JUPITER, Fla. -- Various drills had already been going for a few minutes, but Spring Training for the Cardinals didn’t really start on Monday until Adam Wainwright toed the rubber and started throwing both strikes and verbal daggers at teammates who dared to step into the box.
“Hello, baseball!” yelled out a fan to seemingly coronate the moment before Wainwright started facing big league hitters in a setting that felt somewhat surreal considering the perilous state of baseball just a few days earlier.
When Tyler O’Neill laid off a pitch that appeared to get some plate, Wainwright immediately had questions for the muscular slugger.
“How do you lay off a pitch like that on the black?” Wainwright asked. O’Neill responded, “Well, you have to throw it over the plate.”
When the next pitch split the plate and O’Neill was caught looking and clearly off balance, Wainwright quipped: “Was that over the plate?”
Later, when All-Star Nolan Arenado took a fastball deep over the right-field fence, Wainwright playfully grabbed some grass and threw it into the air to indicate the home run was wind aided. Later, Wainwright mockingly threw his glove at a laughing Arenado before a big embrace.
Such was the light-hearted mood that permeated Monday’s sun-splashed first Spring Training workout for the Cardinals. New manager Oliver Marmol gave an impassioned speech to the team about “honesty” and then conducted his first on-field workouts. All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado took live batting practice and looked in regular-season form.
As for Wainwright -- a Cardinal for 16 years and one of the pillars of the franchise’s success -- he was omnipresent while throwing curveballs and entertaining fans lining the fields.
“It was exciting, like I was on a stage or something,” the 40-year-old Wainwright said of his 35-pitch session. “But I was having fun. I was trying to perform a little bit. Plus, the fans are back. Gosh, how great is that? It feels like baseball again. And [the fans] were actually real and not pictures of people.”
The only downer for St. Louis and Wainwright was that Yadier Molina wasn’t catching the BP session. Molina, a Cardinal for 18 seasons, is about to begin his final season behind the plate for the Cardinals. However, his debut had to wait “a couple of days,” as president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said the 39-year-old catcher is excused for “personal matters.”
Giovanny Gallegos (travel) and Génesis Cabrera (personal matters) were the other players who weren’t in attendance for Monday’s opener. Marmol and Mozeliak are both hopeful the three absent players will be back prior to the Cardinals beginning games on Friday.
Marmol, who replaced Mike Shildt just days after the Cardinals were eliminated from the playoffs by the Dodgers last fall, has been impressed with how his players showed up to camp in stellar shape. Wainwright said a group chat among players had been stressing the importance of being ready when labor peace was reached, and Marmol was excited to see the advanced conditioning of his squad.
Marmol also likes that players are embracing the notion of high expectations for a team that returns loads of veteran talent and Gold Glove prowess.
“The guys have been going at it and working hard and, to their credit, they’re in a position to start games pretty soon,” Marmol said. “Our veterans, specifically [Goldschmidt] said, 'You have nothing to worry about; we’re ready to get this thing going.' So, everybody you would expect is doing a nice job.”
Mozeliak, who signed left-handed pitcher Steven Matz and relievers Aaron Brooks, Drew VerHagen and Nick Wittgren, listened in on Marmol’s team speech and lauded the manager’s willingness to be bluntly honest. He also likes that his rookie manager understands the magnitude of leading the franchise, and that he isn’t shying away from the expectations that surround a franchise in pursuit of its 12th World Series title.
“He wants people to embrace culture, and in other words, we’re about winning and that’s our culture,” Mozeliak said. “You’re either part of that and embracing that, or you are going to get pushed out. His message resonated, and it wasn’t complicated. It was simple and to the point. We’re not looking for distractions; we’re looking for people to embrace our culture.”
Wainwright has personified that culture for years, and he said it moved his emotions when he heard Marmol speak to the team about pulling in the same direction.
“The biggest thing I took away from [Marmol’s] meeting was we’re going to do everything to put y’all in the right positions to go out and perform, and we need everybody pulling on the same side of the rope,” he said. “If you’re not pulling on the same side of the rope, let us know and we’ll get you out. I love that. It’s a very blunt message, but it’s part of unity. That’s where we’re going to win -- being unified.”