JUPITER, Fla. • This will be Yadier Molina’s 12th season in a Cardinals uniform and 11th as their regular catcher. Tom Pagnozzi, himself one of three Gold Glove catchers the Cardinals have had, also spent 12 seasons in St. Louis livery (1987-98) although that encompassed just 10 entire seasons with the club. And outfielder Ray Lankford had 13 seasons in a Cardinals jersey, 11-plus from 1990-2001 in his first tour with the club before returning for a final season in 2004.
Albert Pujols, one of the greatest Cardinals of them all, left after 11 full seasons, so, consequently, by the end of the 2015 season, Molina will have spent the most consecutive playing years in a Cardinals uniform since Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith (1982-96) and the most seasons wearing only a Cardinals uniform since Hall of Famer Bob Gibson (1959-75).
“(Molina) is a great Cardinal,” said pitcher Adam Wainwright, who has been here himself since 2005.
“Time goes by real fast, you know,” said Molina Saturday at the Cardinals’ spring training complex.
“It does feel good,” he conceded to be mentioned in the same breath with Gibson and Smith and in terms of longevity. “But I don’t like to think that way.”
In Molina’s mind, “I’m still a kid.”
Ordinarily, there is much to like about Molina but there’s also less this season. He says he has lost 15 to 20 pounds in the off-season and he looks even lighter than the 199 he weighs now.
“I want to be ready for the season,” Molina said. “I can catch every day (he would if manager Mike Matheny would let him).
“I’ve never been a skinny guy. The way I caught before, with my weight, I felt comfortable that way. But I just wanted to be healthy.”
Asked the last time, he might have been this light, Molina smiled and said, “When I was born (in 1982), I weighed less.”
There was no magic formula, Molina, now 32, said, “I tried to eat better; I tried to run. Nothing that was a big deal,” he said.
Matheny had heard about Molina’s weight loss before he saw him this winter. He knows that there is a method to the madness — that Molina is intent to display, that even at 32, he has lost none of his passion for the game nor his desire to play virtually every day.
“I know Yadi has come in here in the physical shape that he’s in right now because he wants to play,” said Matheny, who wrestles every year with how to get Molina to ever take a day off.
“That’s the message he’s sending us. It’s pretty clear. ... It’s one thing for a guy to come in and say, ‘I’ve been playing a lot for a long time and I’m planning on walking in here and doing the same thing.’ It’s another to show us like that.”
General manager John Mozeliak said, “I think historically Yadi has come into camp in leaner shape. This off-season it looks like he hit it really hard. I think he’s looking at the longevity of the career and how to help manage that. If he feels like losing some weight has benefits for him, that’s great.”
Molina has had chronic knee issues in recent years although he actually was laid low for some seven weeks last year with torn ligaments in his right thumb, an injury suffered when he tried to brace himself while sliding. And then he missed the final three weeks of the league championship series — the Cardinals lost every game after he went out — with a strained left oblique. Molina had started 83 straight playoff games for his team.
“Everything feels good,” said Molina. “I’ve been blessed with good health and good knees.”
Molina, outfielder Matt Holliday and Wainwright took on leadership roles by all coming to camp early, although Molina and Holliday actually live here now.
“Like I’ve said before many times, we’ve got 25 leaders on the team,” demurred Molina. “That’s the way I think. That’s what I believe.”
But Matheny said, “What he does with these guys in spring training takes on a whole different dynamic. He takes the whole catching corps out there for early work (7 a.m. on Saturday). That’s a way he provides a great voice and a great sense of security for the young players who come into spring.”
“I love it,” said Molina. “I’m not a sleepy guy. I’m a guy who wakes up early and likes to work.”
(Later, after the workout, he would pitch batting practice to his six-year-old son, Yanuell.)
Matheny pointed out that “leadership has a lot of different phases. You can have a guy who doesn’t say a whole lot, and we’ve got two of them. Holliday is kind of the same way as Yadi. They lead by example being out there every single day competing and pushing. That mental toughness is part of leadership.
“But then there are times when you see the more typical leadership, where Yadi’s going to stand up and say something. He’s not afraid to call anybody out.”
Wainwright said that “I’ve played with Yadi since 2004 and in spring training, he’s always one of the first ones here. He still is that same guy, putting that time and work in. That example is set for all the young guys to see that here’s the best player at his position in the big leagues for almost the last decade and he still puts the time in to get better and better each year.”
Molina, limited to 110 games and just seven homers and 38 runs batted in last year because of injury, admitted his disappointment at not being able to play more, especially at missing the end of the playoffs.
“But it’s a brand new year,” he said.
“We’ve got a good team. We’ve got a good lineup. We’ve got good pitchers. We’ve got a good bullpen. We’ve got everything. It’s up to us.
“The only thing we ask is to be healthy so we can enjoy competing with the other teams.”
While others wonder about the health and durability of some of the Cardinals’ pitchers, Molina says he is confident on all fronts.
Wainwright? “No doubt,” said Molina.
Michael Wacha? “No doubt,” said Molina.
Carlos Martinez? “No doubt. He’s got the ability to be one of the best pitchers in the league.”
Molina is cognizant that the organization, at least, explored getting starting pitching help from outside but he said, “They feel comfortable in what we have here pitching-wise. I feel confident in what we have here. Obviously, it’s not in my hands — what they do with those decisions — but we’ve got too many starting pitchers here.”
One of the few pitchers brought in was starter/reliever Carlos Villanueva, who signed a minor-league contract as a free agent. Molina is one of the big reasons Villanueva came here.
“It brings your game to a whole different level when you have a guy like Yadi behind the plate,” said Villanueva.
“When you can get on the same page quickly with the guy who knows what (he’s) doing, and you trust what they’re doing, it just changes you.”
Matheny knew his life would change once he saw Molina in a Cardinals camp. It was in the spring of 2001 when Matheny was the regular, but he could see it wouldn’t be for too much longer even though Molina was in the low minors at the time.
“(Coach) Dave Ricketts brought me over and said, ‘Take a look at this kid,’ ’’ said Matheny.
Matheny didn’t need to look very long. “I knew this kid was going to be around a long time,” said Matheny, who with Molina have been the Cardinals’ regular catchers every year from 2000 until now.
That’s 15 years but Molina, who has three more years, plus an option, remaining on his contract, is establishing no limits.
“What do you mean?” he said. “Oh, my God. I’m 32 years old. I’ll play as long as my body lets me.
“Who knows? Maybe I’ll catch 10 more years. You don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows.”
Molina, who replaced Matheny as the regular in 2005, often can be an extension of his manager. “He understands how this position works and how difficult it is,” said Molina.
“We’re different minds. He has to think for 25 guys. I have to think for one guy — the guy on the mound — and me.
“If we don’t have trust, it’s going to be a long season. We need to have that trust.”
Molina is a seven-time Gold Glover, a six-time All-Star and a three-time Platinum Glove winner. “Each year is different,” said Molina. “But for me, I’ve got the same goal every year — to win the World Series.”
The Cardinal Way is to prepare for a seven-month season, not the six-month version which ends in September. “If you want to be a winner, you have to think that way,” Molina said. “I like to prepare myself to be a winner.”
From an individual standpoint, Molina said, “I’m never satisfied. If I show up at spring training and try to take it easy, that’s not me. I want to keep improving my game so that I can be with the best catchers in the game.”
To that statement that Molina wants to strive to be merely one of the best, Wainwright laughed and said, “That’s his attempt at being humble. It’s just uncomfortable for him. To acknowledge that you’re the very best at what you do is a little bit embarrassing. No one likes to say that about himself unless you’re a very interesting personality.”
The catching Molinas are down to one now for the first time in Yadier’s career. Bengie has been retired for several years and Jose will be undergoing knee surgery before deciding on his future. It’s all on the back of the youngest of the trio.
“You know this game is not forever, so you’re going to try to have as much fun as you can,” said Yadier Molina.
Molina and Wainwright are scheduled to be together until at least 2017 and possibly 2018.
“I would retire before I went anywhere else,” said Wainwright, “and I’m sure (Molina) feels the same way.”
“Of course,” Molina said, “I want to be here for my whole career.”
With his contract potentially lasting through 2018, that would mean 15 seasons in a Cardinals uniform, and only a Cardinals uniform, for Yadier Molina. That’s not quite Musial-esque. The Man wore a Cardinals uniform every year from 1941-63, with the exception of the 1945 wartime year. But, as catchers go, that would be some staying power.
Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this story.