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It was the same drive Adam Wainwright has made for more than 15 years now, pulling out of the driveway from the same house in west St. Louis County, going down the same two highways, taking the same exit, parking in the same lot outside Busch Stadium.
Yet on Sunday, there was a difference.
It was the last time for Wainwright to make that 20-minute drive as an active major leaguer, doing so before the final game of the Cardinals’ season, his final game before Wainwright drives off into retirement.
“I have kind of a tradition I do every day when I’m driving to the field,” Wainwright said. “There’s a certain point when you are going east on 40 when you can first see the Arch. I always make sure right in the moment I look up at the Arch and remember where I am working, how cool it is.”
He has two other reminders of his 18 years in St. Louis that Wainwright always carries with him, in his money clip, and he had them with him again on Sunday on that final drive to the ballpark.
“It’s the same money clip I got as a high school graduation gift,” Wainwright said. “In 2005 I was in a cab on the way to the airport after the Winter Warm-up and I took the receipt. The driver was asking me about baseball and he said he had never heard of me and I said, ‘I understand’ but I told him ‘I’m going to keep this cab receipt in my wallet every day as a reminder of where I’m supposed to be.’
“It’s still in my wallet. It’s pretty tattered but it’s still in there. I have those little reminders when I’m driving to the field, of what a blessing it is to be here.”
The second reminder is a $2 bill that Wainwright keeps in the money clip, a gift before the 2006 season.
“I might get them framed together,” Wainwright said.
Doing so will be another tangible reminder of his final game, along with all of the gifts Wainwright received, but the memories of what happened will also stay with him forever.
For the first seven innings of Sunday’s game against the Reds, Wainwright mostly sat in the dugout. He had his tennis shoes on, not his spikes, and really thought his pinch-hit at-bat on Friday night was going to be the final appearance of his career.
Wainwright had told manager Oli Marmol before the game that if it was a one-run game, he did not want to hit, out of respect for the game.
But in the top of the eighth, a fan appeared on the video board requesting another at-bat for Wainwright. Then, later in the inning, it was Yadier Molina, sitting in the Spanish radio booth, holding up a similar sign.
“Oli looked over at me and said, ‘You’ve got to hit,’” Wainwright said.
With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Wainwright came up the steps from the dugout and with the crowd roaring, pinch-hit for Jose Fermin.
He fouled off two pitches from Alan Busenitz before going down swinging. As the crowd roared, Wainwright walked back to the dugout – then came back out for the requested curtain call.
“I’m glad,” Marmol said. “Here’s the reality of it. At the end of the day it didn’t have an impact on the league one way or the other. We are in the entertainment business. They (the fans) paid to see something, and they got to see it today.
“It’s a good way to send him off. He enjoyed the heck out of it.”
The request by Molina to see one more at-bat for Wainwright was just another memory of the day for Wainwright, which began with a special pre-game ceremony.
One of the surprises in that ceremony was the appearance of Molina, who had not told anybody that he was coming. It was his first time back at Busch this season.
“He hadn’t been answering my phone calls or my texts,” Wainwright said. “I’m going, ‘What the heck? Did this guy move on in his life and forget about number 50 or what? What did I do .. (I was) starting to think he didn’t like me anymore.
“It was because he knew if he answered the phone he would have given it away. Now I get it. Now I’m fine with it … glad he didn’t answer, but kind of thought he was big-leaguing me there for a minute. … When I saw Yadi walk up the steps I completely lost it. I couldn’t even breathe. I don’t even remember what I did … bawling like a baby. He means a lot to me.”
Among the numerous gifts Wainwright received from the Cardinals in the ceremony was a puppy, which team officials orchestrated with the help and support of Wainwright’s wife, Jenny.
Wainwright had said for years that when he retired, his kids could get a puppy. The dog already has a name – Louie.
“I guess this makes it official,” said Wainwright during his remarks to the crowd.
Wainwright received two more presents after the game. His teammates presented him with a John Deere riding lawn mower, and after getting the strikeout that ended the 4-3 win, Ryan Helsley gave the game ball to Wainwright – one more souvenir for his trophy case.
Sunday’s game marked the end of an era with Wainwright’s retirement. When the Cardinals play their first game in 2024, it will be the first time that either Albert Pujols (who also was at the ceremony), Molina or Wainwright, or all of them, will not be on the team’s roster since Oct. 16, 2000, for game five of the NLCS, which the Cardinals lost 7-0 to the Mets.
Since then, the Cardinals have played 3,756 consecutive games over 23 seasons with at least one of those three players on the roster or the injured list, a total that includes 135 postseason games.
The last three days, with all of the emotions of his send-off weekend, left Wainwright with only one primary thought when it was over.
“I’m exhausted,” he said. “I’m absolutely, completely drained, in a good way. It’s just beyond anything I ever could have expected.
“Watching the Yadi and Albert sendoff last year, I thought, ‘Man they are so deserving of that’ and I was so proud they got to share that together. I would never have thought in a million years that I would get anything like that. I’m just very taken aback, very honored, I feel just as blessed as I’ve ever felt in my whole life.
“I will remember these three days the rest of my life.”
The rest of his life starts Monday.
“I don’t know what I will do,” he said of his first day in retirement. “It’s just the winter now. It’s not the off-season anymore … I get seasons again, four of them, not just in-season and off-season now.
“That’s kind of cool.”