Standing next to the man, he’s a true 6’7”. Thick build, thick beard, Georgia boy drawl. The kind of man that makes you feel confident just by standing with him.
Adam Wainwright has done everything a southern boy can dream of on a baseball diamond. He’s hit home runs, thrown shutouts, stuck out countless batters. He’s hurled the final pitch to win a World Series, and the first pitch to open a season in baseball heaven.
Now, as the man affectionately known as Waino stares down the barrel of his 13th big league season you wonder what’s left. Every boxer thinks he has that one great fight left in him. Many of them have, until that one last one turns into the last one after the last one. And that’s my fear, and the fear of many of you in Cardinal Nation.
We can all close our eyes now and see Carlos Beltran’s knees buckle, we can see Brandon Ingne looking like no more than a little leaguer being carved up in the 2006 Fall Classic. We can blink and see Wainwright's arms extended, Yadier Molina running and jumping into his embrace. The pinnacle of competition. The closest to heaven you can find in the dirt of a baseball diamond.
We all know the curve. Uncle Charlie. It has sent innumerable batters back to the dugout, heads hung in the dejection of abject failure at the plate. We all know it, we whisper it under our breath, “He’s still got a few more curveballs in him.”
But it’s not the curveball, or the competitiveness, or the work ethic, or the drive and want that is leaving Adam Wainwright. It’s the fastball. Old number one, the first pitch and the last pitch, the alpha and omega. Without a fastball, and fastball command, that devastating 12-6 curveball is no more than a batting practice hook. We’ve heard the details of his injuries and operations of the past decade-plus. We’ve recently heard about procedures that should restore velocity, and should allow him to regain form. We saw flashes of the Wainwright of old last season. Stretches of brilliance. But shoulds, flashes and stretches do not a pitcher make.
So who is the Adam Wainwright due to report to spring training in a few weeks? Is it the Waino of 2014 who finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting? Or, is it the post-achilles, lost velocity, breaking-balls-every-other-pitch Waino that we’ve seen for the better part of two seasons?
Will we know soon, or will the craft of a brilliant veteran hide it all on the margins somewhere? Paint the black, and keep them all off balance like the mere mortals they are. Or will we see the end? And you’ll know the end when you see it, whether you let yourself believe it or not.
We believe in our Cardinal red hearts that he has that last great season still in him. He has his Rumble in the Jungle waiting out there in the summer months of 2018. We believe it. But, in the depths of our darkest fears, we can faintly hear the last moan of a prizefighter, clinging to the ropes, praying for the bell to ring. Just holding himself up so when the sweat dries and the blood is wiped clean he can look himself in the mirror and know he went the distance. There wasn’t a drop of sweat left that wasn’t dropped on the diamond.
We all know that’s how it will end for Adam Wainwright. He will never quit, he will never give in. He will stand his ground until all the Earth crumbles around him. The only question is when. Will it be on a cool September evening come this fall, or is it a faint whistleblowing from an inning still years away? The only way to know is to sit, and watch, and cheer. And that’s what I’ll do from opening day 2018 until he hands the ball one last time to his manager with a pat on the back, and a “You’ll get ‘em next time,” for the last time.
Until that long and lonesome walk back to the dugout comes, I’ll believe in my Cardinal red heart that Adam Wainwright still has at least one last great one left in him.
Follow Will Saulsbery on Twitter @Will_KSDK