FRIDAY, OCT. 27, 2006 - The Cardinals Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina celebrate after winning Game 5 Friday and the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Laurie Skrivan | Post-Dispatch

The Cardinals’ way from the players’ parking lot into Busch Stadium passes through a hall where Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright’s names join lists of award-winners, and then leads to the clubhouse where their numbers could soon hang, alongside other icons. The moment a player walks inside is when the fables told about this winning pair reach a similar lesson: One or both arrived earlier, already waiting, already working.

Former Cardinal Matt Adams got up early one Sunday thinking this time, for sure, he would finally beat Molina to the ballpark for a day game the veteran had off. “Nope,” Adams confessed. “Pull in, go to park — beside Yadi’s car.” Michael Wacha ducked into the video room to get an early jump scouting an upcoming series only to find the two teammates who set the example beat him to the computers, still setting the example. Annually, young catchers arrive to spring workouts at dawn and learn Molina even beats the sun to practice. As longtime friend Skip Schumaker described, “You don’t have to tell Yadi to be in the cage at 5 o’clock in the morning for blocking balls with (late coach) Dave Ricketts. He’s already there waiting for Dave Ricketts.”

The stories weave from the clocks they set to the standards they do. This past season, as frustration seethed that their record was less than their talent, the Cardinals called a players-only meeting. Reliever Andrew Miller described how they gathered and gravitated, instinctively, into a “pileup” around Molina’s locker. Where else to go for direction? It’s a rite of summer for a young pitcher to get a tip from Wainwright. He’s shared spiritual support for countless teammates, once rented a car for a reliever he saw walking to work, and this summer offered Korean lefty Kwang Hyun Kim some semblance of home while Kim was quarantined away from his family. A year ago, as Jack Flaherty mourned the sudden death of a dear friend, a knock came at his hotel room door. Wainwright was there for him.

That’s what all the stories share. Molina and Wainwright are always there, ever present.

They have been as much a constant for the club as championship expectations. As living history, they’ve been a part of the team longer than the current ballpark and soaked up more champagne than the clubhouse carpet. With one on the mound and the other behind the plate, they are St. Louis baseball’s most emblematic and beloved pair of Cardinals perched at a distance since Branch Rickey put two birds on a bat.

“Their love of competition, their commitment, their trust in each other, their intelligence and then their championships — that’s a bond as tight as any you can possibly have,” said Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, the winningest manager in Cardinals history. “It would be real special if they had normal careers for this long. Being champions makes them classic. They are in the conversation with the group of the greatest Cardinals. The real mentors, like they are, they’ll talk about those guys forever.”

Forged in October, a partnership continues the autumn of its tenure with a season unlike any before. Due to a global pandemic that stopped the 2020 season before it started, the Cardinals will open their 129th year in the National League on July 24th at Busch against Pittsburgh. From there, a 60-game mad dash for the playoffs. For the defending National League Central champs and reigning NL Manager of the Year Mike Shildt, it’s a short burst to assert a self-improved offense, anchored by Paul Goldschmidt and outfitted with slugging shortstop Paul DeJong and bounce-back candidate Matt Carpenter. For Jack Flaherty, it’s a chance to show his historic second half was a teaser and he’s ready to ascend to ace.

For Wainwright, at 38, it’s three months to decide if he’ll pitch another year. For Molina, at 38, it’s one more chance to become the first Cardinal ever to appear in five World Series.

For an organization, it’s an inflection point.

The return to the postseason in 2019 started the bridge from one of the most successful eras in Cardinals history to what comes next. A new clutch of core Cardinals is revealing itself, and must. For the first time in their long career together Wainwright and Molina, the nucleus of the modern Cardinals, will both be free agents this fall. Their 16th season together is the longest for a duo in Cardinals history, surpassing Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst, and ties Atlanta’s John Smoltz and Chipper Jones in recent NL history. Their next start as a battery will be No. 279, playoffs included. With six starts together, Molina and Wainwright have more than any pitcher-catcher combo since baseball’s expansion in the 1960s.

Wainwright debuted on Sept. 11, 2005, and with Molina has seen the Cardinals win 1,246 games. They have one losing season together. Only the Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox have more wins than the Cardinals in the Molina-Wainwright Era. They have nine postseason berths, trailing only the Yankees and Dodgers, and yet have more World Series titles (two) and pennants (three). No active players have been teammates longer. Few tandems can claim as much shared success. They’ve been there, done that, had to wring the celebratory suds out of the T-shirt. And yet, there is a truer way to measure how they’ve enriched the Cardinals’ tradition.

How it looks when they’re no longer there.

“It’s going to happen someday, and it’s going to be weird,” former Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter said. “It’s the stamp you put on new guys and what they pass on that makes a solid, lasting organization. Does Yadi have a certain stamp? Does Waino have a certain stamp? Absolutely. I brought that up to (the team) this spring — what do you want this ballclub to look like 10 years from now? When everyone, 40 years from now, is talking about the Jack Flaherty and Paul DeJong Era, what do you want them to say? The Mike Shildt Era — what do you want that to be? Everybody is going to go sometime. People are going to leave. Players aren’t going to be here.

“Think of the names that are here — Yadi, Waino — and the stamps they’ve left for you. What is that legacy you’re going to leave behind?”

‘We’ve grown up together’

When these two birds of a feather first met they were even closer than they have been at their best, but their intentions couldn’t have been farther apart.

On May 9, 2003, the Greenville Braves visited the Cardinals’ Class AA affiliate for a game celebrated because of that night’s Tennessee Smokies starter, phenom Rick Ankiel, on his return to the majors. Dan Haren started the night before — part of the right-left showcase of the Cardinals’ future. After Ankiel’s two innings, the game came unwound. Schumaker was thrown out at home to force extra innings. Hours before being promoted to Class AAA Memphis John Gall punctuated a seven-run comeback with a walk-off homer in the 13th. Somewhere in that overstuffed box score the Smokies catcher faced the Braves’ starter and singled.

Mr. Wainwright, meet Mr. Molina.

Twenty-one years to the day after Willie McGee was promoted to St. Louis and joined Ozzie Smith, the Cardinals’ latest dynamic duo shared a field for the first time — as opponents. Later in 2003, the Cardinals acquired Wainwright in a franchise-redefining trade. A battery was born. During the next decade, Molina caught Wainwright’s Triple-A debut (2004), his first major-league start (2007), his first postseason start (2009), and his first World Series start (2013). When Molina became the 10th Cardinal — and first since 1946 — to play in a fourth World Series, the pitch that made it official came from Wainwright.

“We’ve grown up together,” Wainwright said. “We turned from little kids to men to dads together. We’re family.”

“We’re brothers,” Molina said. “When I grow up I want to be like him.”

Their early dinner conversations centered on what happens in the 60 feet, 6 inches between them. Over time, baseball closed that gap. Similarities bloomed. A kid from an island off the coast of Georgia and a kid from an island in the Caribbean were both schooled in the game by older brothers. They’re both pranksters. Molina turned to Wainwright for advice on starting a charity. Wainwright leaned on Molina to “shoot me straight” as he attempted a return from injuries.

As their friendship galvanized, their careers bronzed. Molina won the first of his nine Gold Glove Awards in 2008. In 2009, Wainwright started his run of four top-three finishes for the Cy Young Award in six years. Elbow surgery sidelined Wainwright during the 2011 World Series, but in the months that followed, as Albert Pujols left and Carpenter fought injury, what teammates saw happening naturally did officially: It was Molina’s and Wainwright’s team.

“A lot of winning has surrounded those two guys,” Cubs manager David Ross said. Added Reds first baseman Joey Votto: “I think they would both agree their relationship together and the connection they have was built through challenging, high-stress situations. They have been a very successful battery.”

At that highest-stress moment, during a chilly October night in Queens, their wives, Wanda Molina and Jenny Wainwright, were back in St. Louis watching Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. With a newborn, Jenny didn’t travel. Wanda kept her company. Their families were growing and growing together. They shared the same couch, the same nerves, the same cheer as Molina homered, and the same apprehension. Adam joked, “They were biting on each other’s fingernails.” With the bases loaded, the Mets’ Carlos Beltran up, and a pennant fluttering in the balance, Wainwright watched from the mound for a sign. The wives peered in, too. Molina shook off his plan to throw a fastball and urged the rookie pitcher to trust him.

“For crying out loud, in the biggest moment of my career, he calls a first-pitch changeup to the best hitter in the world at the time,” Wainwright said. “Because he had a feeling? I had to completely trust him. And I always have since. Being around him — how do I say this? — I just feel calm.”

The changeup set up the curve that clinched the pennant, and by the end of the month a slider claimed the World Series title. Strikeouts, both times. Molina gave Wainwright the baseball from the curve. The catcher kept the slider as a prized souvenir.

Like the best Cardinals twosomes, they knew how to make a first impression. Musial and Schoendienst’s first season together was 1946, a championship year. Bob Gibson and Lou Brock had their first full Cardinals season together on the way to the 1964 title. Smith and McGee debuted as Cardinals in 1982, and they both scored a run in the World Series Game 7 win. At the end of their first full season together, Wainwright and Molina leaped into each other’s arms.

“I’ve got a bunch of memories, but my favorites are every time we jump into a hug,” Molina said. “You talk about the Cardinal Way, you talk about the names that mean everything to this franchise, and you need to add one: Waino. He is out there to win. We share that mindset. But you can’t win championships every year. You can win a lot of good people that you know. You can win a lot of friendships. And I’ve been lucky enough to do that.”

They’ll always be a ‘tandem’

With his family beside him in the car, Wainwright considered the question this past week from a reporter before repeating it.

“How much do we think about what it means being together?”

He had a story.

In the clubhouse this month, Wainwright and Molina — who he usually calls by his full name, “Yadier” — reunited and talked about a common reality. Molina is coming to the end of a three-year extension, and Wainwright is on a one-year contract. Molina wants to play two more years, preferably with the Cardinals. If he plays, Wainwright wants to be with the Cardinals. The unknown is the Cardinals. The truncated 2020 season and its reduced revenue will influence the 2021 payroll. Uncertainty abounds.

“Neither of us wants to go anywhere. That’s true. We say it. We mean it,” Wainwright said. “What if the Cardinals say they want to move on from both of us? If that happens, we’d have to think about going somewhere else. You ask how much we think about being together. He says, ‘Let’s go somewhere together.’ That’s how much.”

Molina says Wainwright has shown what it means to “be mentally strong and the best kind of teammate.” Wainwright says he hopes the next generation “looks at all the winning that happened and how we did it together. There’s proof it worked.”

When a teammate eventually does walk into the clubhouse to find neither Wainwright nor Molina there, they may be gone but they’re not going anywhere. They’re as permanent as the titles they’ve won. A pitcher not yet drafted will receive the same advice Wainwright gave Flaherty. A catcher not yet signed will hear how Molina ate wild pitches for breakfast. They’re in the hall, on the wall, and in the fabric of the Cardinals.

They don’t have to be here to be a presence.

“I think about a team without them, I do,” coach Stubby Clapp said. “And then I think we’ll always see them outside the ballpark, together, as a tandem statue.”

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