The charter flight of the Cardinals began its descent over St. Louis three hours after it took off from Palm Beach International Airport on Tuesday night. It passed St. Louis Hills, Lindenwood Park, and Tower Grove South on its way to St. Louis Downtown Airport. Then it climbed eastward over Benton Park before touching down across the river. It was 7:02 pm when the Cardinals’ first flight home was completed.
The familiar, aerial tour of St. Louis marked a new baseball season. It was the beginning of an era. The Cardinals will host the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium for Thursday’s Opening Day matinee. This will be the beginning of a farewell to two long-standing franchise pillars: catcher Yadier Molinar and designated hitter/first baseman Albert Pujols. Both of them plan to retire at the end of the year. They will also welcome Oliver Marmol as the manager to the familiar first base dugout. The club hopes that their reliance on the All-Stars from yesterday will not be a nostalgic exercise, but a reliable method to chart a course towards future glory–or at the very least, one more playoff appearance with Molina and Pujols.
These models, taken together, show how much is still unknown and, frankly, concerning about this team’s potential. Are the Cardinals equipped with enough reliable pitching to get them through a long season of play? Are the veteran players able to contribute meaningfully to a team that is looking to advance to the postseason? Is the lineup strong enough? Marmol, a veteran Cardinals coach and right-hand man for former skipper Mike Shildt is Marmol the right person to do the job. There are many questions about St. Louis’ progress through the National League this season. These answers will decide whether Molina, Pujols and possibly Wainwright, hang up their spikes in September or continue their careers for a few more unforgettable weeks in October. These answers will eventually surface.
The Cardinals and their supporters will remember Thursday’s opening day in three years as a memorable occasion. It will be reminiscent of old times in many ways. It will feel for a few hours at most like everything is possible.
Ahead of Game No. 1 of 162, here are 10 things to know about the start of the season:
- Pujols makes his 22nd career Opening Day debut. Forget the matchups. Marmol will pencil in Pujols, a right-handed hitting pitcher, to Marmol’s opening day lineup card, despite the fact Pittsburgh is sending JT Brubaker right-handed. Pujols, who slugged.294 last season with 13 home runs, and a.939 ops against southpaws, will likely see most of his work in 2022 against lefties. The Cardinals respect Pujols’s feelings and will give him a homecoming assignment that is fitting of the arguably greatest hitter of our time.
- Pujols will be joining a select group of MLB players with the start. He will join the ranks of Boston Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski, and Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves legend Henry Aaron for the second most Major League Baseball starts behind Pete Rose’s 23. Pujols will surpass Stan Musial of the Cardinals, who began 21 Opening Day games during his Hall-of-Fame career.
- It has been quite some time since Pujols wore the Birds on the Bat. In the 3844 days since his 2011 regular-season game against the Cardinals, 3,844 days have passed. Throughout these 10 seasons, 32 Cardinals have played at least one game at first base in any given season. Matt Adams is the top-ranked player with 381 games played at this position over the past decade.
- Pujols’ return to the Cardinals means that they now have three of the five most senior players in MLB. Pujols, 42, is reuniting longtime teammates Wainwright (40) and Molina (39). The Redbirds have not had a catcher older than Molina since Walker Cooper, 42 years old, suited up in 1957.
- Molina and Pujols are tied for the franchise record in Opening Day home runs. Both longtime friends have four homers each. Molina, who drove in a run during the Cardinals’ opener at Cincinnati last season, moved up to third in Cardinals history. He now has 11 all-time Opening Day RBIs.
- Molina & Wainwright are poised to make history together. They’ll have 325 batteries if they can stay healthy and start 21 games together. This would break the record held by Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers. They’ll tie Red Faber of the Chicago White Sox and Ray Schalk for third all-time with two more starts.
- Without these two, it’s not Opening Day in St. Louis. Molina (19 seasons), and Wainwright (17 years) are the longest-tenured active big leaguers to have appeared with the same team. Only Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter (New York Yankees), Lou Whitaker, and Alan Trammell (Detroit Tigers) spent more time together than the Cardinals’ stalwarts.
- Thursday’s home opener will see Wainwright surpass Bob Gibson in the Cardinals’ history for most home opener starts. He has also been in St. Louis in 2009 and 2010, 2012, 2015, 2018, and 2021.
- There are 28 big-league players on the roster for April due to the compressed spring training schedule. The Cardinals don’t forget about the next generation of contributors just because they are going all-in on the old-timers. Lars Nootbaar, No. 6, right-hander Andre Pallante (No. 6), right-handers Andre Pallante (No. 16), and right-handers Andre Pallante (No. 19)–are among Baseball America’s top 20 prospects.
- Thursday’s opening ceremony will see 15 members of the Cardinals franchise hall-of fame. At 2:53 p.m., the Cardinal greats will be on the field.