The 2020 season was supposed to be the last year that St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina played before calling it a career in Major League Baseball. But then the COVID-19 crisis put everyone's plans on hold, and the career-long Cardinal decided he was going to play beyond this summer and fall, maybe even for another team.
A defensive star who has earned nine Gold Gloves for his work behind the plate, Molina is also just 37 hits away from 2000 for his career. He has also been a key to the Cardinals winning four National League pennants and two World Series titles in 16 big league seasons. When ESPN's Marly Rivera caught up with the All-Star receiver, she wanted to discuss not just his goals for the future, but his sense of his achievements -- and whether they might carry him to Cooperstown someday.
Do you think that we'll have a season this year?
Yadier Molina: I believe so. I think we're going to play. I'm optimistic that we will have a season. But health is first and foremost, and the safety of everyone, of all employees, of all the fans. But yes, I feel optimistic that we'll have a season, and I hope to God that it happens soon.
2020 is the last year of your contract with St. Louis. Are you considering playing in 2021?
Yadi: The most important thing right now is people's health and getting past this pandemic. It's a very difficult situation. After we accomplish that, after we're able to start the 2020 season, then I'd like to have that conversation. Yes, that is a goal for me.
I previously said that, if it wasn't with St. Louis, that I would go home. If we were unable to come to an extension agreement, that I would retire. But the situation with this pandemic has changed everything. Right now, I'm thinking of playing two more years. Obviously, St. Louis is my first option. But if they don't sign me, then I'm willing to go into free agency. This situation has changed my mentality, and all I want to do is play beyond 2020.
But like I said, the priority right now is handling this pandemic. After we get a handle on that, then we can take care of business. I'm confident that St. Louis and my agent Melvin Román will come to an agreement. But the most important thing right now is everyone's health and we'll talk business later on. Now there are much more important things.
Why two more years?
Yadi: The reality is that this business is difficult for a 38-year-old catcher; my window is smaller. But I feel ready to keep on playing. I'm in good physical shape. My knees are good; my mind is great. Physically, I'm fine. That's why I've made the decision to play two more years.
I had in mind that if St. Louis didn't sign me, I would retire after this season, at 38. With this situation, obviously, we probably won't have a chance to play a full season; we may not be able to play a lot of games. I think it will feel like unfinished business. Any player that says that they're not going through a difficult time and not worried about what the 2020 season will look like is lying.
Before this terrible situation happened, I thought there was a 50/50 chance that my 2020 campaign would be my last. Not now.
You've told me in the past that you had interest in perhaps being a coach or manager after retiring, as you say now, in 2022. Is that still the case? What will Yadier Molina do after 2022?
Yadi: Right now, I only think about being my son's coach. I'm focused on coaching my son. I'm not planning on doing it professionally. Right now, it's no longer a goal. I want to spend time with my children. After that, maybe things will change.
That's one of the things that many veteran baseball players have said, that the only silver lining during this pandemic is getting to spend time with the family. Has it been like that for you?
Yadi: Yes, that's true. All those years you were out there traveling, playing ball, your kids, your wife were at home, studying, doing school stuff, and you missed it all. Now, being with them, spending time with them is the most important thing. You do have to take the positive with the negative.
How significant is it for you to reach 2,000 hits?
Yadi: It's very important for me. It's an accomplishment few catchers have had, and much less Latin catchers. It will be an important moment for me, especially because at first I was labeled as a purely defensive catcher. It would make a lot of people eat their words. It would be a great personal achievement, and a big accomplishment for my family and for Puerto Rico to make it onto that short list.
How have you changed as a catcher throughout the years?
Yadi: I feel like I'm the same catcher, but I have better focus and more confidence. Defensively, I feel the same. Offensively, I'm better. I learn more every year. I learn more from my coaches and I feel that I have continued to get better offensively. I'm like fine wine, the older, the better (laughs).
How have you seen the role of the catcher evolve, in terms of what young catchers have to do today in comparison to your debut in 2004?
Yadi: I think young catchers nowadays are sort of trying to catch in a computerized manner. They are looking to catch analytically. I think that's the concept. I feel like in the past, back when I started, you just played to win. Your only focus while catching was winning the game. But let me be very clear, and don't confuse what I'm saying, I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'm pointing out the difference. Now there is a different mindset, where catchers worry more about framing or percentages in everything. I used to catch, and I still catch, to win the game. Winning the game is the only goal.
How have you adjusted to the use of analytics?
Yadi: For a long time, ever since I had Tony La Russa as my manager, analytics have been used. During Tony's time, we would work with information like "this hitter does this in these counts"; analytics have always been a part of the game in some shape or form. Now I feel it's more exaggerated, and I don't know if it's for the good or the bad of the sport. I do play with a little more help from analytics now, because we have a lot more information. But the decisions I make behind the plate while calling a game are not based on that, they are based on what needs to be done in order to win.
What aspect of your game are you most proud of?
Yadi: The mentality and focus that I have to help my team win. Winning the game is the single most important thing. If you go 0-for-4, but you catch a shutout or a one-run game, and your pitcher goes seven, eight innings, and the closer closes out the game, that's the ultimate satisfaction for a catcher. Much more than going 4-for-4 and losing.
Has the defensive catcher "label" affected your career?
Yadi: No. Whoever wants to criticize me, they are welcome to. Whoever it is. I was criticized for my offense, and rightfully so. If one is hitting .206, obviously, they're going to put that label on you. But I saw that as motivation more than anything. It was great motivation for me. I was motivated by the criticism and the words I would hear. I was motivated when Dave Winfield said during an All-Star Game that I was hitting ninth because I was "an easy out." To this day, Dave Winfield continues to apologize to me for saying that.
Obviously, in the past, I was more of a defensive catcher. Now I believe I can play both sides of the ball. I even steal bases. I hear all the time that I'm slow, but hey, I have 66 stolen bases. ... But that's beside the point. ... Now, I feel like a complete player.
How did you become aware of that Dave Winfield comment?
Yadi: That was during the 2010 All-Star Game in Anaheim. There was a dinner after the Home Run Derby and he made a comment that, "the only easy out there is Yadier Molina." Back then, he focused only on the numbers. And that became a huge motivation for me. That a great player, a Hall of Famer like Dave Winfield, thought that about me, it motivated me to make a lot of people eat their words.
Do you think about the Hall of Fame?
Yadi: Yes, I think about it. When I started my career, I had to overcome a lot of obstacles. And even though Tony [La Russa] gave me a chance, I was bombarded by negative comments. The press killed me because of my offense, my personality, whatever. All I've done is work hard to get better and better every single year to become the best catcher I can be. And my numbers are obviously there. I think that, because of the way I catch, that I'm one of the best catchers to have ever played baseball.
Nine Gold Gloves, four Platinum Gloves, two World Series rings, 169 defensive runs saved since 2004, what else do you need to accomplish?
Yadi: I need to keep winning championships with the Cardinals. The next three years, this year, and the next two years, all I care about is winning championships. I'm not thinking about anything else.
In your extensive career with St. Louis, what is one of your favorite moments or favorite game?
Yadi: I have played in so many games and have had so many incredible moments that selecting one or remembering all of them is impossible. However, the first game that came to mind, and one of the games that I recall in great detail, was that Game 5 [of the 2011 National League Division Series], Chris Carpenter vs. Roy Halladay, because it was such an intense game. If I think about it right now, I can almost remember every pitch I called. I remember every situation. Just unforgettable. But I've had many, and it's too difficult to choose.
In 100 years, how do you want people to remember you?
Yadi: As the best catcher to ever play baseball.