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Cardinals Care Winter Warm-Up

Fredbird joins St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina while he signs autographs for fans during Cardinals Care Winter Warm-Up at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Busch Stadium might need to relocate to The Hill.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon once compared the Cardinals to Tony Soprano.

What is he going to say when he finds out what manager Mike Shildt is calling catcher Yadier Molina?

“He’s the Yadfather,” Shildt said. “When he speaks, everybody is going to listen.”

It was Don Vito Corleone who warned that “a friend should always underestimate your virtues and an enemy overestimate your faults.”

Let the record show that Kris Bryant mixed them up. The Cubs’ third baseman underestimated Molina’s faults, and in doing so he has inspired a rival.

The consensus among Cardinals on all levels, from the front office to the minor leagues, seems to be that Bryant did the Cardinals a big favor when he slammed “boring” St. Louis during a Cubs Convention dig.

Multiple players admitted the remarks were mostly harmless and probably taken out of context. Zero hesitated before falling in line behind Molina, who picked a scorched-earth response to Bryant and anyone else who cares to speak poorly of his baseball home.

“I can tell you I was pretty happy to see what he did,” team President Bill DeWitt III said Monday.

“Anything that motivates No. 4, and gets him fired up is something that resonates with the whole group,” added Matt Carpenter. “As long as I’ve known Yadier Molina, he’s about as passionate and fiery of a guy that you can ever come across, not just in baseball, but in life in general. And I can assure you that he’s not a guy who I would ever want on my bad side.”

But it was the catcher now looking up at Molina from Class AAA who framed the bigger picture perfectly.

“Yadi is a tough guy, and I think he likes to have that respect,” Andrew Knizner said. “I think it sort of connects to what position he plays. You’re always kind of defending home plate. I think he did the exact same thing in that Instagram post he put out. He was defending the home plate of St. Louis. I thought it was symbolic in a way.”

Indeed.

It would take a book with as many pages as innings Molina has caught to adequately explain why an entire city bends to kiss its catcher’s rings.

Molina is the 36-year-old Cooperstown-worthy competitor whose Gatorade cooler is filled from the fountain of youth.

Whether his challenger is an opposing manager who picked the wrong curse word, or a division rival with a microphone, he attacks with the same approach he uses to block an errant pitch. He smothers, leaving only enough air for an apology.

St. Louis loves Molina for many reasons, and a big one is because Molina and St. Louis share a weakness, one that can turn into a strength if channeled properly.

Molina and the city he calls home are both highly sensitive to any sign of disrespect. Outsiders tend to think it’s an inferiority complex. We call it pride. Neither the catcher nor his city can see shades of slight. There is respect, and then there is disrespect, and don’t bother arguing there are degrees in between.

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Molina’s knee, still healing from offseason surgery to remove a bone spur, is not expected to be game-ready until Grapefruit League games in March. But his desire to make Bryant regret his remarks is burning bright. An entire organization spent the weekend catching a contact high.

“The energy he feeds us just purely by who he is and what he does really does lift the locker room up,” Harrison Bader said.

Laughter filled the room when John Brebbia danced into a Winter Warm-Up media session as Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” played, a nod to the reliever’s response to Bryant’s slam. No one was joking when Molina appeared in that same room Monday and answered a question about this social media spat carrying over into the season.

“Oh, it will,” Molina said. “It will carry. I can’t wait to get on the field.”

Truth is, this is bigger than Bryant.

It’s about Molina feeling great and growing tired at the exact same time.

He still feels like a young man, other than the knee that is coming along. He’s even open to the notion of playing beyond the end of his current contract — but only with the Cardinals — if there is mutual interest in an extension after the 2020 season. His number will be retired, and he should get a statue, but his body is telling him he’s not done yet.

Molina also absolutely loves this 2019 team. He celebrated the Paul Goldschmidt trade by cracking open a cold beer on a boat. He continues to gush about his manager. He’s started calling Shildt “Jefe,” the Spanish word for boss.

“He reminds me of Tony (La Russa), back in the day,” Molina said. “Tony is that type of manager. Playing the little ball. At the same time, trusting the guy. The communication is there. He reminds me of Tony. A lot.”

High praise, considering Molina’s towering respect for Hall of Famer TLR.

But Molina can also see what his fans see. Their irritation has become his. A proud baseball organization in a city obsessed with the game has surrendered its territory. There used to be consequences for coming at the Cardinals. Now even Ryan Dempster is piling on. What has happened to Molina’s team?

I asked Molina if his 16th season is about restoring the brand as much as it is striking back against the Cubs.

“We have to do something,” he said.

“It’s disappointing for us as players not to be in the playoffs,” he added. “But, like I said, this year is different. We feel the difference right now. It’s going to be different.”

He repeatedly used that word. Different. Asked to elaborate, he didn’t hedge.

“I’m 100 percent sure that we have what we need to win the (World) Series,” Molina said. “Right now, it just depends on us. Try to stay healthy. And after that, we are going to show the world that we can do it.”

The Cardinals have to show Chicago first, as their catalyst of a catcher will be sure to remind a proud family scorned.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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