The St. Louis Cardinals played a total of eight exhibition games at AutoZone Park over the stadium’s first decade, starting with the game that opened the park on April 1, 2000. (Fernando Vina delivered the first hit, Eli Marrero the first home run.) The Redbirds’ parent club returned in 2002, then played two games on visits in 2004, 2007 (one of them the inaugural Civil Rights Game), and 2009. Including the 2009 campaign, though, six full seasons have passed since the Cardinals have taken the field at Third and Union, thanks to a rainstorm that cancelled the game scheduled to be played late last March.
A lot has happened in the Cardinal system over the last six years:
• Only two current Cardinals were with the club for that 2009 exhibition. Catcher Yadier Molina and pitcher Adam Wainwright — both former Redbirds — were best remembered at the time for their embrace after clinching the 2006 World Series championship for St. Louis. Molina had won his first Gold Glove in 2008 (he’s won six more since) and Wainwright was coming off a 19-8 season in which he finished third in the Cy Young Award voting (and won his first Gold Glove). You can now find Wainwright in second place on the Cardinals’ all-time strikeout chart (behind Hall of Famer Bob Gibson) and eighth on the team’s win list with 119. Molina is the only Cardinal since 1950 to play in four World Series.
• This will be the first Cardinal exhibition game since 2000 without one Albert Pujols. The man who homered to win the 2000 Pacific Coast League championship for Memphis came back and delivered home runs in 2004, 2007 (helping the Cards win the Civil Rights Game), and 2009. Pujols, of course, is entering his fourth season with the Los Angeles Angels. You can still find the red seat marking his famous homer on the rightfield bluff at AutoZone Park, just inside the foul pole.
• David Freese, Allen Craig, and Jon Jay were all Memphis Redbirds in 2009 and would play big roles in leading the Redbirds to their second PCL championship. Two years later, they were central figures in bringing the Cardinals their 11th world championship. Jay delivered a key single in the 10th-inning rally that kept St. Louis alive in Game 6. Craig hit three home runs (and caught the final out) against Texas. And Freese, of course, hit the most famous triple in Cardinals history, followed it with a home run to win Game 6, and earned MVP honors for the Fall Classic. This trio helped the Cardinals win another National League pennant in 2013, but only Jay remains with the team. Freese is a teammate of Pujols’s with the Angels and the Cardinals traded Craig to Boston last summer.
• The Cardinals have developed three everyday players — via Memphis — since the Cardinals last played here. They make up three-fourths of the St. Louis infield: first-baseman Matt Adams, second-baseman Kolten Wong, and third-baseman Matt Carpenter. Carpenter hit .300 in 2011, his only season with Memphis and two seasons later became the first player since Pete Rose to lead the major leagues in runs, hits, and doubles in the same season. Adams led the 2012 Redbirds with 18 home runs in just 67 games (he hit .329 before being promoted to St. Louis) and has slammed 32 long ones over the last two years with the Cardinals. Wong hit .303 and stole 20 bases for the 2013 Redbirds before taking over second base in St. Louis last season. He delivered a walk-off home run in Game 2 of last year’s NLCS, the Cardinals’ only win against San Francisco.
• Four of the Cardinals’ five-man starting rotation toed the rubber at AutoZone Park with the Redbirds, three of them since 2009. Wainwright should make his fourth Opening Day start when the Cardinals face the Chicago Cubs next Sunday. Following him in the St. Louis rotation will be Lance Lynn (13 wins and 141 strikeouts to lead the PCL in 2010), Michael Wacha, and the winner of a competition between Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales.
Friday night should be a special renewal of what is now an 18-year baseball partnership between Memphis and St. Louis. Here’s hoping the Cardinals don’t take six years before coming back.