My Jason Motte fandom started the same way I began rooting for so many of the homegrown talent on the current St. Louis Cardinals roster—with reports from the farm of a no-hit catcher with a cannon arm who was giving pitching a shot. To be a prospect hound is to hunt velocity and, as the scouting reports told it, Motte could throw flame that heated up the radar gun to the high-90s. At the time (before the great velocity surge of the 2010s truly kicked into gear), Motte was an enticing novelty.
Making Motte still more fun to keep on one’s prospect radar was his lack of any sort of decent pitch other than his fastball. To call the righty’s secondary offerings rough would have been charitable. This was a reliever who survived on velocity and his hurling of show-me spinballs was done as something more akin to a timing distraction than a swing-and-miss inducement. Motte’s velocity first, velocity second, and velocity third profile was much more likely to be featured in a post on quirky Island of Misfit Toys prospects that never materialized into big-leaguers than a lynchpin reliever with "STL" on his cap.
Motte’s fastball carried him up the organizational ladder. Reviews of the secondary pitches he fiddled with were tinged with the hope that, with a little bit more work, they might become viable enough to be tossed homeward in the majors. As the story goes—or at least how I remember it these some years later—rookie general manager John Mozeliak went to then-manager Tony La Russa and then-pitching coach Dave Duncan at around the 2008 trade deadline with the Cards playing over their heads and in competition with the Brewers and Cubs for a postseason berth. Teams with veteran relievers were interested in Motte, with his eye-popping Triple-A strikeout rate, as the return in a trade. Yet the Cardinals turned down any potential deal for a reliever with a track record of a functional breaking ball at the big-league level and opted to keep Motte. As I remember it, Duncan was Motte’s chief advocate. This was when the notion of Motte as St. Louis reliever first seemed like not only a potential reality (remember, there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect) but an eventuality.
A month later, Motte made his MLB debut as a September call-up and flashed the blazing heat and high strikeout totals that had colored his season in Memphis. Motte had arrived in St. Louis without a fully-formed repertoire and shown us a glimpse of domination that suggested great things could lie ahead. But even beyond Motte’s results as reflected by stats was how much fun he was to watch. The gesticulations, the fierce expression with his pitching arm cocked mid-windup, the talking to himself (through his mitt), the goggles, and the beard all combined with his straight heat to make a genuinely colorful character on the mound that was rather entertaining to watch. If Jason Isringhausen was vanilla, Motte was tootie-fruitie.
La Russa was seemingly as enticed as fans by what Motte had shown during his brief September stint in St. Louis. On opening day, it was Motte whom the godfather of the modern bullpen called upon to save the game. But Motte was apple-jacked and the manager removed him from the closer job, shielding him with lower leverage work, apparently in an effort to preserve the young pitcher’s psyche.
Veteran Ryan Franklin would ultimately be installed in the closer role and he would hold onto it until the 2011 season. But Franklin’s implosion did not cause La Russa to immediately turn to Motte. The flamethrower was embedded in the middle innings, doing the valuable work of a fireman, and succeeding. So La Russa turned everywhere but to his opening-day 2009 closer and eventually settled on Fernando Salas. When Salas faltered late in the season, La Russa turned to Motte. And it was Motte who handled the ninth during the Cards’ miraculous home-stretch run that saw them win the wild-card berth. Entering the 2011 NLDS, Motte had notched a mere nine regular-season saves.
I had never been to a playoff game before 2011, let alone a World Series game. It’s difficult to put into words how exciting it was to get tickets to Game 1 of the World Series at Busch Stadium in 2011. But that feeling was dwarfed by watching the game itself. There are memories as vividly etched in my mind today as on October 20, 2011—from Yadier Molina throwing own would-be-base-stealer Ian Kinsler to Allen Craig’s game-winning hit—but the memory that gives me to grandest goose bumps even today is what happened after the last out of the bottom of the eighth.
As the Rangers ran into the visitors’ dugout and the Cardinals took the field (with Skip Schumaker manning right as part of a double-switch that removed Lance Berkman from the game), the crowd began to cheer in a carnival-like fashion as Eminem’s "Lose Yourself" blared out of the speakers. Our seats were behind the Cardinals bullpen, so we could see Motte fire his final warm-up pitch before making his way to the gate, where he paused before bursting through to take the field. It was Monday Night Raw meets Major League Baseball and the crowd gave the closer the type of raucous reception on par to those received by Stone Cold Steve Austin as he made his way to the squared circle. Motte retired the Rangers 1-2-3 in the ninth (without a strikeout) and the Cardinals had a 1-0 series lead. It was Motte a little over a week later who would induce a World Series clinching flyout to Craig and then turn to Molina, arms outstretched, with the order "Come at me, bitch!" as the fireworks and confetti went off in celebration of the franchise’s eleventh World Series championship.
In 2012, Motte’s first full season as closer and Mike Matheny’s first season as manager, the righty made 67 appearances, tallying 42 saves. The strain of a workload that included two consecutive postseasons as closer was apparently too much as Motte’s UCL stretched to the point that it had to be replaced via Tommy John surgery, an injury that ended his 2013 season before it began and delayed the start of his 2014.
Normally, ballplayers fade to the back of fans’ consciousness while injured. Occasionally, a camera shot of the dugout will catch them in a hoodie chatting with teammates. But Motte didn’t fade to the background. He came to the forefront with his off-the-field work. In doing so, Motte started his K Cancer charity and became one of my favorite Cardinals ever. Not only had he entertained on the field with his unique brand of pitching, but he established himself as a good person. Playing baseball well doesn’t qualify a man to be a role model, but that doesn’t mean that a ballplayer can’t live his life in a way that is worth of respect and praise. And Motte is Exhibit A.
The Cardinals nominated Motte for MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award this year and the righthander is as deserving to win the accolade as his 2013 teammate Carlos Beltran. (You can vote here for Motte to win.) But regardless of whether MLB recognizes Motte’s charitable work, it’s worthy of recognition and celebration.
The Motte of 2014 is not the Motte of yesteryear. Injury has slowed the fastball that was the foundation of his success and, consequently, sapped his ability to K the opposition. It’s looking less and less likely that the Cardinals can afford to have Motte, with his effectiveness compromised by an uncooperative throwing arm, on the postseason roster. What’s more, Motte’s contract with the Cardinals expires after the postseason’s final out, which will land him on the free-agent market this Hot Stove, and he is no sure bet to return to St. Louis for 2015. Wherever Motte lands, I’ll be rooting for him.