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For The First Time: The birth of Yadier Molina’s legend in St. Louis - by Dan Buffa

Can I tell you something wild? The first pitcher that Yadier Benjamin Molina caught as a St. Louis Cardinal was Woody Williams. 30 days short of his 22nd birthday, Molina made his Cardinal debut at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Unusually confident and carrying a fiery persona that was unlike most rookies, Molina looked and walked like something different.

In a lineup bolstered by the MV3 of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds, Molina still managed to stand out. From day one, he belonged. Sandwiched between Hector Luna and So Taguichi, Molina went 2-4 at the plate, lining a single to left-center in the fifth inning for his first hit and later collecting a double. He also threw out Jack Wilson stealing and allowed Jason Kendall to steal a bag. The Cardinals won 4-2, moving to 30-23 on the season.

The following day, June 4th at Busch Stadium, I got to see Molina for the first time. Parked behind the manual scoreboard high atop center field at the old Busch, aka Busch Stadium II, the rest of the scoreboard crew and I were skeptical to be honest. Mike Matheny had spoiled us with his abilities behind the plate, winning three Gold Gloves in his five seasons in St. Louis.

Molina was the new guy with swagger, but was he better than Matheny...or did he simply want to be like Mike? The answer arrived quickly.

Matheny ended up winning the Gold Glove in his final year in St. Louis that fateful summer, and he would win it with the San Francisco Giants the following season--but it was Molina who left the imprint. He was like Matheny, only better. Molina synced up quickly with first baseman Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright and established himself around the league as a defensive force to reckon with.

While he didn't win his first Gold Glove until 2008, watching Molina behind the scoreboard was a real treat right away. If we lived and died on Mark McGwire outslugging Sammy Sosa in 1998 and stopped sliding in numbers whenever Pujols stepped to the plate, our eyes were directed to home plate whenever the opposition had a guy on first base. Behind the plate, Molina was Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday, daring runners to go. In his first two seasons, Molina threw out 33 of 46 would-be base stealers. You could almost hear it under his breath, "I'll be your huckleberry."

For as much attention as his slow burn hitting ability garnered during his first few years with the team, only 2006 is a year Molina would like to forget. He hit .216 and finished with an OPS+ of 53. People forget he hit .267 and .252 in his first two years, slugging eight home runs in 2005. By 2008, he was hitting .300 and would hover around a .750 OPS for his career.

However, 2006 was a special year and the time where he became synonymous with Cardinal Nation.

Let me tell you the first time I fell in love with Molina as a ballplayer. The 2006 postseason. That is where he truly found his bat and become a legend in St. Louis. You know what I'm talking 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. Oct. 19 in New York at Shea Stadium. Molina would hit a baseball out that would equal the difference in the game and he would later catch the final pitch of that game, sending the Cardinals to the World Series, where they would collect their tenth World Series trophy.

Let me lay down some precedence. Earlier in the game, Rolen had hit a ball over the wall that Endy Chavez brought back into the field of play, robbing the third baseman of a momentum shifting moment. Molina would hit a baseball to the same exact spot, but far enough over Chavez's head in left field for him to have zero chance of catching it. I remember jumping off the couch of my friend's house, stuck at the corner of disbelief and awe. Pujols didn't win it.

Rolen couldn't hit it further. Edmonds didn't save it this time. The light-hitting catcher did.

By now, you know the lifetime numbers. Eight Gold Gloves, two World Series rings, and over 15,000 innings and 1,800 games logged behind the plate as the most revered catcher in the game. Now, young catchers want to be like "Yadi". He once replaced a perennial Gold Glove winner, but now Molina has set the standard. It would have been perfectly fine if Molina Pagnozzi’d his way through a Cardinal career, but instead he became something much more.

I don't need to bore you with reasons that have been covered endlessly by columnists near and far, because it's becoming more official by the day. When it's all said and done, Molina will enter the Hall of Fame. You can argue against it all day long, but in the end, you will be the one that is wrong.

This may be the ninth-best Molina post you read on here this week, because Birds on the Black has some talented writers. Go-for-broke scribes who have enlivened the St. Louis Cardinals cyber-landscape with content that few others can try to match. Wait a minute...I got a call from Master Cardinals GIFS...okay there may end up being 106 Molina posts, comments, and video submissions this week, so I'll say this article officially ranks around the middle. Yeah, let's call it the 53rd best post of Yadi Week. What can I say? The words come easy with #4.

Here's the thing. It's no longer a hot take to say Molina is a Hall of Famer. It's essentially a matter of time. Only 18 catchers have entered the Hall in Cooperstown, but Molina will be the 19th. Book it. The Yadi effect extends outside the sabermetrical playground of WAR, OPS, and home runs. Molina not only defies age these days-we were born five months apart in 1982-but he also proves the doubters wrong every month. All the while, doing something remarkable just about every day.

Proof: Molina has an outside chance of matching his career high of 22 home runs, set in 2012. He would do that in 13 less games if he manages to accomplish the feat. He doesn't have the popup speed that he used to, but few baserunners test him these days. Molina should be laid up in a bed somewhere, because Jordan Hicks bounced a 100 mph+ fastball off the catcher's testicles in May. Molina returned faster than anyone who was ever struck by a 100 mph+ fastball. Yes, I checked. Basically, he's a God. Not "The God", but definitely a God.

One more story before I let you read Kyle Reis' new and much better post. In 2011, my wife was pregnant, and we attended a game on April 24th against Cincinnati. Molina hit a three-run home run, which was all the offense the Birds would need that night. When he hit the pitch out into left-center, the baby kicked inside Rachel's stomach harder than ever. I would never hear the baby kick harder the rest of the pregnancy.

Tonight, Vinny and I had sat down and watched the Brewers and Cardinals game. When Molina came up to the plate, I talked to him about that night seven years ago. It was brief, but he was listening. That's the magic of baseball.

One day, I will talk to him about that day 14 years ago against the Astros at home. I'm quite jealous of my son. He still gets to meet, watch, and appreciate Molina for the first time. Think about all the fathers and mothers who get to show their kids what Molina can do. That's the impact of baseball and its legendary players. They help connect time and form bonds between families.

A bond that endures. That's Yadier Molina.


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