THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals, their fans and prominent team alums gathered on a gorgeous Sunday to celebrate the career of Adam Wainwright, the second-greatest starting pitcher in franchise history.
It was a chance to put a disheartening season aside and feel unconditionally happy and temporarily energized by the positive vibes that have been missing through most of 2023.
The Wainwright farewell served as a wonderful family reunion of sorts. It was a time for everyone to get together, forget their problems for a while, put the negatives into the ground and appreciate the good times that Waino represented for much of his 18 seasons.
As much as any Cardinal – and along with Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols – Wainwright symbolized the enduring success of an excellent baseball franchise that made winning a tradition.
From Wainwright’s first full season (2006) through the closing scenes in 2023, the Cardinals were third in the majors in regular-season victories (1,521) and third in postseason wins (47.) With Wainwright in uniform the Cardinals won seven division titles, competed in 11 postseasons, captured three NL pennants and earned two World Series championships.
Injuries wiped out Wainwright’s 2011 season and most of his 2015 campaign, but that didn’t diminish his overall value and what he meant to the franchise. Even as an inactive pitcher, Wainwright made an impact with his influential leadership and dedication to helping young pitchers find the way at times of trouble. If injuries prevented him from being the best pitcher on an uninterrupted basis, Wainwright was still the best “bonus” pitching coach the Cardinals could have. Even when idle, he made a profound difference.
The immortal Bob Gibson retired after the 1975 season. Since 1976 – beginning a span of 48 seasons – no Cardinal pitcher started more regular-season games than Wainwright. No Cardinal pitched in more regular-season games than Wainwright. No St. Louis pitcher worked in more postseason games (29) than Wainwright. Since Gibby’s retirement, the towering righthander from Georgia pitched more postseason innings than any Cardinal, and only his friend Chris Carpenter made more postseason starts (18 to 16.)
The “kid” Wainwright sealed victories with saves to end each postseason round in 2006. As a starter he won four postseason games and had a terrific 2.83 ERA. He handled both pressure-packed roles with guile and grace.
Over the Waino Weekend, the emotions were powerful and especially meaningful. Wainwright deserved all of the adoration that shined over him all weekend.
While watching it all – and seeing so many St. Louis baseball dignitaries seated around home plate – I couldn’t help but think of Wainwright in these terms: who will fill the void? Going forward, the Cardinals will have or acquire other starting pitchers, and perhaps some of them will be good.
When I speak of filling a void, I’m not talking about Waino’s 2023 season. At 42 he was breaking down physically, and was mostly ineffective. But Wainwright still reached within himself, blocked the pain, and earned wins in his final two starts to hit the 200 milestone late in the season.
This was an example of his heavy championship pedigree surfacing in his final two starts. And that’s what I’m pointing to. Who will replace that? Wainwright stood prominently among the giants of the era who led the Cardinals to so many triumphs over a long period of time.
But the seasons turn, and players come and go, and the greatest of the greats grow old and retire. Pujols, Molina, Chris Carpenter, Scott Rolen, Jason Isringhausen and other former teammates were there for Waino on Sunday. Manager Tony La Russa, who fought off cancer, wouldn’t have missed it for anything. You could see Ozzie Smith and Ted Simmons, representing the illustrious Cardinals from the pre-Wainwright years.
So many heralded, beloved players. Generations of hallowed tradition. So much winning. So much entertainment and enjoyment and pride.
That’s what I worry about. The Cardinals have had a seemingly endless parade of elite, historically eminent talented players that elevated this franchise to the top. Not always, of course. There have been lulls; the 1970s being the most notable example.
But since winning their first World Series in 1926, the Cardinals are second to the Brooklyn-LA Dodgers for most regular-season wins by a National League team and have won the most World Series (11) by an NL team. If we include the Brooklyn years, the Cardinals and Dodgers share the NL lead with 19 pennants since 1926.
Among Cardinals fans that have been attached to this team since 1996 – or even 2000 – there was a time when it seemed like the winning would never end. There have been slips here and there, but the Cardinals always rebounded in a relatively short time.
That’s why the 2023 season was such a shock to the system. Despite making the playoffs for four consecutive seasons (2019-2022) the Cardinals weren’t as formidable as they appeared. The warning signs were there. And those warning signs were largely disregarded by those who could do something about it.
This led to the crash of ‘23, when the Cardinals posted their poorest winning percentage (.438) since 1990. That’s not all. Excluding 1995, which consisted of only 143 games, the 2023 Cardinals had their third-worst winning percentage in a full season since winning their third World Series over a five-year period in 1946.
So the scene at Busch Stadium was rich with the memories and warm sentiment in appreciation of extensive achievement made possible by men like Wainwright. But Sunday also reminded us of how far the Cardinals have fallen … and how difficult it will be to put all of the broken or malfunctioning pieces back together in a way that leads to an instant turnaround in 2024.
The Cardinals are 10th in the majors in winning percentage since the start of the 2016 season and two ahead of the teams ahead of them over that time were the rival Cubs and Brewers. And the Octobers have been especially chilly, with 13 major-league teams winning more postseason games than the Cardinals (4) over the past seven seasons. If we want to go back to 2015, the Cardinals rank 16th in the majors with only five postseason victories. Even the Kansas City Royals (11) have more. And the list of teams that have won more postseason games than the Cardinals could grow during the 2023 playoffs.
The recent goodbyes from Pujols and Molina weren’t a distraction that kept fans from seeing a grim picture. Pujols and Molina were honored before the final regular-season home game of 2022 – a season in which the Cardinals won 93 games and the NL Central title. But when they flopped in the NL wild-card round, the frustration and anxiety kicked in, and the coming disaster was more severe than anticipated.
The list of disappointments includes the Cardinals competing in three postseason games – going 0-3 – since Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado became teammates, with considerable fanfare, before the 2021 season.
As I’ve written before, the organizational failure to draft and develop sustainable, successful starting pitching is the No. 1 reason for the Cardinals’ demise. And it’s why the St. Louis front office will be scrambling this offseason to compensate for the shortage. To fix the problem the project will require a large investment of money, and the willingness to overcome the fear of trading a couple of key pieces. But not the wrong pieces, of course.
Waino Weekend wasn’t a diversion to distract fans from the Cardinals’ troubles. It was just a reason to smile and laugh a little at the end of a miserable summer swoon. And that’s a good thing, because the fans (and Wainwright) had something to look forward to. Paying tribute to Wainwright didn’t erase the horrendous magnitude of the season as a whole; it was just a break from the beatdowns.
That said, there’s probably an underlying sadness, especially on the day after … today.
This weekend reminded us of what we had, and what’s been lost.
It reminded us of how we’ll have to depend on the ownership–management group that had just about everything to do with the collapse. Can chairman Bill DeWitt and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak make everything right – and get it done in three-plus months?
I believe the Waino Weekend can do some good. Surely it must have motivated Mozeliak and DeWitt to look around and see so many totems of a proud, prosperous franchise.
I’ve been harsh in my criticism of Mozeliak and DeWitt this season, but at this point it’s redundant to keep hammering away. We all have receipts on the wreckage and don’t need to see them again. Another poisonous column won’t matter. Piling on won’t make a difference.
Mozeliak and DeWitt know what happened.
They know why the team fell apart and had its most detestable season during DeWitt’s 28-season term of ownership.
They know that they’re being blamed – and yes, it bothers them.
They hear it, see it and feel it.
And they know what they must do.
DeWitt and Mozeliak have won so much, and celebrated so often, this dismal 2023 can’t become the season that defines them. What the low point can become, however, is a huge source of inspiration. A reckoning that will fill them with a desire to recreate the long-term magnificence defined by Pujols, Molina and Wainwright. I’d like to think that celebrating the past should lead to more celebrations in the future. The Cardinals have a legacy to protect and uphold, and it’s a serious undertaking.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.