It’s quietly become my favorite tradition at Busch Stadium. Yadier Molina will stand up and walk in front of home plate. Sometimes he’ll bend down and pick at the grass under the pretense that he’s searching for something there. He’s like a golfer picking at the stray leaf nowhere near his line of sight or his lie except there is no leaf. He’ll seem completely oblivious to everything but the imaginary reflective or sharp object that suddenly became the target of his search. At other times he will paw at the dirt with a look on his face that tells you he knows something you do not.
Then you’ll hear a smattering of applause that begins from behind the visitor’s dugout and gradually builds momentum into a swelling ovation. The opposing hitter approaches the plate, and the moment of clarity arrives. A former Cardinal has returned to Busch, and he’s the prodigal son returned home. He gets to feel the love from the Cardinal faithful.
Mind you, this isn’t exactly future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander making an appearance in Detroit. Sure, you expect a big welcome for a World Series hero, and David Freese probably doesn’t have to worry about paying for Imo’s the rest of his life. That doesn’t explain the treatment given to Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso, or Skip Schumaker.
Fans have a special place in their hearts for the homegrown guys or at least the ones who grew up in the system. They have often taken special interest in the utility player, the 4th outfielder, or the replacement level player starting out-of-position. For whatever reason, they’ve got love for the pinch runner and the backup catcher.
I get that. It’s endearing no matter the team or the stadium, and the moment requires few words. Rising in a collective undulating motion to extend an audible embrace to someone you don’t really know except through a television screen reflects one of humanity’s redeemable qualities. That such things trigger a weird allergy issue inevitably resulting in a physiological reaction causing my eyes to water is mildly disquieting but endurable.
The first time I experienced an episode like this was back in 2015. The Twins were in town for interleague play that June, and Trevor May’s spot came up first in the top of the 6th inning. That’s when Molina started kicking at the dirt in front of home plate like a bored kid waiting at the playground for his friends to arrive.
Former Cardinal outfielder Shane Robinson was pinch hitting, and the timing of his appearance meant that fans didn’t get much time to take notice of him on-deck. But Yadi noticed, and it was no coincidence that he found himself somewhere other than behind the plate.
The ovation was for a former 5th round pick in the 2006 draft who debuted back on May 7th of 2009. We’re talking about a player who appeared in 268 games over 5 years and totaled 452 plate appearances. That’s roughly 2/3 of a full season of plate appearances spread over half a decade. His .221/.288/.292 slash line made Brendan Ryan’s offense look good, and here he was the center of a temporary stoppage in play.
Molina had skillfully orchestrated a moment. He’s the enabler, and the thousands of fan at Busch are willing accomplices. He’s giving someone their time in the spotlight, and he’s doing this when he’s got a million other things to think about. Sometimes it truly is about the little things, and nobody does those little things better than Molina.