“Give him anything he wants.”
Those were the words of wisdom John Mozeliak remembers Steve Turco offering to him more than 20 years ago about an 18-year-old
The signing deadline was approaching, the allotted time to solidify an agreement with the younger brother of two big league catchers was running out, and Turco couldn’t fathom what was taking so long.
“I remember having Steve Turco, our area scout in Florida at the time, see Yadi play in an American Legion tournament, and he called me after and said, ‘So, Mo, what’s the issue here?” said Mozeliak, now St. Louis’s president of baseball operations. “I told him he wanted more than slot, and I was trying to determine what dollars to put on him.”
Turco quickly offered his simple piece of advice, and it helped make the discussion a lot easier. The Cardinals inked their man, offering the high schooler a $325,000 signing bonus.
The negotiations that took place this offseason between Molina and the Cardinals were likely more stringent than the idea of giving the now-veteran backstop anything he wanted, but the two sides once again landed on an agreement, with Molina signing a one-year contract for $9 million on Tuesday.
“My relationship with Yadi, he certainly understands and recognizes that we’ve certainly appreciated everything he’s done for us and how we admire him as a player,” Mozeliak said at the end of the 2020 season. “There’s satisfaction having something happen under your umbrella, but it’s more that you’re a true fan and you get to appreciate the greatness.”
While the catcher’s on-field value has been made much more tangible through a résumé that includes nine All-Star appearances, nine Gold Gloves, four Platinum Gloves, one Silver Slugger and two World Series rings in 17 big league seasons and more than 2,000 games in a Cardinals uniform, signs of that greatness were there from the beginning.
“He probably could have caught in the big leagues his first year in the Minors,” Mozeliak said. “The nuances of catching he understood. He had two brothers [in Bengie and José] who were catching in the big leagues. He had an incredible baseball IQ.
“I’m thinking of guys like Larry Walker, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, when I answer [regarding great players]. The one thing that these types of players all have is amazing instinct and intelligence for the game. They’re definitely talented, no doubt, but they raise the bar in really understanding the game.”
One highlight of Molina’s in particular stands out to Mozeliak as evidence of his ability to be great, to rise to the occasion, and to get the job done when the stakes are the highest.
It was Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series, and Yadier Molina was a 23-year-old catcher in his third season in the Majors, also in the NLCS for the third time. Jeff Suppan got the start for St. Louis against the Mets at Shea Stadium, and the right-hander was effective, allowing one run on two hits over seven innings, but he was also erratic and inefficient, walking five, one intentionally.
New York scored in the opening frame, but the Cardinals matched its run in the top of the second, and the score remained deadlocked for the next six innings. In the visitors’ half of the ninth, with one out and Rolen on first, Molina stepped to the plate. He’d already been the team’s difference-maker behind the dish, working his magic with Suppan and handling his staff in a manner that was well beyond his years. But now came his time to finish the game.
He sent the first pitch he saw from Aaron Heilman over the fence to give his squad an advantage it would not relinquish, sending them straight to the World Series, where they beat the Tigers in five games, and he earned his first championship with the club.
“The impact he had in that game was incredible,” Mozeliak said. “That’s when you realize the greatness.”
Turco saw something early, and Mozeliak can recall a conversation with the late Dave Ricketts identifying the depth of Molina’s potential almost immediately. But he was still a player they could only dream of sharing 20 years with.
“He’s obviously an iconic figure for the St. Louis Cardinals,” Mozeliak said. “He’s played all his career with us. All that he’s accomplished … none of it is surprising because we’ve seen it from an organic standpoint. Watching him evolve was sort of a natural state for us.”