A golf cart on home plate. To fully appreciate the evolution of All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, savor that image. A golf cart on home plate.
Molina told me the story Friday, the story of how the late Cardinals instructor Dave Ricketts once grew so upset with him, he interrupted a game in most unusual fashion.
This was back in 2001, when Molina was 18 and just learning how to catch; he originally was a third baseman. Ricketts, the Cardinals’ catching coordinator, was watching Molina during a game in extended spring training, sitting on a golf cart just off the field.
Molina said that Ricketts always got upset with catchers who failed to block balls and allowed them to go through their legs.
“If you’re a good catcher,” Ricketts would say, “you should never let that happen.”
Well, sure enough, Molina let it happen — with a runner on third, no less.
Molina raced to the backstop to chase the ball, thinking maybe he could get the runner at home. But when he turned around, there was Ricketts, staring at him from his golf cart, which he had quickly driven onto the field and parked … yes, on home plate.
“Put your ass in here!” Ricketts shouted at Molina, pointing to the seat next to him.
Molina obliged, and Ricketts sped him to the batting cage. The instructor then started hitting Molina balls to block — Molina estimated about 150 to 200 in all. And when they were done, Ricketts put Molina back into the game.
“The guy was a tireless worker,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Ricketts, a former major league catcher who died in 2008 at age 73. “To those young kids, he was as hard as steel. But they knew he absolutely loved them. He was a very, very special instructor.”
Matheny, who also is a former major league catcher, signed with the Cardinals as a free agent in 1999 and spent the next five seasons with the club. Molina ascended through the minors during that time, making his major league debut in ’04.
“(Ricketts) would say, ‘Watch this kid,” Matheny recalled. “He wouldn’t tell Yadi that. But he was real proud.”
Matheny recalled that when Molina was young, “he wasn’t flexible, wasn’t strong.” But Molina is now a two-time World Series champion and five-time All-Star. He is the NL’s leading hitter, arguably the league’s first-half MVP, a defender for the ages.
And all these years later, he still remembers the golf cart on home plate.
SPECIAL MOMENTS FOR THE CARDINALS
Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter comes from a baseball family. His father, Rick, was his coach at Elkins H.S. in Missouri City, Texas, outside of Houston. His younger brother, Tyler, is a Class-A catcher with the Mets.
So, moments after Matt learned that he had made his first All-Star team last Sunday, he took a photo of the envelope that the Cardinals had just given him, the one that said on the front, “National League All-Star 2013.” He then texted the photo to his parents, Rick and Tammie, his wife, Mackenzie, and his brother and sister.
Later, he talked to them all personally, and said that many tears were shed during those phone calls.
“It was a pretty emotional day for all of us, especially for my family,” said Carpenter, the Cardinals’ 13th-round pick out of TCU in 2009. “They saw all of the work you put in. They knew the sacrifices you made. When they see it pay off, it’s really special.”
Matheny informed the Cardinals’ All-Stars of their selections in a classy, unusual fashion, announcing them one by one during a team meeting last Sunday after a 3-2 victory over the Marlins at Busch Stadium.
First, Matheny mentioned Yadier Molina and right fielder Carlos Beltran, the two players elected by the fans. Then he announced Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, both of whom were players’ choices. Then he got to first baseman Allen Craig, who was selected by manager Bruce Bochy.
Matheny said that he wanted the whole team present because he considered the selections an honor for the club, and because he wanted the players to celebrate with their teammates.
THE A’S AND ENCARNACION: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
For all the talk about how the Rangers parted with first baseman Chris Davis, it’s worth recalling how another All-Star, Blue Jays infielder Edwin Encarnacion, slipped away from the Rangers’ AL West rival, the Athletics.
The A’s claimed Encarnacion from the Jays on Nov. 12, 2010; they liked his bat, and had a 40-man roster spot open. But Daric Barton had batted .273 with a .798 OPS the previous season, and the A’s thought Kevin Kouzmanoff would show improvement the following year at third.
So, the A’s non-tendered Encarnacion on Dec. 2, figuring that his tender number — an increase from his $4.75 million salary in 2010 — would be too much for them to absorb. The Jays re-signed Encarnacion for $2 million, then exercised a $3.5 million club option on him for 2012 before awarding him with a three-year, $29 million extension last July.
Encarnacion, 30, has hit 67 homers since the start of the 2012 season, the third-highest total in the majors behind Miguel Cabrera (74) and Davis (69).
CUBS’ SORIANO: AN UNFAIR STIGMA
Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano is in one of his hot streaks, with nine home runs in his last 15 games. It’s downright odd that he is not in greater demand on the trade market, particularly with the Cubs willing to pay a significant chunk of the approximately $26 million remaining on his contract through next season.
Soriano, 37, is forever stigmatized by his eight-year, $136 million free-agent deal with the Cubs, but he has averaged 28 homers and an .814 OPS during his time in Chicago. Both his teammates and manager Dale Sveum rave about his work ethic.
“Last year, when he was struggling with his knees, he was the first one in the training room, doing all the drills to get his knees stronger, prepare himself for that game,” outfielder David DeJesus said. “The dedication he has to being on top of his game, that’s why I love being a teammate of his.”
Sveum, calling Soriano “one of the top five people” he has been around in the game, talked about a hot day in Milwaukee last season when Soriano was taking flyballs in left field during optional batting practice.
“I said, ‘Sori, what are you doing out here? Give your legs a day off’” Sveum recalled. “He said, ‘No man, I’ve gotta get better out here. I’m not that good. I’ve got to get better.’ What 36-year-old man making $18 million a year would say that and be out there during optional batting practice?”
Soriano actually has shown improvement in left in recent seasons. He rejected a trade to the Giants last season as a player with 10 years of service and five straight with the same club. He is comfortable in Chicago, but said that he would approve a deal to the right city and team.
MORE CUBS STUFF
• The Cubs aren’t necessarily inclined to trade DeJesus, on whom they hold a $6.5 million club option for 2014. DeJesus, 33, sets a positive example with his on-base skills, his wife is from nearby Wheaton, Ill., and he loves Chicago.
Still, the Cubs are listening on everyone, and DeJesus could be an August trade candidate if he does not recover from his right shoulder sprain by the July 31 non-waiver deadline. The Cubs would want something decent in return, given that they control DeJesus for next season.
• Cubs All-Star left-hander Travis Wood grew up in Bryant, Ark., a neighboring town of Benton, the home of Cliff Lee.
Wood, 26, is eight years younger than Lee, and they met through their mutual agent, Darek Braunecker. They work out together during the offseason, and Dusty Baker once described Wood as a “Cliff Lee-type in the making.” Now, they’ll be NL teammates at the All-Star Game.
“I’m sure I’ll try to follow him around so I don’t do anything stupid,” Wood said.
• The difference in Cubs closer Kevin Gregg this season? The right-hander said he made significant mechanical changes over the winter, and now sets up with his feet about 2½ feet apart, as opposed to about six inches before.
Gregg said he made the change after studying video and throwing to his high school baseball coach, Eric Daisy, as he does every offseason in Corvallis, Ore. With his feet further apart, he said he gets greater lean into his back leg and pushes his center of gravity forward, enabling him to better keep the ball down.
• Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2008, when he was 18 and in A ball with the Red Sox. Today he is one of the Cubs’ building blocks, and routinely makes unannounced visits to children’s hospitals and cancer facilities.
Rizzo’s foundation — the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation — will hold its first major event in Chicago, the Cook-off for Cancer on Aug. 14. Well-known local chefs will prepare upscale versions of ballpark food, such as Kobe beef nachos, and Cubs players will serve as the waiters.
All proceeds will benefit pediatric cancer research, care and support. For more information, go to cubs.com/cook.
AROUND THE HORN
• The Rangers could use both a hitter and a starting pitcher, but they’re not in love with the players who are available and they’re also not as deep in prospects as they once were; most of their better talent is at Class-A Hickory in the Low A South Atlantic League.
Rockies right fielder Michael Cuddyer would interest the Rangers if he became available, but on the pitching front the team might choose to wait for their injured starters to get healthy and possibly load up their bullpen with another right-handed reliever.
• There is no truth to the rumbling among some scouts that the Braves might be in the market for a top-of-the-rotation starter. What the Braves want most, according to a source, is another “winning piece” for their bullpen — someone they could trust with a lead in the seventh and possibly eighth innings.
The Braves lead the NL in bullpen ERA even after the losses of lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. Virtually all of their relievers throw at least 94-95 mph; right-hander David Carpenter, previously with the Cardinals, Astros and Blue Jays, has been a particular revelation.
• And finally, in what surely is a first, two All-Stars hail from Syracuse, NY — Pirates closer Jason Grilli, 36, and Diamondbacks left-hander Patrick Corbin, 23.
Central New York is not exactly a baseball hotbed, making the achievements of Grilli and Corbin — both first-time All-Stars — that much more remarkable.
“I’m fighting back a lot of emotion,” Grilli told me in a text message late Saturday night.