SAN FRANCISCO • If there is a gentleman with a shaved head and a stocky build whose look might be familiar as a baseball player wandering around Busch Stadium early Monday, please do offer him directions.
All he’s looking for is the place he’ll call home this season.
“Hopefully my GPS is working,” Cardinals utility fielder Ty Wigginton joked. “I have no clue about how to get there. Basically, you find your way to the ballpark and start asking security guards how to get around.”
After the longest spring training in memory and then a west coast road trip to open the season, the Cardinals return – finally, thankfully, eagerly – to Busch Stadium for their 2013 opener today. It has been a long trip home.
A total of 56 days have passed since pitchers and catchers reported to Jupiter, Fla., for the opening of spring training. Several Cardinals who called St. Louis home this past winter, like rookie reliever Trevor Rosenthal, have not been back in at least two months. Catcher Yadier Molina and outfielder Carlos Beltran have played games in Puerto Rico, Miami, Arizona, San Francisco and all over the Grapefruit League, but not once at home yet this season. Manager Mike Matheny had a disc rupture, ducked home for back surgery, and he’s already deep into his rehab. It’s been that long.
At least for 23 of the Cardinals’ 25-man roster that they take into the home opener against Cincinnati they know where they’re going early Monday morning. Wigginton and lefty Randy Choate, the other free-agent signed this winter, have been in uniform for more than 30 games with the Cardinals, including the exhibition schedule, and yet have never been home.
A few weeks ago a teammate was telling Choate where to find something in the Busch Stadium clubhouse, referencing places other players would readily know. Choate stopped him.
“Actually, I’ve never been in the home side,” he said. “I haven’t even been in the clubhouse yet. I was only in St. Louis for four days.”
Both veterans know there is a car waiting for them to tour the field as part of the traditional opening day ceremony. Both veterans know a sea of red will wash through downtown. Both know that the Hall of Famers will be there in red blazers and that the Clydesdales often clomp around the warning track. Both, like many of their teammates, know a moving ceremony is planned for Stan Musial, the Cardinals great who died in January. They knows these things because they’ve seen highlights from past openers, heard stories, or read about what awaits them.
They just don’t know where their lockers will be.
“It seems like it has been a long time,” Matheny said. “Well, it has been.”
When last they played at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals left with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven National League championship series against San Francisco. They would not return for another game, losing two straight to end their season at AT&T Park. The Cardinals, who reached October as a wild card club, finished last year nine games behind the division-champ Reds, and they start 2013 season against the same Reds they expect to jostle all season with in the standings.
Home has always been welcoming to the Cardinals.
Home is the foundation of their contention, from the 3-million fans they draw annual to support a top-third payroll to the record they’ve had at Busch.
Although the Cardinals have lost five of their previous six home openers and are 23-23 in openers since 1967, the club has not had a losing record at home since 1999. The graduating class of 2013 has never been in school when the Cardinals have had a losing record in St. Louis. Last season they went 50-31, their second 50-win season at Busch Stadium III. In their seven seasons at the new downtown ballpark, the Cardinals are 331-235, never having won fewer than 43 games. Their .585 winning percentage at home is equivalent to a 95-win season.
Few pitchers have taken advantage of Busch more than Jaime Garcia, who will get the first home-opening assignment of his young career. The lefty went 4-2 with a 2.82 ERA at Busch last season, and in his career he’s 20-11 with a 2.48 ERA. His ERA is the lowest for any pitcher at Busch III with at least 10 games started there, and his 2.33 home ERA since 2010 ranks fifth in baseball behind such luminaries as Justin Verlander (2.02) and Clayton Kershaw (2.26).
“I’ve been part of four opening days at home now and that first game at home is always exciting,” Garcia said. “It’s an honor for me to be able to do that.”
For another pitcher, the opener will have a new feel, a permanent feel.
With only a few days to go before he would have returned to St. Louis as a pending free agent, ace Adam Wainwright agreed to a record five-year, $97.5 million extension that means he won’t wonder if Monday is his last opener at Busch. It will be the first – for him to be greeted as a career Cardinal. He has an idea about the reception he might receive.
“I’m apparently a crier,” Wainwright said, referencing how tears came to his eyes during the press conference to announce his deal. “The moments that meant the most to me in life when I try to talk about them I cry every time. It is probably going to be emotional, yes. … It feels like we’ve already played five months of the season just because of the long spring training and going on the road first to the west coast. It’s kind of draining.
“It will be nice to be back home.”
Even for those who don’t know exactly where home is just yet.
Wigginton joked that maybe he should spend the night before the opener at the nearby hotel used by visiting teams. He knows the walk well from there, and then he’ll just quiz ushers and security guards for the right way to the home clubhouse. Any veteran knows his way around any ballpark. He’s eager to learn his around the home-opener hoopla.
“There’s a point when you’ve been around and been a part of enough of these (home) openers,” Wigginton said, “when they actually start to mean more than even your first one.”