Benjamin Hochman: Yadi gives St. Louis something to talk about

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As the old ballplayer walks toward home plate, the Cardinals’ catcher calmly calls time to delay the game. That’s what they do in St. Louis, to give the crowd time to rise and applaud a former Cardinal returning to town. It’s the top of the third inning. The cheering is earsplitting.

“This is louder than Freese,” one fan says.

“This is louder than Pujols,” a second says.

Someone in the press box wonders, half-jokingly, if the intensity and shaking from inside the stadium would register on a Richter Scale.

“Probably a 4,” another scribe says.

Finally, a few minutes later, public address announcer John Ulett senses an opening:

“Leading off for the Mets,” he says, “catcher Yadier Molina.”

So, you think playing a baseball game in front of empty seats in 2020 will look weird? How about Yadi showing up to filled seats at Busch Stadium in 2021 wearing the uniform of another team?

But for the first time, the legendary Cardinal publicly floated the idea Wednesday in an interview with ESPN’s Marly Rivera. Molina, 37, whose contract is up after the 2020 season, previously said he’d either sign with the Cards for 2021 or retire. Yet on Wednesday he said if he can’t get a deal done with the Cardinals, he’d be willing to go to free agency.

No one, on either side of the table, can want this. And we acknowledge that negotiating is a process, a journey. Things are said. Leverage is sought. But it would be an embarrassing situation if the Cardinals couldn’t come to agreement with Molina.

But a Yadi 2021 return would be two-fold. It’s not just bringing him back into the fold, it’s doing so in a way that’s best for the team.

Of all the tidbits that came out of spring training before the pandemic, this one was particularly fascinating: “Molina would like to play another two years, and he recognizes a new contract could come with a time share at catcher, the position he’s owned since 2005,” reported Derrick Goold from this newspaper.

“If they want me back, that’s all the reason I need to work hard to be the best I can,” Molina said from Florida.

But it’s unlike Yadi to acknowledge any sort of time share. Bill DeWitt Jr. is chairman of the Cardinals, but it is Yadi who owns that spot behind the plate. He’s been the Cardinals’ starting catcher since, in essence, his start in Game 4 of the 2004 World Series. That was during President George W. Bush’s first term. So yeah, he’s been here a bit. And Molina has famously and steadfastly said he wants to catch every game possible. Rest is for November.

It’s a rare mindset for a modern athlete. But Molina is a rare modern athlete, a man who thrives not just off talent but is fueled by an old-school intensity. He’s an iron horse with an iron will.

And in the 2020 season, the plan was for him to play a bunch of baseball. But if he’s willing to be more adaptable in 2021, sharing the load in the season he turns 39, then it could be a very classy way for him to end his career.

And heck, maybe he’ll extend his career. Maybe it’ll go positively like it did with Adam Wainwright in 2019, who came back on an incentive-laden, one-year deal and played rather well. “Waino” is back on another one-year deal for 2020. Maybe Yadi could celebrate his 40th birthday, on July 13, 2022, wearing the birds on the bat.

The question that looms about Molina is: Can a star player who has been a “162” guy his whole career suddenly find comfort in many days off and sharing the load (and at-bats)? He’s made his mark as a teammate whom the Cardinals’ players love and respect. This would be a huge “teammate” moment if he was willing to share time to maximize everyone’s abilities. The likely catcher at the time would be Andrew Knizner (and while prospect Ivan Hererra might not be big-league ready in 2021, he sure projects to be a quality ballplayer at some point).

One might say this 2021 talk makes for questions for another day, but the plan for Molina’s playing time in 2021 could affect the contract he’s offered at some point in 2020.

By even uttering the words “free agency” in the media on Wednesday, Yadi put pressure on the Cardinals — not unlike the pressure felt by a visiting base stealer at Busch.

But let’s talk this out. The Cards don’t want to see their iconic catcher in another uniform (except for that Hall of Fame jersey they give the inductees at their news conference). But what’s in it for Yadi to play out 2021 on some other team? How much fun is that? The whole point of coming back in 2021, as he expressed Wednesday, was out of this missed passion to play the game. But for, say, the Mets or Angels or some random team?

And, assuming he won’t go to a losing team, what playoff contender would sign Yadi to play, if you will, 162 games? There could be one, of course. But it’s hard to gauge. So, in other words, if he’s going to agree to sign a 2021 contract to split catching duties somewhere, it might as well be in St. Louis.

So, yeah, it’s really hard to believe the Cards and Yadi won’t get this done. It’ll take concessions from both sides. But it’s sad to even think of him possibly choosing to play elsewhere, like the Chargers’ Johnny Unitas or the Raptors’ Hakeem Olajuwon.

Here’s thinking that in the end, Yadi would freeze on going to the Mets like “Waino” froze Carlos Beltran with that curveball.


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