PHOENIX – Adam Wainwright walked into the Team USA clubhouse Tuesday afternoon for their first World Baseball Classic workout, looked around, and immediately shot a text message to his wife.
“I told her this is the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Wainwright told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s like the first day of school. It’s the first time I can remember being on a team where I didn’t know anyone except for the teammates I came here with.
“It’s really a funky feeling. It almost feels like I’m a free agent.
Wainwright, 41, who will be USA’s Game 1 starter Saturday night against Great Britain [9 ET, FS1] is the oldest player on Team USA. He has been pitching in the big leagues for 17 seasons. No one in the room has more service time.
And, perhaps, no one is more thrilled to be representing USA, pitching for the first time representing his country.
“This right here,” he said, tugging on the front of his USA jersey, “is real special to me. I always wanted to represent my country, especially since I failed last time.”
The year was 2003, Wainwright missed the cut and didn’t make the US Olympic qualifying team.
He waited 20 long years for his next opportunity, and just to make sure he wasn’t going to be snubbed again, made sure to tell WBC manager Mark DeRosa, his longtime friend and former teammate, that he wanted in.
“I’ve known Adam since he was a first round pick with the Braves [in 2000], and to watch him become one of the ambassadors of the game, and one of the best pitchers in the game,” DeRosa said, “it means so much to have him here. He’s the perfect guy to get us started.”
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Wainwright, who has 195 career victories, four top-5 Cy Young award finishes, one World Series championship ring, and three All-Star appearances, is now able to check the last item off his bucket list.
When he boarded the team bus from downtown Phoenix to the San Francisco Giants’ spring-training complex, he looked around, and didn’t even attempt to hide his euphoria.
“He’s so excited,” said WBC third baseman Nolan Arenado, one of four Cardinals on Team USA. “He’s done more than most people in this game, and to see him getting on the bus, and having him say that he felt like a little kid, and couldn’t be more excited, was pretty cool.”
Then again, he felt a little old, too, when Milwaukee Brewers reliever Devin Williams, 28, a St. Louis native, couldn’t wait to tell Wainwright that he was one of his biggest fans growing up.
Yep, and he has the autograph to prove it.
“I was like 10 years old and he was at a furniture store,” Williams said, “and I came in and asked for his autograph. That’s how much he meant to me.”
“Well,” he said, “at least I got a free couch out of it.”
“It’s just so cool to be around him,” Williams said, “and to try to pick his brain. He has so much knowledge and wisdom, I’ll try to gain a little bit if I can.”
Then again, considering they are divisional rivals, Williams may want to be careful. Wainwright isn’t giving up any of his secrets, to anyone, and plans to talk to as many position players as possible to garner some inside information.
Well, DeRosa might have spoiled that plan, when he informed his position players to be on the lookout.
“DeRo put them on full alert in the meeting,” Wainwright said, “and said, ‘Watch out for Waino! He’s going to try to get all of the good stuff from you.”’
“Of course,” Wainwright said. “I’m trying to talk to as many people as I can. I’m just not going to give them anything.”
Says Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts: “He’s got that veteran mindset. He may get in our heads somehow. But we’re all on the same side now, so it’s all fair game.”
Hey, that’s Wainwright, who tells you that he wants to win as much as anyone, but he also isn’t going to be cheated on fun, either.
“I’m taking it very seriously,” Wainwright says. “I’ll be ready, but I’m also going to have some fun and try to make sure I enjoy it.
“I waited a long time to do this, I want to soak it all in.”
It’s still hard to fathom Wainwright was never invited to participate in the WBC before this year. He has long been one of the game’s elite pitchers. He’s a role model in the community. And loved in the clubhouse.
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How is it possible he was never invited until now?
“Maybe that was kind of a thing in the past,” WBC general manager Tony Reagins said. “I heard from a few high-profile players who told me they’ve never been asked. My approach was to ask every freaking high-profile player to be a part of this. If I’m trying to build a really good team, you want the best players in the world.
“If you’re interested, we want you. If you’re not, I understand, but at least let me give you the respect of reaching out.”
The truth is that Wainwright actually reached out to MLB, or at least DeRosa, telling him how much he wanted to be a part of this. DeRosa told Reagins. Reagins telephoned Cardinals president John Mozeliak, who wasn’t sure yet that Wainwright was even coming back.
Once Wainwright decided he would return, the Cardinals abided by his wishes, Reagins said, and gave their immediate blessing.
Now here he is, the old man on the team, acting like a little kid.
“He’s so excited about this,” said Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who also played in the 2017 WBC. “I mentioned it to him last year, and told him, ‘Hey, if you get a chance, you should do it. It’s so much fun. It’s one of, if not the best, baseball experiences I’ve ever had.’
“Now, he gets that opportunity, too.”
Who knows, there could be one more surprise waiting for Wainwright, knowing it’s quite possible they could play a critical game in Miami against Puerto Rico. Yep, the same team that’s managed by Yadier Molina, Wainwright’s longtime personal catcher. The duo had a record 328 starts together during 17 seasons.
Now, for the first time, they could be actual opponents.
“It would be fun if it happens,” Wainwright says, “but I’m just humbled and honored to even be part of this. This is a dream.
“I’m finally wearing USA across my chest.
“I couldn’t be more proud.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Adam Wainwright to start Game 1 for Team USA in WBC