On September 23, 2005, 22,472 fans gathered into Milwaukee’s Miller Park to watch the hometown Brewers face the St. Louis Cardinals on a Friday night. The Cardinals had already clinched their second consecutive National League Central title, while the Brewers had recently been officially eliminated from Wild Card contention, so the stakes were minimal–if I watched that night, which based on my general social life at sixteen I probably did, I don’t remember it. But history of a sort was made that day.
Opening in theaters was Flightplan, which would be that weekend’s #1 film at the box office, a Jodie Foster movie that I am pretty sure I never saw but which I have definitely been confusing ever since it came out with Panic Room, a different Jodie Foster movie which I have seen. The number-one song in the United States was “Gold Digger”, by Kanye West featuring Jamie Foxx doing a Ray Charles impression for reasons I’ve still never really grasped. Dylan Carlson, who will start in right field for the Cardinals today, in 2022, was six years old. And three more players who will start for the Cardinals today–Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and prodigal son Albert Pujols–appeared on the field for the first time together.
I guess in a technical sense, they won’t appear on the field together today–Albert Pujols is expected to start as the designated hitter for Adam Wainwright. And if you want to break it down further, the trio had appeared in the same game before–on September 11, 2005, Wainwright made his MLB debut, but Molina had been removed from the burgeoning blowout previously. But in the eighth inning, with Albert Pujols patrolling first base to Adam Wainwright’s left, the rookie, receiving pitch calls from the second-year catcher Molina, induced three consecutive soft fly balls, one of which was hit by a player, Jeff Cirillo, who was on a Hall of Fame ballot nine years ago.
Perhaps if you had told me on that September evening sixteen-and-a-half years ago that in 2022, the Cardinals would be starting Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright on Opening Day, I would have believed you by virtue of the fact that these things often seem permanent as they are happening. But intellectually it wouldn’t have made any sense. The number of players who have spent the entirety of their seventeen-plus season Major League Baseball career with just one franchise is under fifty, and the Cardinals will, at the same time, have two players who have already crossed that threshold. In 2005, Yadier Molina was a clearly talented defensive catcher, but one whose lack of offensive production made his long-term career in the Major Leagues a reasonable question. Adam Wainwright, though a reasonably hyped prospect, was not considered any sort of sure thing for a long career, though really, what pitcher is?
If you had told me that a Cardinal from the 2005 team would be on the 2022 roster, even with advanced age, I would have guessed Albert Pujols in a heartbeat. 2005 was the season in which Pujols, following four consecutive seasons finishing between second and fourth, won his first National League MVP award, and under contract already through 2011 (provided the team picked up his option, which they surely would and eventually did), he seemed likely to be a lifelong St. Louis Cardinal. This, of course, turned out not to be the case, a point I will make as blandly as possible.
2005 was a transitional year for the St. Louis Cardinals franchise in the sense that the team closed its doors on its home of forty years, the park I prefer to call Busch Memorial Stadium to distinguish it from the other similarly named stadiums. Wainwright only played at the circular multi-purpose facility once; Molina spent a season and a half there, while Pujols got a jump start on his Hall of Fame career before the team’s new facility opened in 2006. The current Busch Stadium isn’t even new anymore–by the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers standards, it should be near the end of its shelf life, and yet there are three players from the stadium’s origins who are on the Cardinals today. Despite one of them taking a full decade off from playing home games at Busch Stadium, Molina, Wainwright, and Pujols are far and away the most accomplished Cardinals players of the last sixteen seasons by Wins Above Replacement-based valuations.
Albert Pujols is probably going to sail into the Hall of Fame in 2028, when elected on his first ballot to Cooperstown. Yadier Molina is less assured, but few players have had their Hall of Fame cases so thoroughly litigated during their playing careers as Molina, and the emerging consensus seems to be that Molina is probably going to make it; the continuing emergence of catcher defensive metrics, which almost always look very favorably on the peak seasons of Molina’s career, will likely only make this more likely. Adam Wainwright is probably on the outside looking in of Cooperstown, barring an incredible 2022 campaign (and possibly further–his presumed retirement is far less ironclad than those of Pujols or Molina)–he never won a Cy Young Award, had a relatively brief period of perceived greatness, and his Wins Above Replacement totals are fairly far off of the mostly non-recalibrated standards for Hall of Fame pitchers. But if Wainwright has a merely adequate 2022 season, he will exceed the career WAR of Frank Chance, the weakest of the three Chicago Cubs inducted in 1946, when Chance, along with Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers, became the only trio of teammates inducted in the same year.
The nostalgia of 2022 is going to be overwhelming at times, but ultimately, if the Cardinals make it to the postseason for the fourth consecutive season, it probably won’t be because of its trio of soon-to-be-retired stars. Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, slightly post-prime veterans (who were both in high school when Pujols-Molina-Wainwright debuted together) who have (particularly in the case of Goldschmidt) quietly assembled Hall of Fame-caliber starts to their careers, have the chance to add to their presently virtually non-existent postseason legacies and will have the opportunity to become the franchise’s de facto captain–outside of the obvious two names, the shocking answer to the question “Who is the next most tenured Cardinal?” is now Alex Reyes. Young outfielders Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dylan Carlson, considered the team’s greatest weakness entering 2021, have a chance to assert themselves as the team’s strongest unit for 2022.
Of particular interest later in 2022 could be a trio of players who were not yet born when the Cardinals drafted Albert Pujols. Ivan Herrera, Yadier Molina’s likely heir apparent, is already on the 40-man roster; if he plays well, it is within the realm of possibility that he, like Molina in 2004, could get his first big-league playing time as the backup to a veteran backstop, a logical conclusion I will choose to end now rather than extrapolating that Cardinals manager Yadier Molina will screw up the 2032 NLCS by refusing to use his closer in a tied game. Matthew Liberatore, a middle-of-the-top-100 prospect, pitched well in 2021 with Memphis and will once again begin the season there in 2021; in order to avoid Rule 5 Draft eligibility, the Cardinals will be required to put Liberatore on the 40-man by December 2022 anyway, so they will likely not be hesitant to give Liberatore a spot in the event one opens for him. And Nolan Gorman, Liberatore’s Metropolitan Phoenix high school buddy, is a rapidly ascending bat who could factor into the Cardinals’ 2022 plans at second or third base, or potentially at designated hitter.
Albert Pujols was once teammates with Mark McGwire. Yadier Molina was once teammates with Ray Lankford. In 2022, noting these tidbits makes the span of history seem so brief, though someday, the younger players on the 2022 team may be on the younger end of one of these fun facts. It is unknowable who the final 2022 St. Louis Cardinal to suit up for the St. Louis Cardinals organization will be–Yadier Molina certainly would not have been my first guess in 2004 as to which player would stick around the longest–but the quest for that title could play out for another full generation. And this mixture of some of the oldest of the old veterans and the very future of the St. Louis Cardinals should make for a fascinating transitionary step for the franchise.