By Rob Rains
Matt Wieters will reach a significant career milestone on Wednesday and most likely will observe the moment from the same spot where he has spent the majority of his time to this point in the Cardinals’ season – sitting on the bench.
Such is the plight of being Yadier Molina’s backup, perhaps the most difficult job in baseball.
For Wieters, Wednesday will mark the 10th anniversary of his major-league debut, when he hit seventh and caught as the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Tigers 7-2 in Detroit.
That was the start of a journey that saw the first-round pick of the Orioles (fifth overall) from Georgia Tech in 2007 become a four-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glover and one of only 122 catchers in MLB history to log more than 1,000 games behind the plate.
It’s also a journey that led Wieters, who turned 33 last week, to sign as a free-agent with the Cardinals during spring training knowing he was heading to a far different role than he had ever had at any point during his career.
It was one he prepared for, and one he has embraced.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have the time I’ve had but at the same time each day you wake up and kind of take it as a new day and see what it brings,” Wieters said. “Some days it feels like it’s been 10 years, some days it doesn’t.
“It was what I had worked for since I was a kid starting to play baseball. When you make it, you take a deep breath and say ‘OK, I like playing this game, how long can I stay?’ More than anything I knew I enjoyed playing it. It was something my dad instilled in me when I was young and starting to switch-hit: ‘As long as you enjoy it, keep doing it.’ I kind of took that same mentality into baseball. As long as I enjoy it, there’s no other job in the world I would rather be doing.”
That includes his current role as the backup to perhaps one of the most durable catchers in the history of the game in Molina, who at the age of 36, shows no signs of slowing down.
Molina’s durability, and love of the game, is shown by his desire to play every game he possibly can. Wieters has started only four of the Cardinals’ first 52 games this season.
“I’ve been even more impressed with how much Yadi loves playing the game than I thought I would be,” Wieters said. “It’s impressive to see a guy who has as much time in the game and have the passion and drive that he has to do it every day. At the same point I have to have the confidence inside that I want to be out there playing, but Yadi has earned every right to say when he wants to play and when he doesn’t want to play.”
Except when he was dealing with injuries, Wieters has played a minimum of 123 games a season. Knowing that, and watching the adjustments he has made to being Molina’s backup, has been refreshing to manager Mike Shildt.
“Words are hard to capture the respect I have for this guy,” Shildt said about Wieters. “Clearly he’s in a role that he’s unaccustomed to. He’s a very smart guy and very intentional about wanting this group to be good and is a very selfless player. Gosh it’s impressive.
“For him to be able to tip his cap to Yadi and be willing to take a very diminished role and do it with a continual attitude and stay ready when he gets the call is impressive … One of the biggest compliments I can give him is when he speaks value comes out of his mouth. He’s got a lot of wisdom.”
Adjusting to a backup role
Wieters believes one of the smartest things he did after signing with the Cardinals, and knowing what his role would be, was reach out to some other players who have been backup catchers. One of those he called was Caleb Joseph, his own backup in the past who is now with Arizona. He also had discussions with Francisco Pena, Molina’s backup last season, this spring.
“I am still close with Caleb and I asked him, ‘How do you handle staying sharp and staying ready?’” Wieters said. “He pretty much let me know it was going to be tough. One thing I have learned is that it’s tougher than you realize. When you are playing every day you don’t think about how hard it is for the other guy to stay sharp and stay engaged. Caleb was a perfect resource for me.
“He told me to stay engaged and stay as sharp as I can. I’m still working through how I can mentally stay engaged but at the same time not wear myself out to the point that when you do get to play you are fatigued.”
Wieters believes he is getting better at balancing those tasks than he was earlier in the season, when he now thinks he was working too hard. What he really wants to do, whether he is in the lineup or not, is play a role in helping the Cardinals try to win every day.
And when he does play, he wants to be certain the opponent will not have an easier chance to win simply because Molina is out of the lineup.
“That’s the kind of challenge I enjoy,” Wieters said. “It’s the same challenge as when you are playing, but from a different aspect. How do I get the best out of myself every day? That’s the same as when I was catching every day. Now how do I do it playing every 10 days or going in to pinch hit? There’s always a challenge in this game. It’s just different this year than it has been the first nine years or so of my career.”
Being in a new role also has given Wieters some perspective on how lucky he has been to play in the majors for as long as he has. The list of regular catchers with 10 or more years in the majors, especially compared to how many have played only a few games, is a relatively short list.
“There are so many things that have to go right for you to even be able to make it to the big leagues and then to have that long of a career,” Wieters said. “I’ve tried not to take anything for granted. I’ve played against a lot of good players coming up in college and in the minor leagues and they didn’t quite get their break or had injuries at the wrong time.
“So many things have to go right beyond just having the talent to get here. I’ve been blessed to get here and stay for a while. I trust my God that when He says it’s time to go it will be time to go, but until then I’m going to keep playing as hard as I can.”
In the four games that Wieters has started this season, he has gone 6-of-14 with five RBIs. Shildt understands how difficult it is to have that type of success with such a limited opportunity to play.
“You do have a responsibility when called upon to play and perform and he’s done that,” Shildt said. “It’s a hard job in general to play at the major league level. … He’s a good player.”
Molina understands that as well. There have been a lot of players come through St. Louis in the last 15 years who have served as a backup to Molina, but none have had Wieters’ resume.
“Matt is a real professional guy and a really good player,” Molina said. “He’s been good player for a long time. I’m glad he’s on our side, He’s a great person and a great teammate.”
Wieters believes his own accomplishments have earned him a level of respect from Molina, and the feeling is mutual, which has led to a good relationship between the two.
“Yadi cares more about this organization and this team than you could ever imagine,” Wieters said. “He’s been through a lot here, as much as anybody can, but he really cares and wants everybody in the clubhouse to feel that and know that he cares. When I’m playing he is on the bench trying to help any way he can.
“More than anything I think Yadi and I have good mutual respect where we can throw things back and forth to each other. We may see it differently but both of us have done it at a high level so there is some validity in anything that we say.”
That is one of the ways Wieters has tried to contribute to the team, even on those frequent days he isn’t playing. His efforts might not be noticeable on the field during a game, but the players, coaches and staff know they are there.
Wieters is well aware that had he waited longer into spring training, or perhaps even into the season, another team might have come along that could have provided an opportunity for more playing time. He has no second thoughts or regrets about signing with the Cardinals when they made the first offer he received before this season.
“I really enjoy being part of this team,” he said. “I come in every day with the mindset of ‘how can I help?’ Maybe there’s something I can do, even if it’s not in innings one through nine.
“I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here in this short period of time. I’m excited about what this team can do. I know record-wise it’s not where we want to be right now, but I’m still excited about what we can do.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports