Adam Wainwright cherishing return to the Bronx

Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals' 12-year vet, has pitched nearly everywhere, but will finally get a chance to shine at Yankee Stadium. David J. Phillip/AP Photo

NEW YORK -- When Adam Wainwright faces the New York Yankees in the Bronx on Sunday night, he will check another item off his baseball bucket list.

The 12-year veteran will have pitched in every active major league stadium -- and a handful of defunct ones -- with the exception of those in Baltimore, Seattle, Texas and the brand-new SunTrust Park in Atlanta.

“Even though it’s not the old Yankee Stadium, it’s still the Yankees and it’s still New York City and it’s still the Bronx,” Wainwright said. “It’s just neat. I’m a baseball fan.”

Yet his enthusiasm for sightseeing Monument Park and the rest of Yankee Stadium’s charms only scratches the surface of what Sunday signifies for Wainwright. The last time he was in the Bronx before this once-in-a-generation interleague visit by the St. Louis Cardinals was on the night of Sept. 10, 2001.

Wainwright had just turned 20, and he was coming off his first season in professional baseball. He and his brother, Trey, traveled to New York to meet with the pitcher’s financial advisers and decided to swing by Yankee Stadium to witness Roger Clemens going for his 20th win of the season. Derek Jeter, who used the same financial agency, left them tickets.

Both Wainwright and his brother got food poisoning at the game, which eventually was rained out, and they scrapped their plans to visit the advisers at Lehman Brothers the next morning. Instead, they decided to get an early jump on the drive to Cooperstown to tour the Hall of Fame.

The offices of Lehman Brothers were in the World Trade Center, known today as Ground Zero. It was a twist of fate that might have saved their lives, a fact not lost on Wainwright, a religious man.

“It might have just been a ‘God thing,’” Wainwright said. “We just decided to go on.”

At the stadium that night, Wainwright remembers envisioning himself returning to Yankee Stadium in the World Series with the Atlanta Braves, his boyhood team and his employer at the time. He didn’t just envision it, in fact, he was all but sure it would happen.

“I had so much moxie back then. I look back at a couple interviews I had during that time with the hometown newspaper and the swagger coming out of me was just repulsive,” Wainwright said. “I wanted to be great. In my mind, I was the next John Smoltz or Greg Maddux. I was going to prove it to the world.”

One would presume that age has humbled Wainwright, 35, because the game eventually does that to most players. Wainwright is coming off easily the worst season of his long and celebrated career, and thus far he is 0-2 with a 7.00 ERA in 2017. Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, a man with his own checkered history with the Yankees, tweeted recently, “Adam Wainwright is going to reinvent himself and get people out. I wouldn't worry about him in the beginning of the season.”

A friend of Wainwright’s pointed Martinez’s tweet out to him.

“He’s a smart man,” Wainwright joked. “I appreciated that because Pedro had to do it. He had to reinvent himself.”

Wainwright paused and pondered the reinvention part a bit.

“I don’t know how much reinventing I have to do,” he said. “We’ll see. I’ll let the hitters tell me that. I’m all about being stubborn when I need to be stubborn and not stubborn when I don’t need to be stubborn, so if the hitters tell me I need to make an adjustment, I’ll make it. One thing I will not ever stand for is being mediocre. Won’t do it. Can’t do it. Won’t allow myself to do it.”

Had the Yankees faced Wainwright seven years ago, they would have faced a pitcher with a borderline intimidating fastball and one of the game’s best breaking balls. The years have dimmed Wainwright’s fastball velocity from the mid-90s to the low 90s, and he has already made adjustments, relying more on two different movements of his fastball: sink and cut. Lately, he has taken to varying the side of the rubber he pitches from, especially against good left-handed hitters.

Through the hardest baseball year of his life, Wainwright has remained one of the best-liked players in the Cardinals’ clubhouse. He garnered spring training headlines -- though he didn’t ask for them -- by renting a car for minor leaguer Ryan Sherriff. Most players on the Cardinals have a story -- or several -- about how Wainwright has helped further their careers.

Reliever Matt Bowman’s head was spinning two spring trainings ago. He had been claimed by the Cardinals from the New York Mets in the Rule 5 draft, and he would be sent back unless he stayed on St. Louis’ 25-man roster all season. He wasn’t sure he belonged there.

“I barely felt like I belonged in Triple-A last time I was there. And I was like, ‘How on earth am I going to get to the big leagues?’” Bowman said.

Wainwright sat Bowman down and told him the story of his own arrival in the Cardinals’ clubhouse in 2005, when he had similar doubts about whether he belonged in that company. Bowman not only stuck with the Cardinals all year, but he has emerged as one of manager Mike Matheny’s most reliable bullpen arms.

Veteran Jonathan Broxton has emerged as one of Wainwright’s closest friends on the pitching staff. He, too, has benefited from the association, he said.

“When times are tough or times are good, he’s always willing to help,” Broxton said. “That’s hard to find.”

Because of Wainwright’s popularity and confidence, his teammates frequently predict he will turn his results around and get on a roll, perhaps even return to his place as one of the league’s best starting pitchers. If the turn begins at Yankee Stadium, it will be another memory to cherish, this one with an infinitely happier ending.