Just over 15 years ago, on September 11, 2005, Adam Wainwright made his major league debut. He’d give up a couple of hits and a big home run by Victor Diaz, but the first one was in the books, for better or worse. Two years prior, the Atlanta Braves had agreed to the deal that would bring Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis, and Ray King to St. Louis in exchange for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero. Power for pitching. The gamble would pay off, as each player the Cardinals received would go on to play a vital role to the team’s subsequent success in the coming seasons.
A decade and a half later, Adam took the mound on his 39th birthday, August 30, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic had decimated the majority of professional athletes’ seasons to start the year, and the Cardinals found themselves with an abbreviated season that would spill into an expanded postseason in October. The Cardinals were in the throes of a four-game losing streak, and in a 60-game season in which each game was more precious than the last, a win was needed here to continue the march toward the postseason.
Adam had heard it all at the start of the year: he was too old, too inconsistent, too damaged to continue to carry on as the team’s ace after all this time. Surely this had to be his last season – if he made it through the entirety without an injury. In the second inning of this August game – typically, if you’re going to hit on Adam Wainwright, you’re going to do it early on in the game – with one on and one out, Tyler Naquin chopped what looked like a ground rule double to the right field corner; the hit would later be ruled a two-run home run. Down two runs, it was easy to feel some trepidation at what the remaining seven innings would bring. Would Uncle Charlie pull another win out of his glove of tricks?
Of course, the years between that first mound appearance and that on his 39th birthday would be filled with storylines. Tommy John surgery that would prevent Wainwright from participating in the 2011 Cinderella story that culminated in the team’s 11th World Series victory. Four finishes inside the top three of Cy Young voting, but never quite enough to take home the award for himself. 22 complete games, many of which were shutouts. Millions of dollars in support for clean water initiatives and other charities through his Big League Impact Foundation.
An entire generation of Cardinals fans have grown up with Uncle Charlie as their hero. Even through shakier seasons – 2017, the year that saw Wainwright riddled with niggling injuries and his highest ERA, also earned him a Silver Slugger award for his performance on the other side of the mound, so it wasn’t all bad – it was reassuring to see him on the mound.
Accompanied during most starts by fellow Cardinal veteran Yadier Molina, a hometown hero in his own right, the pair cemented themselves in local folklore for their easy pitch and catch camaraderie that had clearly spilled over into genuine friendship. When Yadier Molina knocked his 2,000 career hit – a two-out single off of Brewers reliever Justin Topa in the home half of the 7th – on September 24 of this year, it might have been Adam Wainwright who had the biggest reaction (link: https://www.mlb.com/news/adam-
Which brings us back to that warm August afternoon, Adam’s 39th birthday. The Cardinal hitters would provide some run support for their veteran, who quickly put the early home run in his rear view. Pitch after pitch, striking out nine, walking only two. In all, he would need 121 pitches (he’d told pitching coach Mike Maddux ahead of the game that he had 120 pitches in him (link: https://www.espn.com/mlb/
“Vintage Waino”, the writers would report the next day. “Wainwright turns back the clock.” But really, did he revisit his past, or has he gotten better in what many would label his golden year? This season, which saw the Cardinals eliminated in the Wild Card round of playoffs by the San Diego Padres, brought Adam’s lowest ERA in five years. His WHIP was also at its lowest since 2014 (2015 is difficult to count for this purpose due to his Achilles injury that would have him miss the majority of the season). Sure, it’s easy to point to the short season and a presumed lower rate of wear and tear – but his average of 6.5 innings per game during the regular season is also his highest during a full workload since 2014, where he averaged 7.1 innings per game.
All of this as he became the oldest active player in the National League.
The next few months will tell the story of what’s to come for Adam Wainwright. We’ve learned not to muse about the prospect of his retirement; even Wainwright can clearly recall those dark moments in 2017 when he thought his career was done and dusted, and yet here he stands. The Cardinals front office has tendered their perennial ace with single year contracts over the last two seasons, a veiled question: “is this your last one?”.
But only Adam Wainwright – Uncle Charlie himself – can know what the forthcoming seasons will hold. If you were to ask him just two weeks ago, he’d have shrugged you off and told you he’s focused on the task at hand: completing his eighth playoff run as a contributing member of the roster.
The game of baseball continues to evolve. Hitting and pitching styles change. Rules are updated. Yet through it all, Adam Wainwright remains timeless. When asked of his thoughts on the evolution of the sport, its propensity toward speciality pitching and launch angle data, he gave The Athletic an answer that could in parallel be applied to his own path forward: “Time will tell, because baseball has a way of bringing crazes that aren’t forever crazes back to normal, and things that are going to stick around will stick around.” (https://theathletic.com/