wife and I have built together in life ... and this amazing baseball family I’m a part of with y’all.

I think the early days of my career were a lot about this internal battle I’d be having with my emotions. Half of me filled with doubt and thinking, Gosh. I don’t know. Do I even have what it takes??? And half of me being the cockiest kid in the room, like, Alright. Time to dominate, let’s go set some records. And maybe at first that seems weird, but what I realize now is those emotions were sides of the same coin. The cockiness was my way of compensating for the doubt.

Jeff Roberson/AP

I’ll give you a good example. So, for a lot of guys, their big league debut will come in “mop-up” duty. Team is losing, game is out of hand, they put the rookie in to eat some innings. Nice way to get those first reps in, low pressure. And that’s what happened to me.

Kind of.

September of ’05, we’re playing the Mets, they’re up on us 4–0 after seven. So they tell me to go ahead and get warm. It’ll be my job to mop up the ninth. But then as soon as I start warming up, we score two quick ones. So now we’re right back in it. And instead of coming in for these low-pressure reps, it’s a 4–2 game we have a real shot at. Just my luck.

I give up a leadoff hit, but I grind some and work through it. Eventually it’s two on two out, and next up is Victor Diaz, a Mets prospect I’d gone against since A ball. I’d always pitched him the same: four-seam fastballs, big overhand curves. And I’m telling you, Victor is a talented guy. But I must’ve faced him 50 times in the minor leagues ... and while he maybe got a hit here and there, he never did much off me. Not ever.

Anyway, after the trade, the Cards had been allowing me to start throwing my slider (which I felt was my best pitch) and my sinker also. And I knew I hadn’t faced Victor since then. So as he’s coming up to the plate, I’m thinking: This dude hasn’t seen ANY of my new stuff. He’s in TROU-BLE. Count goes to 2–2. Now I’m like, I’m about to rip this slider. No way he’s hitting it — he doesn’t even know I have it!!! I throw him one, down and away.

Victor took that sucker 430 feet over the bullpen in left for a three-run homer.

Y’all should’ve seen the look I got from Tony on my way to the dugout. He was just shaking his head, like, Wainwright, you idiot. That was your chance.

I think the first big turning point of my career was a game I didn’t even play in. 

This was October of ’05, so about a month after my call-up. We’d just swept the Padres in the NLDS and next we had the Astros (our big rivals at the time) for a shot at the pennant. Doesn’t get much bigger. We split Games 1 and 2 in St. Louis, so now it was three at their place. Before flying out to Houston, the plan was for us all to meet at the field. So I packed a bag, put on my suit and drove to Busch Stadium. Even though I wasn’t on the playoff roster, they still had me traveling with the team. I was real proud of that.

Only … I get to the stadium, and when Jason Marquis sees me he pulls me aside. I can tell he’s struggling with what to say. He goes, “Hey … Adam … I don’t think … you’re coming?? … to Houston.” I have no idea what he’s talking about. I’m like, “Uhhhhhh, what do you mean, everyone’s going.” Jason is wearing this expression, like his heart is just breaking for me. Like: I’m so sorry, dude. They should have told you. “You just need to talk to Tony,” he says.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

So I go over to Tony and I’m like, “Jason said I’m not on the trip?” And Tony doesn’t sugarcoat it. He says, “Hey. Yeah. Listen, it’s not going to work out. You’re just not ready yet. And we can’t take everyone, it crowds up the locker room. Have a great off-season.”

And that was it. Seriously, that was the end of my first season in the bigs: standing there at the ballpark, like a total knucklehead, with a bag I wasn’t about to use, in a suit I didn’t need to be wearing, for a trip I wasn’t even going on. I remember feeling so mad, so hurt, so confused, so embarrassed. It was a tough moment.

That Houston trip of course was a pretty iconic one — it ended with Albert hitting one of the greatest home runs ever and sending the series back to St. Louis. And I was thrilled for Albert when that happened, and for the whole team. But I won’t lie: I also felt this huge sadness come over me. I just wanted to be a part of things so bad.

I’d been watching Game 5 back at home in Georgia, and by the time it was over I remember it had gotten crazy dark out. And for some reason, I decided to get in this little johnboat that we kept in this pond by the house, and I paddled out to the middle of the pond in the pitch black. And I don’t even know how I describe what happened next. But I just started yelling, real loud … and, honestly, asking God for answers. I was like, Why am I here tonight instead of there?? What’s so wrong about me??? Why is what I’m doing not enough???

And I guess in asking those questions I kind of found this clarity. I thought about the first few years of my career … and where it had all gotten me. I thought about Olympic qualifiers in ’03. Frank Robinson was my manager, Dave Stewart my pitching coach. Two absolute champions. And at the end of qualies they sent me home, because they didn’t believe I was ready. Then I thought about how my time with the Braves had gone down. One of the best orgs in the game, run by Hall of Famers. And they traded me away while I was their #1 prospect, because they didn’t believe I was ready. Lastly I thought about this Houston trip with the Cards. And how I was left off of it, by a manager who’s seen it all in Tony La Russa. And he told me exactly why, point blank: He didn’t believe I was ready.

And that’s when it hit me. Man, it hit me hard. I realized how I’d been so in my head, thinking I was being wronged in some way, or misunderstood — and how, in each of those situations, I’d left with the idea it was someone else’s fault, they were the problem, they were who needed to change. But the truth is the opposite, right? Like, if one person is saying they can’t see what you see, then OK, maybe it’s on them. But if everyone is saying that? If the guys running Team USA and the Braves and the Cardinals are saying that?? Then probably it’s you who actually isn’t seeing what they see. And as that all hit me, phew, boy — those tears started COME-ING. I sat there in my johnboat, on this pond in the pitch black, and just bawled. And I made myself and my Lord this promise: No longer would I waste the talents He gave me. Every pitch from now on, I was going to throw with so much importance, so much focus, so much commitment … it would be like it was like the last pitch of the World Series. That’s the work I was about to put in. That’s the player I was about to become.

Spring training, February of ’06, I walk onto the mound before my first bullpen session. Dave Duncan sees me — and does a legit double take. He’s like, “Woah. Hmm. You seem different.”

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty

“Yes sir,” I say. I end up being lights-out that whole spring. Felt like I struck out everyone I faced.

Then some weeks later, Tony calls me into his office. He goes, “Well, I don’t know how you did it. You were the last guy I wanted to pitch last year. I mean, THE last guy. But you need to stay right there, doing what you’re doing. Because you’re going north with us. You made our team.”

If there’s one thing I had to point to and say, I’m lucky I got to play in St. Louis ... because I’m not sure this would’ve happened everywhere else, it’s the way I was treated by my vets.

In St. Louis, there’s a great culture of veteran players passing down the systems and traditions they’ve been taught along the way. It’s about always trying to make the guy next to you better — even when they’re trying to take your job!

And I benefited from that culture as much as anyone.

If you look at my career, two of my biggest moments as far as reaching a new level were 1) getting to close in the ’06 playoffs, and 2) getting to start in ’07. And what those moments have in common is they happened around an injury to one of our stars. First with Izzy as our closer, then with Carp as our ace. If either of those guys had seen me as a threat, and iced me out like a lot of players would’ve in their shoes? I doubt my career ends up how it did. But they each took me under their wing — and instead of keeping their wisdom to themselves, they were so darn generous.

I’ll share this one piece of advice I got from Izzy, real quick…….. because it may come up later.

He told me, “When you get yourself in a bad situation as a closer (you will), and you’re starting to feel overwhelmed (you will), and the game is speeding up on you too fast (it will), here’s what you do: Step off the rubber ... take a second ... breathe. Doesn’t sound like much, I know. But just remember to breathe. It’s gonna slow everything down, get you right back on track.”

I thanked him and filed it away.

There’s this way things get remembered sometimes, where I think what happens is people will fixate on the biggest moments — and then once those moments crystallize in their heads, they forget about the smaller moments in between. And it’s kind of like that with ’06. The story that gets told now is: I got the closer’s job, flipped a switch, and the next thing you know Beltrán is looking at strike three. But it wasn’t nearly that simple.

Actually the whole thing almost unraveled a few batters earlier.

Have you ever heard that saying in boxing, how “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”? I think it applies in a lot of ways to what it can feel like as a young pitcher in the big leagues. And it definitely applies to how things went for me in ’06. Spring training, like I said, I was lights out. Regular season, I start it as the long man, I’m pitching really well. Same when they let me pitch the seventh. Same in the eighth. Then after Izzy gets injured and they call my name to close? I bet I took three warmup pitches tops that night — I was so ready. Got that first save easy. Second save, easy. Kept it going through the NLDS, closed that out. And by the time they called me in for Game 7, to close out the Mets? I think it was weeks since I’d been scored on.

Actually, I lied. They didn’t call me in to close Game 7. I didn’t even WAIT for them to call. That’s how fired up I was. As soon as Yadi hit his homer to give us a lead in the ninth, I turned around and started my walk to the mound before the ball even landed. I was that determined. I was about to seize this moment.

But then a weird thing happened: The moment kind of seized me.

Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

First, it was the noise. Up to that point, I’d blocked the crowd out at Shea Stadium completely. I’d do that anytime I took the mound — I’d gotten good at it. A ballpark full of fans, screaming at the top of their lungs? No problem. I’d just lock in, pitch my game. Wouldn’t notice a thing. 

But that night, warming up, for a split second … I noticed. And I think I was like the boxer who gets punched in the mouth for the first time: I had a plan until I didn’t. I noticed the noise, then I couldn’t un-notice it. And once I couldn’t un-notice it, I fixated on it.

And I started to fall apart. 

I give up a leadoff hit and then another. Now the game is speeding up on me like I cannot believe. It hasn’t done this all year! But it’s just going too fast. I can’t control it. Suddenly I’ve got these baserunners in my head, and I know it’s double barrels in our bullpen, and I’m thinking about the World Series, and that we’re almost there, and what it would mean, and how it would feel, and my mind is racing, the walls are closing in, I’m about to blow this save, I’m about to blow our whole season — and by some miracle, in that exact moment, I remember the advice Izzy gave me. Step off the rubber ... take a second ... breathe.

So I stepped off the rubber. And I took a second. And I breathed.

It’s strange: That first turning point I told you about, it was a game I didn’t play in. And when I think about my next turning point after that? It was probably a season I didn’t play in. And it ended up bringing the first turning point all the way full circle.

Let me backtrack a bit though.

While closing games in ’06 is something I’ll cherish forever, my dream in baseball was always to be a great starting pitcher. (Honestly, it was to be a great two-way player. Ohtani is living my dream!!!) Coming out of spring training in ’07, Tony decided to give me my chance. And my first big-league start was against the Astros that April. Carp had gone down Opening Day, and (though we didn’t know it at the time) he’d already thrown his last pitch of the year. Chris was my mentor — so with him out it really felt like it was on me to step up. And while I wasn’t ready to be an ace just yet, my start at Houston was the type an ace is supposed to give you. Where the team’s lost a few ... maybe things aren’t going well ... then here comes seven shutdown innings to hit the reset button. Now you’re on a one-game win streak. I’ll never forget my walk into the dugout after I came out — Dave looks at me, smiles and says, “Alright. You just made it a lot tougher on yourself.” I’m like, “I did?” And he goes, “Yep. Because now you set the bar. Now that’s what I expect from you, every time.”

And while I definitely didn’t clear Dave’s bar “every time” over those next few years, I’m proud of how often I did or came close. ’07 was solid. ’08 was better. ’09 and ’10 were Cy Young type. And at the start of camp in ’11? I felt good.

Actually — I felt great.

I’d partially torn my elbow ligament twice before. 

I did it my junior year of high school and I did it in Triple A. So I knew it was possible to do it again. But it really wasn’t something on my mind at that point. It wasn’t just that the partial tears were a while ago — it’d been a while since I’d had any elbow issues at all. And like I said, I was feeling great. I was coming off my two best seasons. Still hadn’t turned 30. It’s like it was positive momentum only, you know?? Like it would only keep going that way.

When the injury happened, I’m pretty sure no one other than me even noticed. That’s how it is a lot of times with arm stuff: quick, uneventful. Everything’s fine and then you’re done.

It was literally our first live BP, my second to last pitch. I was facing Jon Jay and threw him a fastball. And as soon as it left my hand, I knew. I felt my arm blow up inside my elbow. After doing it partially twice, I had an idea of what a full tear would feel like. But there’s still always a part of your mind that’s like, Ehhhhh. Who knows. Could be nothing. So I threw one more. A curveball, basically lobbed it in there, must’ve been 60 miles an hour. And Jon swung and missed, and everyone’s like, Wow, what a brilliant pitch. Did you take speed off of that??? I’m like, I sure did…….

I walk off the field and my heart’s just sinking. I head straight to the training room. 

“Hey,” I tell them. “I blew my elbow out.”

I hated getting hurt, of course — but what tore me up most about ’11 is knowing how special our group was. My feeling coming into that season was simple: We’re winning this thing. Easy to say now, but that really is how I felt. I looked at our lineup, top to bottom: Albert, Berkman, Holliday, Yadi, on and on. Loaded. And then with me and Carp both healthy??? I’m thinking, We’re gonna blow everyone out.

It was a horrible pill to have to swallow. The most talented team I’ll ever play on ... and I find out I’ll never play on it.

Here’s where it comes full circle, though.

And it’s one of the things I’m MOST proud of about my career.

When I write on a jersey now? I write on it like this:

Adam Wainwright

Chris Lee/AP

To me that says it all about the journey I've been on as a Cardinal.

I started as this young guy who got sent home ... because he just wasn’t ready.

Then I became a World Series champ ... good arm, pitched well, barely knew a thing.

Then I became a champ again ... but so much had changed from the time before. This time, I couldn't use my arm to help the team — I couldn't pitch at all. But I’d grown mature enough to help in other ways. For that second ring, I was ready. Ready to see the game outside of myself. Ready to be there for my teammates, like my teammates were for me.

When I started negotiations with the Cardinals about an extension in ’13, three things became clear: 1) They wanted me to keep playing for them, 2) They were about to offer me a whole lot of money to do so, and 3) If I wanted to make the absolute most money possible, it was gonna have to be with L.A. or New York or somewhere like that the next winter.

And I guess the way I figured it was … I don’t live too far above my means anyway. My clothes budget is camo hats, T-shirts, shorts, tennis shoes. Hobby-wise, I like to fish and hunt. I’m not a car guy (I drive a Jeep and a truck, that’s it). So I saw the offer from St. Louis, and it was plenty of money. More than I could spend. And I’d be passing it up for..... what, exactly? Maybe a bit more on a contract next winter, for us to move across country and have a lifestyle we like less? That sounded crazy to me and Jenny. I remember as we were weighing the Cards’ offer, she just kept telling me, probably halfway teasing, “Don’t you blow this....” And sometimes truth is said in jest. It was like: “Let’s not overthink this. We love it here.”

So I signed that contract, in March of ’13, and we committed to another five years in St. Louis.

Five years of course ended up being ten.

And when I think about those later seasons, and those later moments, there’s just something about them that made them special. It’s almost like they had this double meaning: They meant a lot because they meant a lot ... but also because they were built on so many other moments. They were special because of everything I’d already experienced with y’all.

Take a night like July 16th, 2016.

I’m sure the non-Cards fans who watched that game were thinking, Nice start by Wainwright. But I know Cards fans got how it was something more. They understood that, for as bad as my elbow in ’11 was … my Achilles in ’15 was The One. That’s the one that devastated me, and frankly changed the trajectory of my career. So to throw my first complete game since coming back from it, on a night when my ’06 teammates were in the house for our 10th anniversary celebration? It’s hard to even describe my emotions. But I’ll always appreciate how you guys helped me through them. You were there with me every pitch.

Take a night like May 15th, 2022.

Now I won’t lie to you and pretend that Yadi and I'd been chasing the battery record for decades. We’d known about it for like two years — so that night wasn’t purely about the record itself. But for me the record was more a symbol: of this amazing partnership that Yadi and I both staked our careers on. And the partnership we had, it went so far beyond just playing catch every fifth day. (Though I’ll always make time to talk an ear off about Yadi as a catcher. First-pitch changeup to Beltrán?!?! Mad genius.) What you have to realize about Yadi and me is we went through life together. Truly. Came up in the farm system as kids together. Grew into men together. Raised our own kids together. Sang Zac Brown on the team bus together. And honestly, learned the world together. So to grab a slice of history together? Maybe it doesn’t top our list. But it was very cool.

Joe Puetz/Getty

And finally....... take a night like September 18th, 2023.

Wanna hear my “dad joke” about this season? Alright, here it is: 

The one thing I never wanted to be as a pitcher is mediocre.
[Posts 7.40 ERA.]
So I skipped right past mediocre :)

Jokes aside, it was perfect — 200 in my last start and in front of y’all. I won’t bore you with a play-by-play, since it was so recent. But instead I’ll tell you about the two guys who I hugged first after: Adam Olsen and Jason Shutt. Adam rehabbed me from my Tommy John and my Achilles. Now he’s our head athletic trainer. And Jason, another of our trainers, literally made it his mission to see me finish strong. Neither of those guys is someone you hear much about … yet they each saved parts of my career. And what’s crazy is, St. Louis is FULL of those types of people. Maybe not people who saved me, in the way Adam and Jason did. But people who touched a specific aspect of my career, or moment in it, and left their mark on me for the better. And when I think of all those people — when I think of teammates like mine, and fans like ours, and where I’d be without them, and why this connection runs so deep?? I remember my single favorite thing about being a Cardinal: How every time I stepped on the field, I was helping write a story. Not my story, but bigger than mine. Bigger than anyone’s.

It’s the story of a city that loves baseball.

It started before I got here and I’m pretty sure never ends.