A pair of ex-Cardinals have been on mind lately, for reasons I’ll explain later. But I’ve been considering the response they receive, or will receive, when they return to Busch Stadium to play against the St. Louis Cardinals. I also think about Jason Heyward.
Jason Heyward will return to Busch Stadium later this week as a member of the Chicago Cubs, and if history is any indication, he will be booed. It will perhaps not be as lustily as it was in 2016, when the former Cardinals right fielder’s departure to the team’s most hated rival was fresh in the memories of fans (and when Heyward was still widely viewed as, um, not terrible). But boos will happen.
Personally, I think booing Heyward is kind of silly. Heyward was acquired via trade with all parties extremely aware that he was only under contract for one more season and then, as was his right as a free agent, he signed a contract with a team that he felt offered him more desirable terms.
That said, I don’t believe Cardinals fans owe Heyward a round of applause, either. They’re allowed, sure, just as they’re allowed to boo him, but he was a guy on the Cardinals, he had a good year and I recognize that…but he didn’t necessarily engender a lasting legacy in St. Louis. Which, again, is nothing personal–most players don’t. But Heyward was a quietly great player–he was well-rounded, good defensively and on the basepaths and his offense was good but hardly other-worldly (his wRC+ on the season of 121 was topped by 39 qualified hitters in 2015). I have two enduring memories of Heyward–a terrific throw he made in a game against the Pirates that I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t remember had I not attended the game and had a perfect view of it, and Randal Grichuk flipping him a baseball because Mike Matheny decided to put an outfielder who literally couldn’t throw the baseball in the most important defensive spot in the outfield. This team won 100 games.
Here are ten players who deserve (and in many cases, already have received) kudos from the Busch Stadium faithful, not as some sort of demonstrative “we are truly The Kind And Gentle And Wonderful Fans” act but rather because the players contributed heavily to our collective memories as Cardinals fans. This list includes only active players (hence no Matt Holliday) and only players who are outside the Cardinals system (thus players such as Edward Mujica are not eligible).
10. Joe Kelly, Boston Red Sox: Joe Kelly had mixed results as a St. Louis Cardinal, and while he occasionally drew the ire of killjoys who noted disparities between his earned run average and his results by defense-independent metrics (*sheepishly raises hand*), Kelly was a consistently pleasant presence. Also, the stare-down with Scott Van Slyke. 2013 was so fun.
9. Randal Grichuk, Toronto Blue Jays: He was often a victim of his own expectations, but in the macro sense, Randal Grichuk produced. He was a nearly 3-win player by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement per 600 plate appearances (a rough approximation of a full season) and gave us several wonderful highlights in St. Louis (besides the not being able to throw thing).
8. Allen Craig, San Diego Padres: Currently in the minors, his star has fallen quite a ways since his departure from the Cardinals (and a little bit before that), but Allen Craig twice received MVP votes and made several big plays in the 2011 World Series, including the series-clinching putout. Yeah, let’s go with that video instead of the one where he trips over Will Middlebrooks.
7. Stephen Piscotty, Oakland Athletics: Splits don’t come much more amicable in baseball than the trade which sent the Cardinals right fielder closer to his ailing mother in the Bay Area. It doesn’t hurt the perception of Piscotty that his Cardinals career, briefer than it seems (less than 2 1/2 seasons) came with an intensity to which those of us who spend our lives angry at this largely successful baseball team can relate.
6. Matt Adams, Washington Nationals: Never let the Cardinals successes of Bud Norris nor the perspective which allows you to recognize Clayton Kershaw as one of the greatest pitchers ever deter you from appreciating the absolute majesty that was a Matt Adams bat flip against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
5. Jaime Garcia, Toronto Blue Jays: He was a Rookie of the Year finalist in 2010. In 2011, he started the greatest game in franchise history. In 2015, after his career was left for dead, he had a 2.43 ERA in 129 2/3 innings. But what makes Jaime Garcia deserving of a warm reception when he returns to St. Louis is that he was one of the toughest Cardinals ever. For whatever reason, he was often regarded as soft because he got hurt a lot and not gritty because he rebounded from his injuries. It is considered sacrilegious to mention him in the same breath as Chris Carpenter. It isn’t. They both rule.
4. Jon Jay, Kansas City Royals: Jon Jay started for a World Series-winning team, he started for another pennant winner, and in between them, his 2012 season was among the most underappreciated in recent Cardinals history–he had a top ten on-base percentage in the National League and committed zero errors in center field (while errors are a flawed stat which certainly don’t tell the full story of his defense, this was an impressive feat). And he did all of this with somebody else while perpetually being challenged for his job and with little prospect status when he joined the team in 2010.
3. Lance Lynn, Minnesota Twins: Jon Jay is my favorite Cardinals position player of the last decade, and Lance Lynn is my favorite Cardinals pitcher of the last decade for similar reasons. He was unheralded as a prospect, was somehow an All-Star and demoted to the bullpen in the same 2012 season, received heated criticism (and unfortunate batted ball luck) in 2013, but eventually settled into something of a fan favorite role on the Cardinals.
2. David Freese, Pittsburgh Pirates: David Freese just played the Cardinals and thus I am reminded of the ovations Freese receives when he returns to Busch Stadium. And while raucous ovations for, say, Daniel Descalso pinch-running are a bit much, who could argue against Freese? Even if David Freese didn’t have local roots, that he authored two of the (conservatively) ten greatest moments in franchise history on back-to-back plate appearances is enough to have cemented his status as a St. Louis legend. That he grew up in nearby Wildwood rooting for the Cardinals adds a layer of absurdity to what he did.
1. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels: Unlike when Freese returns to St. Louis, some will boo. Even with his struggles since leaving the Cardinals following the 2011 season, resentment that Albert Pujols left St. Louis for the west coast lingers. But Albert Pujols is the greatest Cardinal of my lifetime, and probably of yours, and for eleven years, knowing that he was in the Cardinals lineup was enough to inspire confidence that the Cardinals could win any given game.
Some will boo, but those boos will be dwarfed. Albert Pujols will reach 3,000 hits for his career soon, and it will be celebrated in St. Louis as though he had never left. Because the memories of his legacy as the greatest Cardinals hitter since Stan Musial will remain forever. A man who debuted with the Cardinals when I was in grade school and left after I had graduated college is far too fundamental to my development as a baseball fan to pretend those moments don’t exist.
Also, it hit the freaking train track.