MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Competitive Jeter deserved Wainwright's best

Cards ace ignites controversy with comments about Captain's at-bat

Competitive Jeter deserved Wainwright's best

MINNEAPOLIS -- No player in baseball is more respected than Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright. Regardless of what happened in the 2014 All-Star Game on Tuesday night, it's important not to lose sight of that fact.

In terms of raging competitive fires and being a good teammate and always attempting to do the right thing, Wainwright is one of the gold standards in Major League Baseball.

Sometimes a guy comes along that seems almost too good to be true. That's how plenty of Wainwright's teammates, coaches and managers feel about him.

If you understand these things, you'll understand why Wainwright was the National League's starting pitcher on Tuesday night. Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw has been baseball's best pitcher this season, scary good at times, with numbers that look like they're from a haywire video game.

But St. Louis' Mike Matheny used his position as the NL manager to reward his guy. Nothing wrong with that. Virtually every manager would have done the same thing if they had an Adam Wainwright on their team. As Matheny said in defending the decision, the numbers are there for Wainwright, too.

There's that, too. Wainwright's name is dotted across the NL leaderboard as well, and he's likely to be named on virtually every NL Cy Young Award ballot. Again, though, this was a decision based on way more than numbers. This was about character and class and representing the Cards the way they want to be represented.

No player respects the battle more than Adam Wainwright. And so, he understands that he never should have grooved a couple of pitches to Derek Jeter, if indeed that's what he did.

And if Wainwright did do that, he never should have been so open about it. On the other hand, that's one of the reasons people love Adam Wainwright. He's painfully honest, spectacularly honest, pathologically incapable of lying.

So when reporters quizzed Wainwright about Jeter's first-inning double after he left the game, he said he'd given him a couple of pitches down the middle of the plate.

"I was gonna give him a couple pipe shots," Wainwright said. "He deserved it. I didn't know he was gonna hit a double or I might've changed my mind."

This is where things get murky. Did he or didn't he? Those comments ignited a firestorm on social media. Not only had Wainwright done something that insulted Derek Jeter, he'd admitted it, which shifted the attention from Jeter to himself.

On a night when Wainwright did not have his best stuff, Jeter's double started a rally that ended with Miguel Cabrera's two-run home run and got the American League a 3-0 lead in a game they eventually won, 5-3.

"If he grooved it, thank you," Jeter said. "You still have to hit it. I appreciate it."

Jeter's double didn't cost the NL a victory. But it contributed, and that's important because it could end up hurting Wainwright and the Cardinals big-time in October.

Because the All-Star Game decides home-field advantage in the World Series, the Cards could end up playing Game 7 on the road. It might not decide who wins the World Series, but it would be a factor.

In an instant, an evening Wainwright talked about being one of the greatest honors of his career became a nightmare, not just in the results on the mound, but in the reaction that followed.

After the game, Wainwright attempted to clarify his earlier comments, facing wave upon wave of reporter, the last player to leave the NL clubhouse.

"I was trying to get him out," he said. "Listen, I totally created something here that I did not want to create. ...

"I'm definitely not trying to give up a hit. I don't know what else to say. It's the truth and that's all I can say. ...

"What was relayed to me was that writers and people everywhere were really upset about me throwing the game and giving up hits on purpose. ...

"If you don't believe me, I'd ask you ask anybody I ever played with to vouch for me or any media person in the St. Louis media to stand up and say, 'Adam is not a guy who would do that.' ...

"When I said 'down the pipe,' I should have said I tried to execute a strike. I didn't say that, so I'm probably going to take some heat. But I'm going to sleep easy tonight knowing the truth, and that's fine."

OK, let's cut to the chase. If Wainwright did groove a pitch, he shouldn't have. He would not have honored Jeter by doing that. In fact, he would have done just the opposite. That would be an insult to Jeter and everything he has stood for these last 20 seasons.

On the other hand, Wainwright has some equity in the bank, too. He has been a consummate professional for nine seasons and has been part of two championship teams. Wainwright has been a stand-up guy with the media and fans. If he says he didn't do it, then he didn't.

Wainwright had spoken on Monday about the honor of facing Jeter in his final All-Star Game. When Jeter stepped to home plate in the first inning, Wainwright did something typically classy by stepping off the mound and allowing the ovation to wash over Jeter and hang in the air.

How often do we get to tell one of the all-time greats how much we appreciate him and will miss him?

Wainwright understood that moment, and he allowed it to be as emotional and complete as it could ever be. If they're really lucky, Cardinals fans may someday have a chance to do the same for Wainwright.

That's the part in this story that can't be told enough. These two guys, Wainwright and Jeter, both burn to win and measure themselves against the best. They're the best of the best.

And that's the real irony in all of this. Jeter and Wainwright surely understand one another because they're so much alike.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.