On May 22, 2002, the newest St. Louis Cardinal, Jordan Walker, was born in Stone Mountain, Georgia. In St. Louis, in the fourth-to-final season at the former Busch Memorial Stadium, the Cardinals hosted the Houston Astros. The game concluded in the bottom of the ninth inning thanks to a lead-off home run off the bat of J.D. Drew, who like Jordan Walker today was a raised Georgian who came to St. Louis with the heavy weight of expectations that he would be a superstar outfielder for them, and who a year and a half later would be traded to the Atlanta Braves for a package which included Adam Wainwright, who if not for a groin injury would certainly be taking the mound at the newer Busch Stadium this afternoon to open up his final season in St. Louis. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Cardinals trailing by one, while facing eventual 2011 St. Louis Cardinals World Series champion Octavio Dotel, starting left fielder Albert Pujols, whose career with the Cardinals will miss coinciding with Jordan Walker’s by fewer than six months, notched a game-tying single. The Astros scored two runs in the game, both by future Cardinal Julio Lugo, who passed away in 2021, against Darryl Kile, making his sixth-to-final MLB start and who would pass away less than one month later in 2002.
When Jordan Walker debuts for the Cardinals, presumably later today, he will be, by nearly two full years, the most recently born St. Louis Cardinal; he will join Nolan Gorman and Iván Herrera as the first three Cardinals born in the 2000s, and the first born after September 11, 2001. Walker will be the first Cardinals position player under the age of 21 since David Green debuted for the Cardinals in 1980. Expectations for the rookie are sky-high, to a point where virtually any potential outcome will surely disappoint at least some people. But what Jordan Walker will surely represent, regardless of how well he actually performs, is the continuation of the story of the St. Louis Cardinals.
On the day Jordan Walker was born, the Cardinals’ game-tying run in the bottom of the eighth inning was scored by Fernando Vina, who himself was born on April 16, 1969. On that day, two time zones away from Vina’s birthplace of Sacramento, California, the Cardinals lost 1-0 to the Chicago Cubs in the same stadium where Vina would play his home games from 2000 through 2003. That day was one to forget for the Cardinals, but 40% of the team’s hits came from a bona fide Cardinals icon, Mike Shannon, who himself was born in St. Louis on July 15, 1939, a day on which the Cardinals lost 7-3 before 4,063 spectators at the home park of the Boston Bees. Young outfielder Enos Slaughter notched both a double and a triple that day. On his birth date, April 27, 1916, the Cardinals lost to the Cubs 9-5 at what was then called Weeghman Park–it was later dubbed Wrigley Field–a day on which outfielder Bob Bescher nearly spurred a ninth inning rally with a two-RBI hit with two outs in the game’s final frame. Bescher was not yet two years old when the St. Louis Brown Stockings played their first game, and he died nearly five years before Jackie Robinson broke into the formerly all-white Major Leagues, thus making the arrival of Jordan Walker, just five steps removed from Bescher, even possible.
Much of this and last season centered around nostalgia–remembering back to the glorious past exploits of Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols–even the latter’s 2022 successes were almost entirely framed in the context of his past rather than viewed for what they were in the moment–and in 2023, fondly recalling the greatest moments of Adam Wainwright. And when Adam Wainwright retires at the end of the 2023 season, as he has already said he intends to do, the tenure of the franchise’s longest-lasting player will be sliced by over a decade.
Aside from Wainwright, only two players who appeared on the St. Louis Cardinals as far back as 2017 remain on the Cardinals–Paul DeJong and Jack Flaherty–neither of whom I would give even a 50% chance of being on the 2024 Cardinals. Even if DeJong bounces back to some extent, the glut of middle infielders on the Cardinals makes spending $10.5 million on 2024 Paul DeJong (his team option is for $12.5 million, but with a $2 million buy-out which is already a sunk cost) less appealing. And while I’m less convinced than most that Jack Flaherty signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers is some sort of inevitability (or even that Flaherty would be desired by the Dodgers at this point in his injury-plagued career), it is difficult to give a player as tenured with the Cardinals as Flaherty who is entering his final season of team control without a new contract particularly significant odds. The next man up is Jordan Hicks, who debuted with the Cardinals on Opening Day 2018, but given that he is a pending free agent as well, the safer bet is likely Miles Mikolas, who debuted a few days later.
It is likely that over the course of six years, the entirety of the St. Louis Cardinals roster will have turned over. But it did so without any stops. I would put the odds that Miles Mikolas will eventually be the longest-tenured St. Louis Cardinal at over 50%, and I can remember being an established St. Louis Cardinals writer (though still about a month away from the launching of this particular site) who anguished over whether the new guy from Japan’s surname was pronounced with a hard or soft “I” sound. It seems strange, but had I thought to have such thoughts when I was a junior in high school and the circular multi-purpose Busch Stadium closed, I doubt I ever would have thought that the light-hitting catcher and the reliever who cameoed in September would be a part of my daily life as a baseball fan until I was 33 and 34 years old.
We don’t yet know the relationship that we as fans will have with Jordan Walker. Maybe he will flame out. Maybe he will be merely fine. Maybe he will leave St. Louis in six years when he hits free agency; maybe his statue outside Busch Stadium will sit next to the Hall of Fame slugger who drove in a game-tying RBI for the Cardinals on the day he was born. If you had to give odds on the player from the 2023 Opening Day roster to remain a Cardinal the longest into the future, Jordan Walker would surely have the strongest odds, but this is unknowable.
What we do know is that Jordan Walker is the latest part of the continuum that is the St. Louis Cardinals, a fact which should make him feel both deeply proud and thoroughly insignificant. If Jordan Walker were to chance upon this, however, his insignificance is not a referendum on him but rather an acknowledgement that had it not been for Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright, it would have been somebody else. Their replacements almost certainly would have been lesser players, but the memories that we hold as fans of baseball and as fans of the St. Louis Cardinals would still flourish. I would never have the arrogance to believe with any sincerity that this version of the multiverse is the greatest one upon which we ever could have happened, but I also wouldn’t trade in the one we have.
Today should be a strange Opening Day in the sense that the two most raucous ovations among the current 26-man roster may well be reserved for a lifelong Chicago Cub replacing one of the most beloved Cardinals ever, and for a player most of those in attendance will have never seen play baseball before with their own two eyes (having seen Jordan Walker play in person once and seeing him hit two home runs, I expect him to maintain this pace forever). Just three years ago, the typical Cardinals fan actively disliked Willson Contreras (well, this was like two and a half weeks into COVID-19 shutdowns, so I guess most had other things on their minds in that particular moment) and had never heard the name Jordan Walker, and today they will be treated as conquering heroes. The circumstances of those players changed dramatically; the fandom of those who will cheer them on remains the same.
“Continuum” and “continuous” have related meanings, but they do not mean the same thing. A continuum, per our good friends at the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as “a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct”–Jordan Walker and Bob Bescher as two ends of a spectrum are indeed very distinct. Current members of the St. Louis Cardinals represent a continuum, but they are not continuous–few, if any, grew up as Cardinals fans, and none are especially likely to have spent their entire playing careers as Cardinals (keeping in mind that many undoctored photos of Adam Wainwright in an Atlanta Braves hat and uniform exist). The fans are continuous. There will be fans who attended the Cardinals game on May 22, 2002 who will also attend Jordan Walker’s final game as a St. Louis Cardinal. For as much as some things about this game have changed and will continue to change, at least one significant thing remains the same.