BOSTON – This probably shouldn't be a big deal, because it's not that hard to be kind to the new guy, or even the next guy. But every young St. Louis Cardinals pitcher – and there's a bunch of them on the World Series roster – has the same story of the first time he met Adam Wainwright.
It goes pretty much like this: Adam walked up and introduced himself. That's the story. Just stuck out his hand, all, "Hi, I'm Adam," like he didn't own the joint. One day, perhaps, he'd be a mentor, or a friend, or even – the highest standing of all – a teammate, but in that moment he was a guy with a smile and a handshake and a memory of what it was like to sit eight feet from Chris Carpenter and be blown away.
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It happened for Seth Maness at an offseason event last January. When Wainwright let go of his hand, Maness immediately called his mom with the news. For Michael Wacha, it was in spring training, and all he could think was, "Man, this guy is huge. No wonder he's so good." Shelby Miller went to Busch Stadium to sign his first contract, there was Wainwright, and later when he could barely get an out in the minor leagues, Miller's phone went off. Wainwright was texting. "What's going on? Is everything OK? Something up?" He sent back, "No." Because what do you say to Adam Wainwright when he's up in the major leagues and in between starts is checking your ERA?
"Just an amazing guy," Miller said.
Soon, when the lessons of the minor leagues were done, and the call came, they'd walk into a big-league clubhouse and find more than a few strangers. There would be Wainwright. It's what Carpenter had done for him, and stuff like that rolls downhill with the St. Louis Cardinals, so maybe one day Michael Wacha will walk up to a jittery prospect, stick out his hand and say, "Have you met Adam yet?"
Wainwright gets the ball Wednesday in Game 1 of the World Series. He takes it as he would an heirloom, passed to him by great pitchers, his to pass to other great pitchers. If that sounds slightly trite and way overstated, consider that he has a teammate – Carlos Beltran – who is almost 2,100 games into his big-league career and will participate in his first World Series on Wednesday. The occupational slight had so worked its way into Wainwright's subconscious he awoke the night before Game 6 of the NLCS in a sweat. In his dreams, the Los Angeles Dodgers had eliminated the Cardinals, and Beltran had then signed with the New York Yankees, and the Yankees were big winners again.
"We weren't the team to get him there," Wainwright said. "And the Yankees took him to the World Series. And I remember the gist of the dream, he was sitting on a podium like this, saying, ‘I'm so happy to be a Yankee and in the World Series.' And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it was a nightmare!'"
He laughed. After Tommy John surgery, and then a season spent hoping he could be the same pitcher again ("You do have those thoughts that creep in where you, for half a second, wonder if you'll ever be any good anymore," he said.), and then a 19-win 2013, his fastball is back. He recognizes his slider again. The changeup feels good in his hand. And the curve ball – thank heavens for the curve ball – it never did leave him.
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In part because of him, and partly because the likes of Wacha and Maness and Miller (and Trevor Rosenthal, and Joe Kelly, and Carlos Martinez) became terrific well before their times, all in a city whose children are born with seams, a Rawlings stamp and "Allan H. Selig" scripted in blue on their foreheads, the Cardinals will take Beltran to the World Series. The young men walk with the veterans as if they belong, and they produce because that is the expectation. Maybe it seems like a silly, meaningless gesture, this handshake, but it starts a process that becomes, in Wacha's case, a start in Game 2. In the case of Maness, an 11th-round draft pick two years ago, it becomes 66 relief appearances (despite making his debut in May) and a 2.32 ERA, then five scoreless appearances in the postseason.
"It's something I like to do when we get a young guy," Wainwright said, "so that they know they can be comfortable around me. They don't have to walk on eggshells. They don't have to wonder if I've seen them.
"I remember being in that situation where you don't know how to act around an older fellow, and all of a sudden I'm an older fellow. I respect that. I want those young guys to know they can come to me at any time with anything."
Wainwright is all of 32. (His arm, presumably, is much older.) This seems to be how they do things around the Cardinals. Chris Carpenter took the same interest in Wainwright once, back when Wainwright was paid to keep Beltran out of the World Series. Now Carpenter is 38, and, yes, baseball generations are measured in six-year spans, and he's around but not in any condition to pitch. Now he leans back and takes hold of Wacha before his start in Pittsburgh, the one that would get the Cardinals past the Pirates, and describes how it's going to go, just before Wacha goes out and wins that game.
"I remember Adam showing up, 190 pounds, a skinny little kid," Carpenter said.
He'd stuck out his hand, told the kid, "Hi, I'm Chris."
Simple as that.
"Watching Adam grow into what he is," Carpenter said, "it's been fun."