Last Opening Day, knowing he was out for the season, St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright got all dressed up for his new role.
Not pitcher. Cheerleader.
Yes, that was Wainwright, parading through the clubhouse after batting practice last March 31, displaying his feminine side.
His wife, Jenny, came up with the idea. Their friend, Beverly Baynes, produced a custom-made skirt for Wainwright, who is 6-foot-7, 205 pounds.
“She bought the fabric and made it and stitched it,” Wainwright recalled Monday. “We even altered it to make it come up just high enough to be disgusting but not high enough to be too disgusting.”
Cardinals infielder Skip Schumaker disagreed with that assessment, saying the amount of leg that Wainwright showed was “gross.”
Left fielder Matt Holliday also was less than impressed with Wainwright’s look, calling him, “a 6-7 cheerleader with a big old butt.”
But we digress.
“I had pom-poms,” Wainwright continued. “And a Yadier Molina shirt I bought at Target. I rolled the sleeves up. My wife knows how to roll ‘em to be super-cheerleady, really girly.
“Then I bought these Cardinals Argyle socks, pulled ‘em up to my knees. I had a headband. And ribbons — ribbons coming out of my sleeves.”
Alas, Wainwright changed into his normal uniform before leaving the clubhouse for Opening Day festivities.
“I had some serious incentive to wear it out on the field, during that little parade when the Clydesdales come out,” Wainwright said. “There were some pretty enticing bribes out there.”
Namely, from Holliday.
“I was willing to pay a lot of money to have him wear that publicly,” Holliday said. “I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I offered him a good chunk of change for that one.”
Wainwright wisely resisted. He wasn’t serious about the outfit. But he was quite serious about his new role.
Just over a year ago, the Cardinals announced that Wainwright would undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 2011 season.
Wainwright, 30, had been runner-up for the National Cy Young Award in 2010. Most viewed his injury as damaging to the Cardinals’ chances, if not devastating.
Little did anyone imagine that the Cardinals would win the World Series — or that Wainwright, in Holliday’s words, would be “as big a part of the team as a guy who didn’t play a single game could have been.”
Wainwright is pitching again this spring, preparing to resume his place in the Cardinals’ rotation. But all these months later, the Cardinals can’t stop talking about Wainwright’s contributions during their championship run.
On Monday, about a dozen Cardinals, including Wainwright, went out to breakfast. Third baseman David Freese, the World Series MVP, spoke up how much he admired the pitcher as a teammate.
As Schumaker put it, “It’s amazing how much you can look up to a guy who is not even playing. He didn’t win one game for us and we all looked up to him.”
Wainwright said he felt sorry for himself “for a few hours” after learning he would require Tommy John surgery, which normally requires a rehabilitation of 12 to 18 months.
But he didn’t stay down for long.
“I realized if I was going to stick around the team, I needed to be a positive influence,’ Wainwright said. “My presence there as an anchor bringing everyone down with a negative force … that is exactly what I did not want. It was a priority for me to be there, and to be there in a positive light.”
And so he was.
Wainwright sat in the dugout for all nine innings every game. He went on road trips, encouraged teammates, injected humor when appropriate.
Schumaker, noting that injured players sometimes make themselves scarce, called Wainwright’s behavior, “completely unusual.”
“You never heard him complain about anything,” Schumaker said. “He was always upbeat.”
It was not by accident.
“Adam is a prime example of what makes this team tick,” first baseman Lance Berkman said. “He is a man of character, a man of faith.”
Wainwright’s faith indeed helps explain how he conducts himself as a teammate. He is open about his Christianity, and how it forms the backbone of his life.
“Everything I do, I try to live as if God had placed me in a mission field,” he said. “When I come to the field, everything I do, I try to let people know what I believe through my actions.”
In that sense, Wainwright viewed his injury as an opportunity.
“When I got hurt, yes, I missed a season of baseball,” he said. “But I got to be closer to my family. I got to be a better husband to my wife, who was pregnant at the time and having her toughest pregnancy yet. I got to be there and help her out through all that.”
The Wainwrights are the parents of three girls — Baylie, 5, Morgan, 3, and Macy, who was born last Nov. 11. Wainwright said that prior to his injury, he and Morgan weren’t close — she was more of a “mommy’s girl.” But during his rehabilitation, they bonded.
With his teammates, he also sought to connect in different ways. Several players noted that Wainwright redirected his competitive energy, renewed his passion for the game and yes, became the best cheerleader they ever had.
“For him to wake up, understanding he had to have Tommy John, but he’s still a leader, he’s still a friend, still the teammate that he was when he was fighting for the Cy Young, that’s pretty cool,” Freese said.
“When you look to your right and see Adam Wainwright in your clubhouse, it’s just a blessing. I’m not talking about the 20 wins or the sub-3.00 ERA. I’m talking about having a relationship with that type of person.”
Yet for Wainwright, last season was far from easy.
Wainwright said he is frequently asked, “How hard was it to watch the Cardinals win the World Series without you?” He always replies, “Not hard at all.”
The season would have been more difficult, Wainwright said, if the Cardinals had lost, leaving him with a sense of guilt. But winning? Winning was a blast.
“Plus,” Wainwright said, “I got to be there and watch all those great baseball games.”
No, the difficult part for Wainwright was his realization in September that he would not realize his goal of pitching in the playoffs — a goal that never was possible, but one that he used as an imaginary motivation.
“I needed that carrot out in front of me,” Wainwright said. “I took some serious heat from my teammates. They’re going, ‘Adam, you’re not pitching in the playoffs.’ I’m going, ‘I don’t care what you say. I’m going to throw a baseball in a playoff game.’ I knew as a competitor I needed that.
“I pushed myself as hard as I could every day with the mindset that I was going to play at the end of the year. And then, come the middle of September when I realized I was not going to pitch in the playoffs, I had a week-long struggle with my work. I had almost a letdown.
“Then I had to start thinking, ‘This is still important. Just in case somebody gets hurt, I need to be ready.’ So, I kept going and going. You’ve got to trick yourself. Lots of times in this game, you’ve got to trick yourself.”
Well, the trickery is over, at least as far his injury is concerned.
Schumaker stood in the batter’s box against Wainwright the other day and noted that his friend was snapping off curveballs, looking like the Adam Wainwright of old.
Tuesday is the one-year anniversary of Wainwright’s surgery. It’s still early; his comeback might not progress smoothly. But if there is one player for whom the Cardinals wish success this season, it’s the one who dressed up like a cheerleader for them, the one who chose to lift them up rather than drag them down.
“I always find a positive in everything,” Wainwright said. “That really is a great way to live, I think.”
It’s the way he lived last season, when his teammates won the World Series without him.