ST. LOUIS—In no other sport than baseball can an end be so finite as a last at-bat. There’s one man against another. There’s a pitch, and maybe there’s a swing, or a look, or—in the case of Matt Holliday on Friday night as the rain rolled into St. Louis—there’s a perfect, magic parabola of a hit, plop into the right-field bullpen.
Holliday’s career isn’t over, but Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said Friday that the odds of the team picking up the left fielder’s $17 million option for 2017 are “probably low.” Holliday also released a statement before the 7–0 win over the Pirates thanking the team for his 7.5 years in St. Louis and saying he understands “that it might be time to move on.” That looming end was the reason the team activated him from the 15-day disabled list Friday; Holliday hadn’t played since breaking his right thumb on Aug. 11 and undergoing surgery. What had started as Matt Holliday hopes to be back for the playoffs had become Matt Holliday wants to say goodbye.
There was no guarantee he’d play Friday. The Cardinals wanted to give him a last at-bat in a pressure-free situation; after all, they’re in the midst of trying to not let the Giants out-terrible them in a stumble for the NL Wild Card. And so when he stepped into the batter’s box in the seventh inning, some teammates were caught off-guard. They didn’t think it would happen just yet, but with St. Louis up 5–0, Holliday got his shot. Strike, strike, and then he sent one flying over the fence in right field.
When the A’s traded Holliday to St. Louis on July 24, 2009, the Cardinals were coming off two straight seasons missing the playoffs. He batted .353 with a 1.023 OPS in 63 games in St. Louis that year, and I swore to everyone who’d listen that if the Cardinals didn’t sign him that off-season, they were idiots. When he dropped a soft liner in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS, turning a 2–1 lead into a 3–2 loss, I cried in my parents’ car on a dark street in New Orleans, refusing to get out for almost a half an hour while I composed myself.
I forgave him the next year, when he put up almost as impressive a season at the plate as St. Louis Lesser (No Offense To Stan Musial) Baseball God Albert Pujols, hitting .312 with 186 hits, 28 home runs and 103 RBI. Next came 2011, and I don’t care that he did exactly nothing in Game 6. I would buy the Game 6 batboy a car.
Those were my Cardinals, the team that won a World Series that cured me of homesickness my freshman year of college in 2006 and another that left me standing on a bar in Dallas offering tequila shots to any dejected Rangers fan who might need one in 2011. The teams of the late 2000s and early 2010s were the teams that came before I became a journalist, when I could still care in a way I can’t quite bring myself to care anymore. I loved them, and I loved the men who were their heartbeat: Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Pujols and Holliday. Pujols is gone. Holliday is about to be. Molina and Wainwright will be in St. Louis for a few more years—still good, still beloved, but not who they once were.
When the ball landed over the fence Friday night, Wainwright bounced, giddy in the dugout. He turned to manager Mike Matheny and suggested that maybe this shouldn’t be his friend’s last at-bat. And then he and Molina met Holliday at the plate and embraced, the old guard celebrating and mourning all at once. “Yeah, there’s something magical about it,” Wainwright said after the game. “You can’t make that stuff up.”
I hope that was it this season for Holliday, the man with biceps as wide as some men’s thighs, the shiniest head in baseball and a swollen thumb—who got one last moment in a disappointing season to play the Popeye-esque superhero. In the clubhouse after the game, he was nowhere to be found, long gone after a 49-minute rain delay. And, well, that was okay. He’ll talk about the home run this weekend when the emotion’s dulled and his thoughts are organized. He won’t burst into tears, and it will be scripted and grateful and won’t matter. What happened at 9:26 p.m. Friday spoke for itself. It was a home run at the perfect time on the least likely count by the man who most needed it that night.