Adam Wainwright grew up rooting for the Atlanta Braves. The kid from Brunswick, Ga., cheered on the boys in Fulton County Stadium before Atlanta became a power in the National League. Then, he watched Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz dominate on the mound – mesmerized and inspired to do the same.
When the Braves drafted him in 2000, it felt like a dream. He went to Spring Training with Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz and watched from up close, taking notes and working hard so one day he could live up to the legacy of pitching greatness.
He learned that pitching was more than throwing and locating pitches. Being great required Wainwright to do everything the right way – fielding, bunting, studying hitters, and even hitting. It was all part of the job. [...]
Maddux had won 11 straight Gold Gloves when Waino was drafted and went on to win 18 for his career. He was also a master of control, painting the corners with every pitch. And to highlight that control, no one was smarter on the mound.
Glavine won 20 games five times and the Cy Young twice. He was also clutch and was named MVP in Atlanta’s lone World Series championship during their run in 1995. Glavine was also a tough out at the plate. He hit .289 in 1996. And he was a great athlete. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings to play in the NHL.
Smoltz was the fiery competitor of the group. His intensity is unrivaled in Braves history. The guy was nuts. It’s what made him great. It’s what pushed him to win the 1996 Cy Young award as a starter and then become the best closer in baseball a few years later. The former All-State basketball player has a place reserved in Cooperstown.
So does Maddux. And Glavine.
Wainwright was lucky enough to learn from them for ten years from afar and two springs intimately. Ten years after he was drafted, he’s continuing their legacy in St. Louis.
He’s starting to add some accomplishments to his resume. He was selected to his first All-Star Game this year. He’s in prime position to top the 20-win plateau and possibly take home a Cy Young. All were accomplished by the Atlanta legends.
And Waino has a little bit of all three in his game.
He just missed the Cy Young last year, but he did win his first Gold Glove. Tip of the cap to Maddux. He was paying attention during those fielding drills in Spring Training. And he worked on it while he worked on his pitches during his rise to St. Louis. He has also remained studious, picking Dave Duncan’s brain and trusting in Yadier Molina behind the plate. Pretty smart guy who is starting to show he knows how to pitch.
When he first arrived in the big leagues, the Cardinals went on a whirlwind run to the World Series. Jason Isringhausen was out with a hip injury, so the young Wainwright was thrown into the fire. He shined as he threw nine-plus shutout innings in the bullpen and came up big in big situations. Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltran to clinch the NLCS and then did the same to Brandon Inge for the World Series clincher. And like Glavine, he was a heck of an athlete in high school. He played soccer, baseball, and football for Glynn Academy in his hometown. In baseball, he owns the county record for batting average and home runs. In football, he was a wide receiver and placekicker, a position he loved for the pressure-packed situations. In one game, he nailed a 48-yarder.
His big start in St. Louis was in the bullpen. But Wainwright was destined to start. He was too good. And he’s proven to be a competitive guy during his stay in the bigs. While he doesn’t wear his emotions like Smoltz or teammate Chris Carpenter, Wainwright expects a lot from himself. After a Spring Training game in March in which he threw poorly, he vowed to come back firing and focused in his next start. He did that and more, firing for the entire summer like a madman. He’s been the Cardinals best pitcher with 12 wins and a 2.24 ERA.
While you can see a little bit of Atlanta in him every time he throws, Wainwright also has his own style.
He has a wicked curveball that none of the big three had. His hammer makes knees buckle and speeds up his already hard fastball. He uses the tandem to baffle hitters and wow fans. His stuff is arguably better than any of the legendary trio.
But we all know pure speed and a biting curve don’t spell greatness. Mark Prior, A.J. Burnett, and a host of others never put it together for Hall of Fame careers.
The substance behind the stuff is the key. Wainwright has that. He learned it from the best and learned more from himself over the years. He has remained hungry and humble.
The boys from Atlanta should be proud.
While the tomahawk is back in Atlanta with a new generation leading the charge, their legacy continues in St. Louis.
Adam Wainwright is an All-Star.
And somewhere there’s a kid watching him and cheering him on – hoping to one day play like him in the big leagues.