In more than 130 years of major-league baseball, fewer than 100 pitchers have been where the St. Louis Cardinals’ Jason Motte was last October 28th: the bottom of a celebratory dog-pile, having recorded the final out of the World Series. “It was pretty painful,” says Motte from the first-base dugout at FedExPark. “As Yadi [Molina] jumped into my arms, I barely got my arms around him, and I got blind-sided from the left side by the entire dugout. I had my hand turned up weird under Yadi, at the bottom. I was like, ‘I think I broke my hand.’ But he was like, ‘That’s okay, you’ve got four months to get it better.’ Sweet.”
Motte met his future wife, Caitlin, during the summer of 2008 when he saved nine games and struck out 110 hitters in 67 innings as a Memphis Redbird. They chose to make their home in Memphis, a decision made easier by the proximity to St. Louis, where Motte will soon be playing his fourth season. This winter, Motte has trained with coach Daron Schoenrock’s Memphis Tigers (two members of the team played at St. Benedict at Auburndale, where Caitlin teaches). He heads to Jupiter, Florida, for spring training later this month and will go with fond memories of an unlikely championship.
The Cardinals trailed the Atlanta Braves by 10 1/2 games for the National League’s final playoff spot in late August. They trailed Philadelphia, two games to one, in a best-of-five division series, and then lost their first game to Milwaukee in the National League Championship Series. Then, of course, they fell behind Texas, three games to two, in the Fall Classic. St. Louis was down to its final strike in Game 6 . . . twice.
“We were down so big,” Motte reflects. “We decided that we were going to play the game hard, give it everything we have. If we won the ball game that day, that’s good. But if we lost, it wasn’t going to be for lack of effort. I still get chills talking about it. While you’re doing it, you don’t really think about it. You’re just out there playing the game. If one out of a hundred things didn’t go the right way, from August 25th on, we’re not sitting here talking about us winning the World Series. There was a game in September when Adron Chambers was called up [from Memphis] and he had a big triple. Little things like that.”
Motte, 29, has a special appreciation for the comeback nature of last year’s Cardinals, as he gave up what could well have been a Series-winning home run to the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton in the 10th inning of Game 6. “I had someone ask me what I would have done if Lance Berkman hadn’t tied the game again [in the bottom of the 10th],” says Motte. “Well, I would have packed my stuff up and gone home. What would you want me to do? Go jump off the arch?”
Wound rather tight, Motte found himself oddly calm when he took the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, three outs away from every baseball player’s dream. “There was adrenaline, and I was excited,” he says. “But I wasn’t going to try and do more than I was capable of doing. I couldn’t get a double play with nobody on. I just wanted to make every pitch count. That was our attitude as a team. ”
The Cardinals, of course, have managed to make as much news during the offseason as they did in winning the World Series. Hall of Fame-bound manager Tony LaRussa announced his retirement three days after the Series victory (his third as a manager, second in St. Louis). Hall of Fame-bound first baseman Albert Pujols defected to the Los Angeles Angels (where he’ll earn $240 million over the next decade). And new manager Mike Matheny learned last month that venerable pitching coach Dave Duncan is stepping down to help his wife in her battle with cancer. Derek Lilliquist takes over as the Cardinals’ new pitching coach.
“With Albert, it’s just part of the game,” says Motte. “He got a good deal. You can’t say he’s not worth that money. But we’ve got some good additions, and Berkman’s back. [Rafael] Furcal is back. With Tony being gone . . . he’d been doing it 33 years. If you’re going to go out, go out on top like he did.
“[Mike Matheny] is a great dude. He knows the game of baseball; he’s qualified for the job. Lilliquist has been around Duncan, so I think the philosophy is going to be about the same. He’s not gonna come in and tell us to stand on our head and pitch. We throw when we’re asked to throw. I pitched in the third inning once last year, and I pitched in the 12th.”
Pujols’ departure will leave a void not only on the field, but in a clubhouse, one that developed the character of a championship team before any champagne was sprayed last fall. “We’ve got a good group of guys back,” says Motte. “The people we had last year — off the field — were special. We have Berkman back, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Yadi. Everyone got really close; you got a chance to see the way things should be. The front office gets those kind of guys, good players but also good people. I think we’ll be just fine in the clubhouse.”
Last month, the Cardinals and Motte agreed on a one-year contract that will pay the pitcher $1.95 million in 2012, more than quadrupling his salary from the championship season. Despite a championship ring, a raise, and the seismic turnover in personnel, Jason Motte approaches the upcoming season precisely as baseball players are trained: a new start. “Our goal is the same,” he says. “To win the World Series. When we step out to play the Miami Marlins on Opening Day [April 4], everybody starts at zero. Last year was great, but once the season starts, it’s all about getting better.”
Photograph by Allison Rhoades