This is, technically, a series preview of the upcoming three game set at Coors Field between the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies. The Cardinals, as most of you are well aware, have been red-hot under interim manager Mike Shildt and currently hold the National League’s top Wild Card spot. The Rockies are just 1/2 game back of the Cardinals and, despite being outscored on the season, are themselves firmly in the hunt for the postseason for a second consecutive year. But mostly, this is about Matt Holliday. More specifically, it is about the last time Cardinals fans got to see Matt Holliday in a Cardinal uniform.
Following a two-month stint in St. Louis as a trade deadline acquisition in 2009, Matt Holliday signed a seven-year, $120 million contract to enter his thirties as a Cardinal. It is, to date, the largest contract by total dollar amount ever signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. And while many “largest-ever” contracts have been instantly regretted by the signing team–consider for a moment that Miguel Cabrera, a 35 year-old below-Replacement Level player over his last two seasons (the current one which ended via injury after just 38 games), has $154 million remaining over the next five years on his contract–the Holliday contract was a relative bargain. By FanGraphs’s measurement, Holliday’s performance warranted $169.1 million.
Matt Holliday was the kind of player you wanted as the second or third best player on your team, but ideally not your best. This was how it worked out with the Cardinals–he was a great player, but he didn’t have the peak values of Albert Pujols or Yadier Molina or Adam Wainwright or Matt Carpenter, but he was a worthwhile caporegime to each of them. He was a terrific second banana, but he was a second banana nonetheless. It wasn’t that Holliday had measurably more people who hated him than comparably gifted players–it was that, considering he was one of the twenty or so best position players in baseball for about a decade, he received surprisingly little attention at all.
While Holliday didn’t have the typical level of (lack of) success of a big-money free agent, he did have a fairly typical aging curve. For the first five seasons of his contract, Holliday was essentially the same player–his offense got slightly worse and his defense declined somewhat more noticeably, but he was a mainstay in the Cardinals lineup. But in 2015, he was limited by injuries and even when he was healthy, had his worst offensive season by wRC+ in a decade. And in 2016, thanks to only slightly above-average offense and outright bad defense, Holliday was a firmly below-average player.
Holliday’s contract stipulated that for the 2017 season, there was a $17 million team option (the option automatically vested if Holliday finished 2016 in the top 10 in MVP voting, but this was assuredly not going to happen) with a $1 million team buyout. On August 11, 2016, after uncertainty surrounded the Cardinals’ decision, it suddenly seemed like a foregone conclusion that Holliday’s days as a Cardinal were numbered, when he suffered a broken thumb against the Chicago Cubs on a hit-by-pitch. Surely, at this point, the already declining Holliday was too damaged of goods not only for 2017, but to ever contribute to the St. Louis Cardinals again.
Entering games played on Friday, September 30, 2016, the Cardinals were one game behind the San Francisco Giants for the second Wild Card position. With the Pittsburgh Pirates coming into town, and tickets shockingly economical, I had gobbled up four of them, figuring I could easily find interested takers. I already had tickets for Sunday’s game, and I had an eye on Saturday’s as well. This was a de facto playoff weekend, and following a five-year playoff run in which I had attended zero playoff games, I had a chance to watch significant baseball.
In the early afternoon, two announcements were made. It was announced that Matt Holliday, who hadn’t played since breaking his thumb at Wrigley Field, was to be reactivated from the Disabled List before the night’s game. And it was announced that the Cardinals would not be exercising Matt Holliday’s 2017 option.
The first priority for most of us at Busch Stadium that night was for the Cardinals to win, and somewhat anticlimactically, the home team put together a four-run sixth inning to pad their lead to 5-0. By the time of Brandon Moss’s two-run home run, the Cardinals had a 97% chance to win the game.
The second priority, however, was Holliday. It was frequently said about Holliday that he never had a defining, glorious Cardinals moment–perhaps the two most famous individual moments of his Cardinals career were letting a fly ball hit him in the groin…
…and being picked off third base in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, in the process suffering an injury which kept him out of the seventh game of the series (I couldn’t find just the clip of the play, but by all means, feel free to watch the whole thing).
But surely, the metronomic Holliday deserved better than to close out his Cardinals career by being hit by a Mike Montgomery pitch at Wrigley Field in what turned out to be a loss to a Cubs team which already held a 12 game lead over the Cardinals.
Carlos Martinez threw seven brilliant shutout innings, but by the time the bottom of the seventh rolled around, it was time to remove him, as he was leading off the bottom of the seventh. The Cardinals didn’t need a long-term substitution; they just needed a hitter. They needed Matt Holliday.
Throughout the series, the Cardinals made no illusions that they would even attempt to bring Matt Holliday back. The scoreboard had a “Thank you, Matt Holliday” graphic applied liberally. The crowd gave him standing ovations that hadn’t been seen regularly since Mark McGwire and which haven’t been seen since (at least until Albert Pujols returns to Busch Stadium next June). His first swing looked forced. And then, with his next swing of the bat, everything felt magical. Matt Holliday got his moment.
A rain delay came an inning later, with the Cardinals now holding a 7-0 lead. My friends and I left and went across the street to a bar to watch the (very relevant to our interests as Cardinals fans) Giants/Dodgers game. What was the point of staying? Nothing we could possibly see was going to top what had already happened. Oh, and we bought tickets for Saturday’s game. It was that or watch at home, wondering why we hadn’t gone.
That was supposed to be the final moment of Matt Holliday’s Cardinals career. And while it would’ve been as magical of a moment as one can conceive, it wouldn’t have been the most Matt Holliday of moments. Matt Holliday wasn’t about poetry; he was about efficiency. And I’m sure if he had asked to never see the field at Busch Stadium ever again, Mike Matheny would have obliged. But Matt Holliday, as humble and team-oriented as a player can get, wanted what was best for the Cardinals. I didn’t need another Matt Holliday moment–I got mine on Friday. But for those who hadn’t gone the night before, Matt Holliday wasn’t done yet.
The Friday home run was artistically amazing, but it ultimately didn’t matter. The odds of a win went from 99% to 100% (rounding up). But when called upon to pinch-hit for Matt Bowman with a 3-1 deficit in the bottom of the sixth inning, and Holliday answered the call with an RBI single, the Cardinals went from 35% to 51% to win the game (a game which the Cardinals eventually did win). This was the lone game of the series my sister attended. She got her Matt Holliday moment.
The next day, with the Cardinals needing both a win and a Giants loss (inexplicably, Ty Blach had outdueled Clayton Kershaw on Saturday afternoon), the Giants got out to an early lead. The Cardinals did their part, but despite a six-run seventh inning, it became readily obvious to anybody scoreboard-watching that the five consecutive postseason appearance run was about to end. By the time it was officially over, the Cardinals held a six run lead and would, barring a collapse, not bat again. But those in attendance still got their Matt Holliday moment.
Sure, it was a little bit corny. But in celebrating Matt Holliday, we were really celebrating the joy and excitement that the Cardinals as a whole had experienced with him in left field. An era was ending before our eyes. Of the players who appeared in the 2015 postseason for the Cardinals only five remain, and there’s a decent chance that even if the Cardinals make the postseason this season, two of them could be healthy scratches this year (Greg Garcia and Adam Wainwright).
And while I love the current incarnation of the Cardinals, and they are probably an objectively more interesting team than the workmanlike compilation of competence which comprised the early 2010s squads, the 2018 Cardinals will never mean as much to me as the 2011 Cardinals. This doesn’t make them worse or lesser in any way–it just isn’t as magical when you’re 29 and when you’re 22, or when you’re an adult with a steady job versus a new college graduate just looking for some kind of identity. And for many of us, in the haze and confusion of wherever we were in life from July 24, 2009 (where I heard about the Matt Holliday trade while making fries during the lunch rush at McDonald’s) through October 2, 2016 (where my friends and I, despite what should have been the crushing disappointment of a failed postseason bid, were practically floating as we walked out of Busch Stadium), we had Matt Holliday.
Matt Holliday went on to a mostly unsuccessful 2017 season with the New York Yankees. The Yankees played 12 postseason games, and Holliday only appeared in one of them. In 2018, he signed a minor-league contract with the Colorado Rockies. Yesterday, he made his 2018 MLB debut. He went 0-for-3, but the Coors Field faithful gave him a standing ovation. Holliday meant a lot to the Rockies before he meant a lot to the Cardinals, and I’m perfectly happy to share him with the fine people of Colorado.
I’m not rooting for Matt Holliday this week, because I am fully ready to emotionally invest myself in a group of Cardinals players mostly younger than I am. But that doesn’t mean if and when I see him in a Rockies uniform, I won’t be thinking about what he meant to the St. Louis Cardinals. Those memories don’t just go away when a player switches teams.
Here are the projected starters for this weekend’s series. All times Central.
Friday (7:40 pm): Miles Mikolas (13-3, 2.80 ERA) vs. Antonio Senzatela (4-3, 4.47 ERA)
Saturday (7:10 pm): John Gant (5-5, 3.76 ERA) vs. German Marquez (11-9, 4.42 ERA)
Sunday (2:10 pm): Austin Gomber (3-0, 2.98 ERA) vs. Tyler Anderson (6-6, 4.45 ERA)