Adam Wainwright rocked back into his windup, lifted his hands together over his head and rotated his body to deliver his 122nd pitch of the afternoon.
The Cardinals were leading Cleveland, 7-2, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, and Wainwright, on his 39th birthday, had turned back the clock. Ahead in the count 0–2, he uncorked his signature pitch, a 12–6 curveball, securing the final out on a fly ball that cemented Wainwright’s first complete game in four years. It was Aug. 30, and the Cardinals were playing their 20th game in 15 days following the COVID-19 outbreak that had shut them down for 16 days.
In a year when nothing has gone as planned, Wainwright and the Cardinals took comfort in the familiarity of their former ace, a two-time Cy Young runner-up, closing out a game with ole Uncle Charlie. All things considered, this most unusual season has gone fairly well for Wainwright. He has anchored the Cardinals' pitching staff, posting a 5–3 record over 10 starts with a 3.15 ERA and helped lead them to the playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the National League.
Despite all that he’s done on the mound this season, Wainwright’s late-career revival won’t be the most impactful contribution he makes in 2020. The Cardinals nominated him for MLB’s annual Roberto Clemente Award, which goes to the player who demonstrates “extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”
This spring, as baseball was shut down and schools were closed during the coronavirus pandemic, Wainwright and his charity, Big League Impact, partnered with Major League Baseball and country musician Garth Brooks’s Teammates for Kids Foundation for the Home Plate Project. With 50 players representing all 30 MLB teams, they raised $1 million to provide four million meals to kids whose families rely on the free and/or reduced-priced lunches to feed them.
“This pandemic has made everything more difficult on everybody,” Wainwright says Saturday in a phone interview. “We’ve had some incredible outreach going on throughout this season, and we’re just going to continue to do that with whatever circumstances we get put into.”
The Home Plate Project came to fruition in response to the pandemic, but Wainwright and Big League Impact have worked to provide food, shelter and clean water to those in need since he and his brother Trey founded the organization in 2013.
One of Big League Impact’s first initiatives was Fantasy Football for Charity, which has become an annual event. Fans sign up to play in a fantasy football league against Wainwright and another Cardinals player, with the funds from the registration fees going to charity. Each year, league members have a live draft at Busch Stadium with Wainwright and the other Cardinal playing. Afterward they go on a tour of the stadium and clubhouse, play catch on the field and get suite tickets to that night’s game.
This year, because of the pandemic, Fantasy Football for Charity had to adjust. Instead of a live draft, the league turned to the daily-fantasy format. Each week, participants pick their teams with a salary cap and play head-to-head matchups with others in the league.
“That’s something that’s at the heart of what our mission is: getting that interaction between fans and players,” Wainwright says. Because they cannot host league members at Busch Stadium, the players hosted a Zoom call for everyone to socialize virtually.
One of Big League Impact’s other major initiatives is providing clean water to developing countries. In a partnership with Water Mission, a Christian engineering nonprofit, Wainwright has traveled to Haiti a handful of times scouting for locations to build water treatment facilities. Big League Impact funds the project, and Water Mission builds the plants.
“It is one of the things we take the most for granted in this country,” Wainwright says. “The ability to go into your bathroom, and no matter what shape or form your toilet is in, to scoop a cup of water out of it and drink; it would be cleaner than 80% of the water for those in third-world countries. That’s eye-opening, right?”
A few years ago, Wainwright was in Balan, Haiti, with a few people from Water Mission, among them was Scott Linebrink, a former big-league pitcher, and they were looking around for the best place to build a water treatment facility. They pulled off to the side of the main road and told Wainwright they wanted to build it there. When he asked them why, they told him to sit there and watch for a little while. What he saw changed his life.
There was a large puddle that stretched across the main road about 50 yards in front of them, and everybody he saw passing by had to go through the puddle. He saw a lady approach the puddle with a bucket. She scooped the water into the bucket and put it on her head to carry it home.
Wainwright turned to the others and asked, “What is that lady going to use that water for?”
“Everything,” one of them said. “Cleaning, cooking, washing, drinking—everything. This is the water they get.”
“The color of that water, as you would expect, was mud,” Wainwright remembers. “It was chocolate milk. And that’s what they were drinking. That’s what they were cooking with. And that’s what they were cleaning with. That’s what they were washing with. That’s what they had. You’ve got to make do with what you have, right?”
Wainwright knows how to tell a good story, and this is one he’s told many times before. The resolution, following his climactic realization, is the part he takes the greatest pleasure in recalling.
“So, if you go to that same puddle now, it’s still there,” he says. “But 50 feet from it is a clean water treatment facility that also employs a few people from the community, so it offers jobs. You’re talking about for close to 2,000 people the opportunity to have water that, instead of having floaties in it, that looks like chocolate milk, now it’s crystal clean.”
Big League Impact isn’t traveling to Haiti, or anywhere else right now, because of the pandemic, but Wainwright says those initiatives aren’t going to stop. He’s still raising money and looking for locations that need clean water, food and shelter.
“We’re not going to stop doing that,” he says. “We’re going to be prepared for when things do get normal to go out and do great things. In the meantime, we’re going to do the best we can.”
The same can be said for Wainwright on the field. The right-hander is still going strong. That’s impressive for any pitcher in his late-30s, but especially for Wainwright, who admits he once thought the end was near.
“Three years ago, I thought I was retiring,” he says. “My arm was just in an awful spot. I was gutting out every pitch in my bullpen sessions.” His worst nightmare was that his arm would fly off—“that the catcher’s not only going to catch the ball but also your arm.”
Wainwright’s decline began not with an achy arm but a freak injury against the Brewers on April 25, 2015. After popping up a 1–2 pitch at the plate, he felt a sharp pain in the back of his left ankle as he ran to first base. He left the game and learned two days later he had torn his Achilles tendon. Initially expected to miss nine to 12 months, with spring training 2016 as the optimistic point of return, Wainwright made it back for the Cardinals’ 2015 playoff push, pitching out of the bullpen three times late in the regular season and three more times in the National League Division Series against the Cubs.
The Cubs eliminated the Cardinals that October, but all was looking well for Wainwright. He was excellent in his four starts before the Achilles injury (1.44 ERA), and had returned from a major surgery healthy and well ahead of schedule. It was not to last.
Wainwright went 13–9 over 198 2/3 innings in 2016, a decent down year for a onetime ace, but his ERA jumped to 4.62. The next year, his record again was respectable (12–5), though his ERA ballooned to 5.11. He went on the disabled list twice in 2017 with back and elbow injuries.
“You get to a point where it becomes not fun anymore,” Wainwright says. “Nobody wants to do something that hurts like you-know-what every single time you do it. You want to do something else when that becomes the case.”
Still, he felt an obligation to the Cardinals, who had signed him to a five-year, $97.5 million extension in March 2013. He was not living up to that contract, he says.
The 2018 season—the last year of his deal—wasn’t any better for Wainwright, who turned 37 that August. He spent more of the year on the disabled list than off it, first due to a left hamstring strain and then twice more with right elbow inflammation. He signed a one-year, $2 million extension to pitch for St. Louis in 2019, with financial incentives for pitching well and, more importantly, staying healthy.
"Adam has proven, when healthy, that he still has the ability and the drive to contribute at the highest level," Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told reporters at the time. “There is risk, but it is shared, and this deal gives us added depth as we look to 2019."
Wainwright gave them more than depth. He regained his health and his form, and over the final 20 starts, he went 10–5 with a 3.81 ERA, including a 10-start run from late July to mid-September when he went 6–2 with a 2.43 ERA. Jack Flaherty deservedly received most of the praise for pitching the Cardinals to the playoffs with his unbelievable second-half performance, but it was Wainwright, too, who helped lead them there.
Wainwright was masterful that October, with a vintage performance in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Braves. Although the Cardinals lost that game by blowing the lead with two outs in the ninth, Wainwright delivered in what could have been his last start in St. Louis. His final line: 7 2/3 innings, no runs, four hits, two walks, eight strikeouts, 120 pitches.
The day before that game, longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Rick Hummel asked Wainwright a humorously existential question: “Do you think this is the first time in your career where you’ve almost been old enough to be the father of the pitching opponent you have tomorrow?” Atlanta’s starter the next day was 22-year-old Mike Soroka.
“I always tell these guys old players means good players. You don’t get to be an old player if you’re not a good player,” Wainwright responded then with a chuckle. “Yeah, I guess I could be [Soroka’s father]… I hadn’t thought about it before now.”
One year later, the Cardinals have made it through their grueling schedule to finish second in the division and earn the No. 5 seed in the National League. They now head to San Diego to play the youthful Padres, whose superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. is young enough to be Wainwright’s son. (Wainwright faced Tatis Sr. once, in an April 2010 game against the Mets, and struck him out swinging.)
Wainwright once again has led the Cardinals to the postseason, in a season far more challenging and all the more rewarding—both on the mound and with his charities—than any in his career.
“I read something the other day where somebody said, The Cardinals don’t deserve to get in [the postseason] because they have an easy schedule,” Wainwright says. “And I wanted to throw up all over my phone when I read that.
“Like everybody else in the world right now, you’ve got to make some adjustments. You’ve got to do some things that you normally wouldn’t do. At the end of the day, we’re still big-league baseball players playing with a great organization with a chance to win a World Series. You’ve got to be thankful for that.”