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(First published on Mother's Day 2019)

It wasn’t long after Jack Flaherty arrived at his brother’s little league field and found their mom that he launched into all the reasons this was it, he was done, no more baseball.

A freshman in high school, Flaherty had clashed with a coach, felt the welt of failure, or reopened some other scab of frustration and was, his mother recalls, “venting.” On a field nearby swarmed a team of kids four or five years younger that he often helped coach. Jack was the big to their littles, and as they played he cataloged the reasons he no longer would. His mother, Eileen Flaherty, listened and nodded and said she was fine with that – one less direction she had to stretch in this taffy pull of raising two kids on her own – but she had two conditions. First, Jack had to call the coach. Second, he had to walk over to the younger boys and “tell them you’re a quitter and it’s OK to quit when the going gets tough,” his mom instructed.

Jack didn’t say another word.

He went to practice the next day.

“I was like … couldn’t do it,” says Flaherty, the Cardinals’ second-year starter. “I’m thankful to her for that. Whenever times have gotten tough, whenever I’ve questioned myself, she could tell something was up and she would completely instill that confidence back into me. Moms are so powerful and special and they do so much for us that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put enough emphasis on how much she’s meant to me. She’s always been a rock.”

It’s a sentiment several Cardinals pitchers can share because of a similarity they all have. Roommates at various levels and teammates in the majors at various times, four Cardinals pitchers were raised by single mothers, and Carlos Martinez was raised by his grandmother, Marta Martinez.

Eileen Flaherty adopted Jack three weeks after he was born, and was a champion and “relentless” advocate for him and his younger brother Grady. Austin Gomber’s mom, Renee, shared her “stubbornness” and shepherded her only child through summer ball after Austin’s father left when he was 10. Jennifer Hicks went to college and worked as she raised young Jordan in the years before marrying. Nancy Wainwright worked multiple jobs to fit around her boys’ schedules and would crisscross the bridges connecting St. Simons Island, Ga., to New Brunswick, Ga., as many as five times during games to see both Adam and older brother Trey pitch. Their father left the family when Adam was 3, and she once said her boys could never use their situation “as a crutch,” and that no one would ever say, “Well, it must have been tough with a single mother.”

“She was trying to make up for that by being doubly good, by being doubly present,” Adam Wainwright says. “Those moms do such an incredible job of stepping up and filling all the voids. A single mom is one of the most versatile (people). A single mom has all five tools. They’re the Swiss Army knives of our world. They can be teacher. They can be disciplinarian. They can be Uber-driver. Show you all the love that you need and also teach you all the things you need to know, not just school-wise. Your morality. Your dignity.”

At 14, Wainwright played golf using his grandmother’s clubs and wanted to enter a tournament but was hesitant because it appeared to be all fathers and sons. His mother took off work, signed up, and alternated shots with her youngest. (“We did not win, but we had a good time,” Adam says.) She enrolled both sons in Junior Cotillion to learn etiquette – and to waltz.

Eileen Flaherty’s boys will never walk first through a door when with her. They hold the door for her. Even with his path leading toward baseball – collegiate or pro – Jack was pushed to take Advanced Placement classes because “you can, so you should,” Eileen says. On her Twitter page, Eileen quotes Louisa May Alcott, with a twist. Rather than being about a “happy” son’s relationship to a mom, Eileen flipped the quote to read, “Happiness is a son whose faith in his mother remains unchallenged.”

“I think being a single mom of two young men you have that relationship when they have to know mom loves them, mom has their back, and there is no one who will challenge a mother’s love,” Eileen says. “They are the primary force in my life. They are my purpose. There has to be the secure binding that they know one parent will be there with love, faith, and it won’t be challenged.”

All of the mothers or sons described finding mentors, role models, and community for their sons through organized sports. And, at several turns they encountered the assumptions inherent in a game too often presented as fathers playing catch with sons.

On his first day in the majors, Gomber was asked if his parents were coming.

“Mom is,” he said.

Always.

Eileen introduced Jack to baseball at 6 months old when she’d hold him on her lap at Dodger Stadium. She described adopting Jack as a “God-given opportunity” where “a door opened wide and I chose whether to walk through it or not, and I did. And on the other side was Jack.” She named him for a close friend and they were the inseparable dynamic duo for his first four years. When he could no longer sit on her lap at Dodgers games, he got his own ticket. At 5, they found a tee-ball team about 20 minutes from home. At 7, Jack’s youth league team won a weekend tournament – and few weekends were free of sports since. Eileen saw baseball as a chance to pay for college – a door that Jack could open and walk through.

“I told them create opportunities for yourselves,” she says. “Be a strong student, be a good person, be a person of faith, and always if you can create opportunities for yourself then you can make choices instead of having choices made for you.”

Talk long enough with these Cardinals about their moms, and phrases and descriptions start to overlap and echo. The choices their mothers made, the hours stretched to pack 75 minutes of things into 60 minutes of time.

And the traits they admired – and emulate.

“The value of perseverance has always been there with her,” Wainwright says. “My dad left her in a bad spot. So she constantly had to work. The chips kept getting stacked against her and she kept getting back up, every time. Perseverance has always been taught and ingrained in me just by watching her live.”

“I feel like one of the traits I got from my mom is how stubborn we both are,” Gomber says. “Stubborn about what we can do and to meet challenges and have tough expectations. That’s helped me in baseball. That feeds into what makes me go.”

“Hard work. Persistence,” Hicks says. “I saw it. That’s how I learned it. That’s why I’m here.”

“She is relentless,” Flaherty says. “She will never back down from anyone. Sometimes there have been situations where she has gotten into a conversation and there are people – because she’s a single mom and a woman – they think they can just say something and she will nod her head and say, ‘OK.’ She always knew what was best for my brother and me, and she wasn’t going to just nod her head and say, ‘Yeah, OK,’ if she didn’t believe it. She was going to stand against it. She is never going to let anyone walk over her.”

There is a story that Flaherty tells about that same freshman season, that one when his mom kept him from quitting. The seniors on the team called for a voluntary practice on a Sunday morning in May, and Jack knew voluntary wasn’t voluntary at all. Unable to drive or catch a ride, he had to ask his mom to taxi him the 30 minutes to practice. He was “terrified” as he did. She didn’t flinch. She grabbed the keys, drove him, and waited in the parking lot until practice was over. That’s when Jack tells the part of the story Eileen didn’t remember.

It was Mother’s Day.

“That’s just what you did,” Eileen says. “I spent my Mother’s Day sitting in a car waiting for my son to finish baseball practice preparing for the playoffs. Grady was probably in the backseat. And, yeah, I would rather have been in the car in that parking lot than anywhere else because it meant being there with them. It wasn’t a fancy together. It wasn’t somewhere special together. We were in the best place we could be. We were together.”


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