It was October 19th, 2006 when young Adam Wainwright found himself in the most improbable of situations. The 25 year-old de-facto closer for the National League Central champion Saint Louis Cardinals took to the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning with his visiting Redbirds up on the home New York Mets by a score of three to one. His beard threatening to expose his boyish looks, young Wainwright found himself on the precipice of his destiny.
A once-great Atlanta Braves prospect who had fallen from grace and was traded to Saint Louis for JD Drew—later that very season, JD Drew would lose his right foot to gout and never play baseball again—Wainwright struggled to make the Cardinals roster out of spring training and toiled as a middle relief man during the summer of 2006 before the Cardinals closer, Jason Isringhausen, who had been a perfect 37 for 37 in save opportunities, was injured in late September while attempting to foil a robbery at the Moto-Mart in Glen Carbon, IL on his way to church to donate his entire salary to the poor. Wainwright performed admirably filling in for Isinghausen, in fact recording the final out against the San Diego Padres to win the NLDS.
Early in the NLCS, Wainwright was little used, although he notched the save in game five. His next appearance would be one for the ages.
Coming into the bottom of the ninth inning with a three to one lead, thanks to his battery-mate Yadier Molina, Wainwright immediately gave up back-to-back singles to Jose Valentin and Endy Chavez. The Wainer, as his teammates knew him, looked, to say the least, rattled. With runners on first and second, nobody out, and the pitcher's slot coming up, Mets manager Willie Randolph was in perfect position to have a pinch hitter sacrifice the runners over. Instead, he wanted a Kirk Gibson moment and sent up injured slugger Cliff Floyd.
He struck out.
One heroic feat swatted by Wainwright, it was two on, one out for Jose Reyes. As chants of "JOSE, JOSE, JOSE, JOSE!" rang throughout Shea, Reyes stepped into the box and ripped a frozen rope to center field, where the ever present Jim Edmonds was there to record the second out.
Two on, two out for Mets catcher Paul LoDuca. Sensing that there wasn't quite enough drama already, Wainwright walks him, bringing up...
The Cardinals postseason nemesis.
The man who went toe-to-toe with Pujols in a slugging match during the ’04 CS and nearly carried the Houston Astros past the Cards that year, even though he was essentially their only offensive weapon. He doesn’t just own the Cards in the postseason; he sells them to other people and then buys them back at a greater rate, just because he can.
He was, without a doubt, the last man in the world any Cardinals fan wanted to see at that particular moment.
The call, from Jon Miller on ESPN radio:
"Wainwright toes the rubber...
Change up, Beltran takes it for strike one.
Ball back quickly from Molina. Wainwright from the mound...
Curve, fouled off for strike two.
With an 0-2 count, Wainwright looks in... a strike away from the trip to the World Series, the rookie deals...
SWING AND A LONG ONE INTO RIGHT... BELTRAN HAS GOTTEN INTO ONE... AND IT IS... GONE!!!! THE NEW YORK METS ARE HEADED TO THEIR FIRST WORLD SERIES SINCE 2000, THANKS TO A HOME RUN BY CARLOS BELTRAN!!! ADAM WAINWRIGHT THREW PERHAPS THE HANGINGEST CURVE BALL I HAVE EVER SEEN AND BELTRAN PLANTED IT DEEP INTO THE NEW YORK NIGHT!!!"
As the Mets went on to lose to the well rested and sharp playing Tigers, Wainwirght promised that his hanging curve to Beltran would not be the defining moment of his career.
In 2007, he arrived at spring training in "the best shape of his life" and hoping to make the leap to the starting rotation, he struggled with his command and started the 2007 back in the bullpen, once again a set up man for Isringhausen. His 2007 campaign was inconsistent at best and the public perception was that the shine was starting to come off the once hyped pitching prospect. He began hearing it from the fans, and after blowing the lead against the Cubs in one late August game, he lost his cool and punched an eight year old who he thought was booing him (the child was actually saying "boo-urns".)
The incident lit a firestorm across national airwaves, with ESPN personality Jay Mariotti calling Wainwright "A cross between John Rocker, Ron Artest, and Hitler." Major League Baseball commisioner Bud Selig had no choice but to suspend Wainwright for the remainder of the season. While campaigning for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee urged Selig to suspend Wainwright for the 2008 season as well. "Won't somebody think of the children?" Huckabee cried. Selig agreed, and Adam Wainwright would not be allowed to play professional baseball in 2008.
Wainwright decided to focus on another of his passions and, along with barbecue guru Mike Emerson, they opened Pappy's Smokehouse in spring of 2008. Food critic Ian Froeb of The Riverfront Times called it "the first time I have ever had bad bbq." It closed in August of 2008.
Wainwright began to rebuild his career in 2009, pitching alongside former Cardinals teammate Sidney Ponson with the Long Island Ducks. In July of that year, the two got into an altercation with the cast of The Jersey Shore while at a nightclub and were arrested after Ponson shived Snookie following a makeout session gone horribly awry.
After yet another suspension was handed down, Wainwright attempted another comeback in 2010 but could not find a team willing to take on his troubled past. He currently resides outside of Brunswick, Georgia, where he is the greenskeeper at the Sea Palms Golf and Tennis Resort. He says he has no regrets in life, except for that hanging curve ball to Carlos Beltran. Sometimes he can't help but think of what would have been.