Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are free agents. Cardinal fans are largely united in their desire to see the duo return for one last season (or perhaps two), go on the proverbial retirement tour, and end their careers in St. Louis.
That almost never happens.
If there is one common trait among truly elite athletes, it is boundless self-confidence. Their belief in their abilities got them to where they are and it doesn’t simply go away when a neutral observer might note it is time to hang it up. More to the point in this case, it also doesn’t go away when the narrative of their career has crested and/or their longtime team is ready to move on.
Remember Babe Ruth of the Boston Braves, Willie Mays of the New York Mets, or if you want to go modern in another sport, Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Sure, there are the rare examples of the Derek Jeter or Big Papi retirement tours, but those kind of endings are very much the exception - especially in the age of free agency.
I took a look at Cardinals who have amassed more than 20 WAR with the team before retiring or moving on since 1981 - the beginning of the free agent era in St. Louis. In those 40 years, I don’t see any truly storybook endings.
*Tudor and Morris were just a shade below the 20 bWAR threshold.
Ozzie Smith came the closest to the storybook ending. He did end his career as a Cardinal, and he announced his retirement in time that he could be recognized in his final All-Star at-bat and his final career at-bat.
Of course, he didn’t decide 1996 would be his final season until June 19, after spending half a season benched behind Royce Clayton. And the rhetoric in the days that followed was hardly the stuff of a graceful farewell. Smith called new manager Tony La Russa a coward. La Russa shot back “all he’s got to do is look in the mirror and he can go out with honor and dignity rather than some kind of attempt at camouflage.”
Chris Carpenter is the only other player on this list whose career declined and ended all in St. Louis. Like Ozzie, that ending was not exactly on his terms, and Carpenter never had the chance to doff his cap at the end.
After bulldogging the Cardinals to the 2011 World Championship, Carpenter underwent shoulder surgery for a nerve issue just before the start of the 2012 season. He made three late-season starts, then three more in the playoffs. He spent all of 2013 on the disabled list. In an attempt to come back, he made two minor league starts in July of 2013. His final game as a professional saw him walk off the mound at Auto Zone park in Memphis after 3 1⁄3 innings. He announced his retirement after the season.
The greatest Cardinal of the last 40 years chose to leave the team via free agency. He did get a tip-the-cap moment in St. Louis, but it came in an Angels uniform after nearly 10-years of decline with another franchise. Brian Jordan likewise left via free agency and is remembered at least as much as a Brave as he is a Cardinal.
Scott Rolen and John Tudor were traded away while diminished but still productive players, though Tudor did return at the very tail-end of his career.
Willie McGee was traded away in 1990 and spend most of five seasons outside the organization, before signing a series of one-year deals that ultimately led to four more seasons as a mostly part-time player with the Cardinals. But he did get a solid farewell from the fans in what they and he knew was his final game.
The final two from this list, Jim Edmonds and Matt Morris, were franchise greats who felt they still had more baseball in them at a point where the Cardinals did not. Edmonds - in his final gift to the franchise - exited in a trade that brought back David Freese. But he would keep playing for three more seasons, with the Padres, Brewers, Reds and, worst of all, the Cubs. Morris exited as a free agent and ended his career with three seasons as a Giant and Pirate.
In an attempt to give Edmonds just a bit of that storybook moment, he was technically signed by the Cardinals in February of 2011 before retiring a few days later. (Did Edmonds get a 2011 ring? Could someone from the research department check up on that?)
So what’s the takeaway from all this?
We fans live for the moments when sports have the drama and narrative arc of a movie. But it’s hard to script those moments when you’re dealing with real people, and even more so when you’ve got billionaire franchise owners on one side and maniacs who want to play forever on the other.
We could dissect each of these situations and decide who was responsible for their career not culminating with a Hollywood ending as a Cardinal. And if Yadi and Waino don’t walk off the field as Cardinals, we could do the same with them.
But I think the reality is that it is unlikely that they get the storybook ending for the simple reason that it is unlikely that it ever happens.