Following a resurgent season, 40-year-old Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright is back for at least one more year. He has the full support of his wife, Jenny, who is the “star behind the star” running the show with five kids at home and helping her husband lead thousands through the Bible.
As we sit and talk in a quiet space away from the bustle of this South Florida beachfront hotel, amid the ongoing Pro Athletes Outreach conference for professional baseball players, Adam Wainwright acknowledges his career is nearing its end. Few players see the longevity he’s experienced, and fewer still do it with one team. He’s coming to grips with what a future outside of baseball might look like.
That conversation was three years ago.
In the fall of 2018, Wainwright and I discussed the upcoming season, which he conceded was “probably” his last. The St. Louis Cardinals pitcher was coming off a year in which he made just eight starts, missing nearly four months with right elbow inflammation. During the rehab, the 37-year-old pondered retirement, and also the possibility of joining a new organization, considering it was no guarantee the Cardinals would bring him back. He felt he had more to give on the mound, if only his body would just cooperate.
“Two seasons in a row [my elbow] was really painful, every throw,” Wainwright said this past November, at the same hotel for the same conference. “Eating — I had times where I dropped a fork out of my hand because, like, just the bones would bang together and I’m like, ‘Oh gosh.’ It’s not fun. It becomes not fun when you have to play like that.”
But he ended 2018 “kind of healthy.” And in the midst of rehab, he felt something different. Wainwright stopped throwing altogether for a few weeks, but then teammate Dominic Leone, who was also rehabbing, needed a throwing partner.
“It was literally like trying to throw a grenade for a while,” Wainwright recalled. “Then something happened where I just found a way to take the ball back, mechanically, a little bit different, a little bit longer than I used to. For whatever reason, it took a little bit of the pain off of my elbow and I was able to start getting it out a little farther.
“The further [Leone] went back, I was expecting to two-hop it, but I started getting the ball to carry all the way to him. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, well, does this relate when I get onto the mound?’ Going into 2019, I really thought, ‘OK I might be able to piece something together for this season.’”
Wainwright started 31 games in 2019, going 14-10 with a 4.19 ERA, 171.2 innings pitched and 153 strikeouts. He won the second-most games on a pitching staff that helped the 91-71 Cardinals win the National League Central, and reach the NL Championship Series before falling to the eventual World Series-champion Washington Nationals.
That led to one more year, the mess that was 2020. But in the pandemic-shortened season, Wainwright recorded more starts (10) and wins (five) than any other Cardinals pitcher, as the team again advanced to the postseason (second in the NL Central, but lost the NL Wild-Card Series).
That led to one more year, arguably the finest of his career, all things considered. In 2021, he won 17 games (second in all of Major League Baseball), posted a .708 winning percentage (second-best of his 16-year MLB career), threw 206.1 innings (third in MLB; his first time over 200 since 2014), recorded a 3.05 ERA (his best since 2013), and was again his team’s ace. And he turned 40 in August.
So it was no surprise that Wainwright was given the ball for the Cardinals’ wild-card game against Los Angeles. Though the Dodgers won (3-1, with two runs in the bottom of the ninth), Wainwright pitched 5.1 strong innings with five strikeouts and only one earned run.
All that, you would think, leads to one more year. And it does. In September, he announced he would be returning for 2022, which was followed by a $17.5 million, one-year contract.
But that decision wasn’t a no-brainer. After 22 years of professional baseball, he’s not the only one who makes decisions about his career. His high school sweetheart, Jenny, whom he married in 2004, has great influence. So too do the five kids — Baylie, 15; Morgan, 13; Macy, 10; Sadee, 6; Caleb, 3 — Adam very much misses while he’s often away playing baseball.
It feels a bit like déjà vu. This past November, Wainwright and I again found a quiet space away from the bustle of the same South Florida beachfront hotel, amid the ongoing Pro Athletes Outreach conference. He’s a regular at these conferences because it’s where he gave his life to Christ at the 2002 event in Dallas.
Again, Wainwright acknowledges his career is nearing its end. He’s coming to grips with what a future outside of baseball might look like. And so is Jenny.
She joins us for the sit-down interview and accompanying photoshoot, despite everything in her that wants to stay out of the spotlight. Largely because he has to be, Adam is quite comfortable in front of the camera — attention comes with being a three-time All-Star pitcher, second in franchise history for strikeouts (2,004), third in wins (184), and fourth in games started (358). His wit and humor make him a natural. Maybe the only thing bringing Jenny comfort right now is that her husband is right next to her.
But Adam makes it clear she’s the real star. She’s the one taking care of, transporting and entertaining five kids while Dad is on one of his many work trips, or when he’s in town but at the ballpark from early afternoon to late at night, from February through September or October.
“There’s a lot of things you end up doing on your own,” Jenny says about life as a baseball wife. “When he’s on the road, the toilet clogs, guess who gets to take care of that one? I think that’s maybe not the most glamorous part of this. Just a lot of missing your spouse when he’s traveling. I think that’s something people probably don’t realize, that they’re gone so much. Even when they’re playing at home, they’re still gone a lot of the day.”
“Oh, and kids only get sick when he’s on the road,” she adds. “Kids never get sick when he’s home. They only get sick when I’m there by myself.”
So was there a time last year, or in the past three years, when Adam’s playing so well that Jenny thought, “Oh no. We’re going to do this again”?
“No, I think I was excited,” she says. “Well, for one thing, I don’t know any different. I think that retirement’s going to be great and I think that it’s going to be a permanent vacation. There’s also that little bit of unknown. I don’t know. I think it’s going to be great, but that being said, this is all I’ve ever known.”
“I want to make sure that I’m not being just self-absorbed in that decision. Our family is really important to me, our family dynamic. I grew up without a father at home and I don’t want to be the guy who’s never at home.”
It’s all the kids have ever known too. And because Daddy is gone a lot, he’s missed a lot — first steps, teeth coming out, riding a bike for the first time. So even if his wife is on board to keep playing, Adam needs the whole family on board.
“I want to make sure that I’m not being just self-absorbed in that decision,” he says. “Our family is really important to me, our family dynamic. I grew up without a father at home and I don’t want to be the guy who’s never at home. I don’t want to be the guy that misses everything for all my kids growing up. … I love what I do. I really enjoy what I’m doing, but I’m getting to a point now where I’m ready to cheer them on, rather than them always cheer me on.”
So he put the decision for one more year up to a family vote. This past September he released a video, in which he asked his family, “To play or not to play?” Sure, it was staged a bit to make the video, but it followed legitimate conversations in the Wainwrights’ St. Simons Island, Georgia, home. Each kid said, “Play,” and so did Jenny.
“It’s getting harder,” Adam acknowledges. “I would say until the last year or two, all our kids kind of liked the adventure of moving around. They get a couple months in one place (like Florida for spring training) and they’d be like, ‘All right, Dad. We’ve been here for two months. Where are we going?’
“As they’ve gotten older, especially my older ones, they’re a little more plugged in with their friends at home. Activities, sports here, golf here and things with their friends. Especially their friends. We remember being teenagers. Your friends at that age [are] just really, really important to you.”
“I was surprised how overwhelmingly excited the kids were, because they always want him to be around,” Jenny says. “They’re always wishing that he was there more. So I thought some of them might be like, ‘No, I really would rather you not,’ if given the actual choice. But they all were like, ‘Yes, we really want you to play again.’”
So he’s in, for at least one more year.
Adam as a family man may have never been more apparent than when he voluntarily went on the COVID-19 injured list in late April last year, despite being fully vaccinated and not testing positive for the virus. Initially, he thought he’d just have to quarantine for a few days after Jenny and the five kids all tested positive the morning he returned from a road trip.
“[The team] wanted him to go stay in a hotel for the time being because we weren’t [feeling] sick, and so I was like, ‘That’s fine. Go do that,’” Jenny recalled.
“So I went to a hotel for the first three days,” Adam said.
“Well, you were there for almost a week,” Jenny said.
“Was I really?”
“Well, there you go. It was almost a week. It felt like three days,” Adam said.
“I’m sure it did. It felt like longer than a week to me,” Jenny said.
“In my mind, I thought, ‘I’m doing this because they have it, but they don’t feel sick,’” Adam said. “I feel like I have to be a good teammate. We really need me to pitch and I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh. I got to go to a hotel.’ Then my wife texted me. She’s like, ‘I’m not good. You have to come home.’”
“I finally was like, ‘I feel like maybe I need a little bit of help here,’” Jenny said.
“My wife, she is not a pathetic sick person. Which I appreciate so much because that’s a big pet peeve of mine,” Adam said. “… So she tells me, ‘Baby, you got to come home. I need help.’ And when I get there, I look at my wife and her face was as white as her sweater right now. She could barely move. I had to take her to the hospital and she ended up staying there a few days. She doesn’t like admitting that.
“But there was nowhere else in the world I needed to be than right there, in that moment, with her and my family. I didn’t even think twice about it. I’m in the house. I’m double-masked in the house. … When I see my girl like that, man, the chivalry comes out. I got to take care of my sweetie.”
“He was a great nurse,” Jenny said.
Adam never got sick, and was able to return to the team immediately because he was vaccinated. But his response — putting baseball on a brief pause to care for his family — shows he’s being honest when he says he’s done with baseball if she wants him home.
“I always tell her, ‘No matter what, you get to a point where you need me and you say, “Adam, it’s been a good run, but I need you home,” tell me.’ I know if she tells me that, it’s real and I’ve got to go,” he says.
Until then, he’s got the green light for at least one more season. And as he walks out the rest of what’s been a remarkable baseball career, he’s already walked into what “might be the most important thing I’ve ever done” — leading thousands of people through the Bible.
“I did it six years in a row and led groups through it the last three, but really devoutly the last two, where I didn’t miss a single day,” he says, referring to The Increase Bible Engagement Journal.
In 2020, Wainwright led 22,000 people through the Bible in a year, then continued in 2021. This year, he’s leading a book club. He does it through his “Walking With Waino” page on Twitter. Guided by the engagement journal, each day he would read a section of the Old Testament, a section of the New Testament, and a Psalm or Proverb. He’d then type up notes and thoughts to share with everyone following him…
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