From childhood on, I’ve always been a guy that roots for athletes to stave off the onset of time. I’ve come to realize that the sports adage that Father Time is undefeated is true, but I still don’t want my idols to lose to him. Sadly, another of my favorites is about to lose that race.
Adam Wainwright, who has been a great Cardinal and a better person as a pro athlete, turns 36 on August 30 and just isn’t going to be great again. Time and injuries have caught up to him, and it’s almost impossible to return to form when you’ve reached the point of a career that he has.
I remember going to watch Bob Gibson pitch in his second to last year, 1974. Gibby never had those awful starts that Wainwright has endured in two of his last three, but Gibby also clearly wasn’t the same guy I knew of just two years before. I was eleven, about to turn twelve, and we were going to see Gibson pitch against the Dodgers. I remember his outing being bad, but through the magic of Baseball-Reference.com, I know he went 4 2/3 innings and allowed six runs, and fell to 6-10. At 38, Gibson rallied to finish 11-13 that year, but he had won nineteen games with a 2.46 ERA in 1972. I didn’t realize at the time that older players declined, and that Gibson would never deliver consistent greatness again. I didn’t want to believe it.
Later on, one of my favorite football Cardinals was wide receiver Mel Gray, who could outrun EVERYONE in his prime. He was dynamic during the Don Coryell era, leading the NFL in touchdowns in 1975 and always near twenty yards per catch. I figured he’d be great for a long time. But in 1978, at the age of 30, he caught just 44 passes with one touchdown. In 1979, it was 25 balls and one touchdown. Roy Green arrived, and even though I wanted the Big Red to keep giving my guy a chance, much to my chagrin (and ignorance), age was taking its toll. It ’78, ’79, ’80, ’81 and his last year of 1982, Gray’s yards per catch went down as his age increased. Even the fastest guy, a track athlete at Mizzou, couldn’t outrun Father Time.
I knew, but I didn’t want to believe.
I remember the September 29th, 1980 Sports Illustrated cover and story as Muhammad Ali prepared to turn back the clock against Larry Holmes. I was convinced that Ali had worked himself into such condition at age 38 that he’d dramatically win again, as he had throughout my childhood. But time, more than Holmes, beat Ali in that fight. It was sad.
It happened after that. I became a Washington Redskins fan when the Cardinals left St. Louis. I figured The Hogs, their legendary offensive line, would carry them to a couple of more championships after they won Super Bowl XXVI over Buffalo with one of the most dominant seasons ever. But their quarterback, receivers and running backs were all 29 years old or older. I expected them to defy age, but they couldn’t.
It happened here with the Cardinals. We saw it with Jim Edmonds. We saw it with the Greatest Show on Turf-Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk, Andy McCollum, Tom Nutten and Orlando Pace just got old. There was nothing they or anybody else could do about it.
Now here we are with Wainwright, who suffered a season-ending torn achilles injury leaving the batter’s box early in the 2015 season. Last year, at the age of 34, Waino gave the Cardinals almost 200 innings, but allowed a league high 220 hits and 102 earned runs. I hoped that last year was a blip, that he was just a guy coming off a season ending injury. But sadly, that’s not the case.
Like Gibson, Gray, Ali, the Redskins, Edmonds and all of those GSOT members, Wainwright is incredibly proud. He still sees himself as a viable, great Major League pitcher. Wainwright can still serve a team. He’s a peerless leader and a superb competitor. As we saw in May, when he went 3-0 with a 2.64 ERA, he can have flashes of brilliance. We saw those flashes last season, too, when he finished with a 4.62 ERA.
In games not played in May this season, Wainwright is 4-5 with an ERA of 8.06, and 63 hits and fifteen walks allowed in 41 1/3 innings. He can have those flashes, but we’re going to see as much bad as good, I’m afraid.
The thing is, I want to believe Waino will be OK when he tells the media he figured out what his problems are after his worst major league start in Baltimore on Saturday. I want to look at the last season and a third as an aberration. I want Wainwright to beat father time, just like all those others I listed.
But, he can’t. Father Time is still undefeated.