Monday, July 22, 2013

Yadi and Yoda

Posted By on Mon, Jul 22, 2013 at 9:26 AM

click to enlarge yadi-plate.jpg

St. Louis Cardinal fans — and Memphis Redbird fans with long memories — have developed a collective affection for All-Star catcher Yadier Molina that approaches worship. (Molina hit .302 in 37 games for the 2004 Redbirds, a season he finished by playing in the World Series for St. Louis.) The time has certainly arrived to make a connection between one epic character (Yadi) and another . . . Yoda (of Star Wars fame). I think you’ll find the shared influences rather, well, forceful.

Each quote is from the great green Jedi master himself.

“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

Molina’s greatness exceeds the numbers, however impressive, he’s accumulated over his decade with the Cardinals. He’s won five Gold Gloves as the best defensive catcher since Ivan Rodriguez (at least). Molina’s ability to throw out would-be base-stealers — he’s gunned down 45 percent over his career — changes the approach of an opposing team and forces clubs to beat St. Louis essentially station to station. And his ability to block pitches in the dirt allows Cardinal pitchers the healthy freedom of expanding their target when ahead in the count.

But find any pitcher who has thrown to Molina over the last ten years, from Matt Morris to Shelby Miller, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Molina thinks like a pitcher. Pitch sequence is everything in the major leagues. Pitchers that toe the rubber without considering what the batter is expecting strain their necks turning to watch balls clear the outfield wall. Molina prevents this. His knowledge becomes his pitcher’s knowledge.

“Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future . . . the past. Old friends long gone.”

Molina is 31 years old, but has already been to the postseason six times, played in three World Series, and twice been at the bottom of a championship dog pile at Busch Stadium. His first full season behind the plate for the Cardinals was 2005 at the “old” Busch Stadium. That team (and the championship club of a year later) was centered around Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen. The 2011 champions still had Pujols and ace Chris Carpenter, but it was a team led in the clubhouse by Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, and Rafael Furcal.

And today? Pujols is long gone. Players younger than Molina — Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, David Freese — are selling shirts throughout Cardinal Nation. But not as many as Yadier Molina. He’s become as constant as the two birds on the Cardinal jersey.

When you look at the dark side, careful you must be. For the dark side looks back.

Molina first caught the attention of baseball fans as a 22-year-old rookie in Game 4 of the 2004 World Series. Midway through a game St. Louis would lose to Boston to end their season, Molina got in the grill of 32-year-old Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez as the soon-to-be-named Series MVP stepped to the plate. Why the confrontation? Molina had caught Ramirez trying to steal signs earlier in the game (when Ramirez was standing on second base).

There are times leadership requires confrontation. Molina will be booed in Cincinnati the rest of his career for his role in a 2010 brawl between the Cardinals and Reds. After Red second-baseman Brandon Phillips delivered a harsh description of the Cardinal players (rhymes with “witches”), Molina took exception to a pregame love pat to his shin guards from Phillips. Now and then the dark side stares at Molina. And he stares right back.

Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice.

There is a tangible link between Molina and current Cardinal manager Mike Matheny. For five years (before Molina arrived), Matheny was the backbone of the Cardinals, earning three Gold Gloves (and four postseason berths) behind the plate. But Matheny recognized his successor in 2004 and helped groom the young Yadi, who played in 51 games for St. Louis after being promoted from Memphis. When Matheny returned to St. Louis as manager in 2012, there were two familiar faces from his playing days as a Cardinal: Chris Carpenter’s and Molina’s. A master had returned to help the new master he once trained. Yoda might call this Jedi symbiosis. As he put it, for those who swing bats as well as light sabers: “Always pass on what you have learned.”

(Ed. note: The Cardinals will host Star Wars Night at Busch Stadium on August 7th.)

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