After weeks of trying and trying and trying to get his fractured thumb healthy enough to be in the lineup, Matt Holliday rejoined the active roster Friday so the Cardinals could do something bigger than using him in a key at-bat or sending him out for a start.
They wanted to say goodbye.
With one swing, he handled the rest.
In what could be his final at-bat as a Cardinal, Holliday came off the disabled list and into the batter’s box Friday against Pittsburgh, and hit a home run out to the right-field bullpen. Holliday’s 156th career homer for the Cardinals — his first ever as a pinch-hitter — punctuated a 7½-year tenure with the team, one that included an unprecedented run of success for the franchise. Having told him this week that they would not exercise his option for the 2017 season, the Cardinals wanted to give the home crowd a chance to acknowledge its All-Star and longtime No. 3 hitter. He earned a victory lap.
“Still have chills,” manager Mike Matheny said after a 7-0 victory.
Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak agreed to activate Holliday for the final series of the regular season and, if the opportunity presented itself, get him an at-bat. Holliday did not want an at-bat with a game or playoff berth on the line. A ceremonial one would be tough enough. The Cardinals didn’t want him to see him leave without an ovation. It started in the dugout.
The applause spread from his teammates out through the crowd and onto the scoreboard that read, “Thank You Matt Holliday.” On an 0-2 pitch from Pittsburgh lefty Zach Phillips, Holliday hit his 20th home run of the season, landing with the relievers, for safekeeping. Kolten Wong pushed Adam Wainwright out onto the field with Yadier Molina to share a hug with the three players who have shared championships and five consecutive postseason berths. Holliday received a curtain call, averting his weeping eyes even as he raised his helmet.
“Not much better way to go out than that,” Wainwright said.
People who saw him described Holliday as “too emotional” to comment before or after the game. He conveyed some thoughts in a statement: “While I’m disappointed this could be it here in St. Louis, I understand that it might be time to move on.”
“This guy has been a pillar in this organization for a good amount of time,” Matheny said. “Not knowing how things play out over the winter (we’re) trying to give him the respect that he deserves. Tough conversation for him. A tough conversation for all of us. But to try to make sure you don’t have any regret.”
Holliday, 36, approached Mozeliak earlier this week to gain clarity on his future with the club. The former batting champ wanted to know as the final home stand came toward an end, if he should have his family present, if he should be planning some farewells. In eight years with the Cardinals, Holliday came to call St. Louis his home, spending several offseasons in the area. He developed a close relationship with several charities and was a regular visitor at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.
At least once he delivered a home run ball to a patient there — on his way home from the game in which he hit it.
The Cardinals hold a $17 million option for 2017, though Mozeliak said the probability of picking it up is “low.” As far back as spring training, Holliday understood that possibility and expressed a hope to discuss a lower-cost extension that would allow him to finish his career with the Cardinals. A hoped-for conversation in August was derailed by a fastball — in and hard to Holliday’s right hand.
On Aug. 11, Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery fractured Holliday’s right thumb with a pitch. Holliday elected to have surgery on the thumb to accelerate his recovery by providing stability. He could not hasten the healing of the bone and after each attempt to return his finger would swell up to a point he could not hit.
The injury made the Cardinals’ decision for them.
“It stinks,” Mozeliak said. “The unfortunate part of baseball or sports is injuries. But when you sit in my seat it cannot solely be relationship-driven. I have to think about this long term and what we think is best for this organization and how we think we can be stronger and how we can get stronger. So it’s unfortunate nothing lasts forever, especially in sports.”
Mozeliak made Holliday his first major trade, pursuing talks first with Colorado and then successfully in July 2009 with Oakland. A free agent at the end of the 2009 season, Holliday signed a seven-year, $120 million deal that remains the largest in Cardinals history. During the span of the contract, only 16 hitters, six of them MVPs, had a higher OPS than Holliday’s .862. Holliday’s career OPS of .872 with the Cardinals ranked 10th in club history, as did his .493 slugging percentage and 156 homers.
“Matt meant much more than statistics to the St. Louis Cardinals,” his agent Scott Boras said Friday. “Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine a clubhouse without a player and you realize it when you don’t have that player.”
The Cardinals expect to generate some churn on the roster this offseason, and that could mean reshaping the middle of the lineup, the outfield, or both. Holliday will probably look to the American League, where there will be an opportunity to be a designated hitter. He has also shown he can play first base. That position could prompt the Cardinals and Holliday to engage in future discussions about a deal that would reflect a different, even part-time role on the team.
Matheny stressed that they wanted to make sure the team gave him a fitting farewell, but not necessarily finality.
“I wouldn’t say the future is set,” he said. “Doors are open. The way things are going I think it goes back to how do we not miss an opportunity, an opportunity to let our fans show the admiration they have for a great player and for us as an organization to tip our cap as well? Not saying that destines a decision any one direction, but just to make sure we at least do our very best to try and do what’s right.”
If Friday was his last swing, it went where he took the team.
A long way.
• STATS: Matt Holliday's career
• CARDS TALK: Fans sound off about Holliday
• UPDATE: Wacha to start Saturday's game
Here's Rick Hummel's earlier story:
Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday was activated from the 15-day disabled list Friday. But this weekend will be the last time he is seen in a Cardinals uniform during the regular season because general manager John Mozeliak announced that the club will not be picking up Holliday’s $17 million club option for next year. A $1 million buyout will be executed instead.
Holliday, 35, is hitting .242 with 19 homers and 60 runs batted in but hasn’t played since Aug. 11 when he was hit by a pitched ball in Chicago, suffering a broken right thumb.
Mozeliak said Holliday had asked him earlier in the week about the disposition of the option for next year. "I told him the probability of us picking it was probably low,” said Mozeliak.
“I asked him if he would like that moment, if he could get that chance to play this weekend. It’s been 7½ years and they’ve been great years and Matt’s been an amazing teammate. We’ve had a lot of success and he’s been a key member of that.’’
On Friday, Holliday told Mozeliak that he would like to be activated.
Mozeliak said, “Speaking in absolutes and saying there’s no chance of him coming back — I’m not prepared to do that. We haven’t had our offseason meetings.”
Holliday declined to comment about the decisions, and he was described as "too emotional."
Through the club, he did release a statement. It reads:
"I would like to thank Mr. DeWitt, Mo and the entire ownership group for the opportunity to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.
I am proud of what we have accomplished on and off the field during the past seven years. I have also been humbled by the incredible support and participation in our Homers for Health program.
It has been an honor to play in front of such great fans and for such a historic organization. I can honestly say it has been a dream come true.
While I'm disappointed this could be it here in St. Louis, I understand that it might be time to move on.
I'd like to express my love and admiration for Tony (La Russa), Mike (Matheny), and all of the coahces and staff that I have had the pleasure to do life with these past 7+ years.
The most emotional part of this is my teammates and the relationships I've built with some of these guys over the past years. Particularly, Adam and Yadi, to be considered part of the core with two of the finest human beings I've ever known.
Finally, I'm eternally thankful for the Lord bringing me to the city of St. Louis in August of 2009. Lots of cool stuff has happened since then. On behalf of my life Leslee and our children Jackson, Ethan, Gracyn and Reed. Thank you!"
Holliday, who was the centerpiece of perhaps Mozeliak’s best trade — made with Oakland in 2009 — hit 20 or more homers for the Cardinals for five straight seasons from 2010-14 and drove in at least 90 runs in four of those seasons. He has 294 homers for his career and 1,115 RBIs. Holliday, who had a .307 career average entering the season, also won a batting title at Colorado in 2007.
But once he was hit by the Mike Montgomery pitch on Aug. 11 and missed virtually the rest of the season, his chances of being retained waned. That one pitch would do that, said Mozeliak, “stinks."
“The unfortunate part of baseball or sports is injuries. He literally got a bad break, no pun intended," said Mozeliak. "I feel bad about that. But when you sit in my seat, it can’t solely be on relationships and maybe the short view. I have to think about this long-term.
“It’s unfortunate, but nothing ever lasts forever — especially in sports.”