Wigginton brings chase for champagne to Cards
JUPITER, Fla. -- Willie McCovey left Stretch marks all over the National League, and Willie Stargell hit them to the stars. In their time, they were the premier long-ball guys -- among left-handed hitters -- in the league. Then Darryl Strawberry. And for a brief period -- even as Barry Bonds was making repeated splashes in McCovey Cove -- the greatest left-handed power in the NL came from the bat of Mo Vaughn. Whether aided or not, Bonds hit many far. Vaughn hit far fewer, much farther.
It was in August 2002 when Vaughn, in his first season with the Mets -- the first of his one-plus seasons in the NL -- nearly reached the Gateway Arch in St. Louis with a mammoth home run off Andy Benes. Ty Wigginton, then a Mets rookie, recalls the home run for two reasons: One, Benes hit him with the ensuing pitch, and two, a Busch Stadium crowd of 44,299 stood and cheered Vaughn for reaching a spot that Mark McGwire might not have challenged were he a left-handed hitter.
Almost 11 years after the fact that seemed like fiction, Wigginton clearly recalls the stunning flight of the ball and the equally surprising reaction of those who had gathered inside Busch.
"It was a tight game. I think we won," Wigginton said on Monday morning. "And they cheered a visiting player. That doesn't happen very much."
A few years later, Wigginton witnessed a visiting shortstop -- he can't recall who -- make a dazzling play on the same turf Ozzie Smith used for his wizardry.
"Another standing ovation," Wigginton said. "Unbelievable."
The response of the Cardinals masses on those occasions has stayed with Wigginton. It has as much to do with his presence in the Cards' camp this spring as any other factor. "Still chasing the champagne" is how he explains his decision to bring his blue-collar career to the center of the Cardinals' red universe. Though Wigginton is unlikely to play with any degree of regularity, it was the anticipated joy of playing before the appreciative folks of the Show Me State that convinced him.
"As soon as I signed," he said, "I got texts from guys telling me how much I was going to like it in St. Louis -- Woody Williams, Super Joe McEwing ... George Hendrick. He'd been with Tampa Bay when I was there. He said it'll be great. I knew it was good place to play."
So there was Wigginton on Monday, four months past his 35th birthday and in the uniform of his eighth team. The search for champagne has taken him from New York to Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay to Houston, Baltimore, Denver, Philadelphia and, now, to an organization that he describes as "always in it."
Wigginton is a stranger in a strange world, having played with none of the other 39 men on the 40-man roster.
"That's a first for me," he said, "but it's neat, because you feel like you're starting over again, like a rookie."
Wigginton has moved around the continent as he has moved around the field. He has made 678 appearances at third base, 329 at first, 168 at second, 67 in left field, 15 in right and even nine at shortstop. And Wigginton has served as a designated hitter in 48 other games.
His 6-foot, 235-pound body was seated in front of his locker on Monday when Smith passed. Advised that Wigginton had played shortstop -- indeed, he had been signed as a shortstop in 1998 -- the patron saint of the position took a long look at Wigginton's thick thighs and heavy calves, smiled and said "really" in a way that was less of a question than a statement of amazement.
Wigginton's only experiences at short came in 2009, when he played with the Orioles under then-manager Dave Trembley.
"I played only when we were down and we needed a few runs," Wigginton said with a degree of pride. "It's the only position where I never made an error."
Chances are his days at shortstop are over. For that matter, Wigginton's need for any glove has diminished. His innings in the field dropped with the Phillies last summer, and the Cards have no plans to use him in any sort of platoon. Occasional starts at any one of five positions and pinch-hitting will fill his dance card.
"You always hear guys say, 'I'll do anything they ask,'" Wigginton said. "I'll volunteer. If they want, I'll catch. I caught seven innings in Triple-A in 2001. One of our catchers got hurt and John Gibbons [now Blue Jays manager] had to go to the hospital. One of his kids was sick. ... I'd go back there, but I don't think they'd want that."
Wigginton's versatility appeals to the Cardinals, as do his veteran status and uncompromising manner on the field. They don't believe that their recent teams have lacked grit -- other clubs had signed or traded for him because of a perceived need for his fiery ways -- but the more hard-nosed players, the better.
Moreover, manager Mike Matheny noted that reinforcement from a fellow player tends to have greater impact on younger players than words directly from the manager.
"He's proven to be a special guy who'll speak up and say something," Matheny said. "He's a veteran guy who gets what we are."
General manager John Mozeliak said, after his staff had done its due diligence, "We found nothing negative about him."
Gary LaRocque, one of Mozeliak's assistants, who signed Wigginton with the Mets, "was a huge advocate," Mozeliak said. That Wigginton plays the game with a "get out of my way" approach is an influence seen as positive. Catchers beware. Second basemen, too. He's comin'. Yadier Molina, recalling a collision with his new colleague in Pittsburgh a few years ago, groaned and grimaced. Wigginton smiled, even though Molina held the ball.
"If that's why they were interested in me, that's fine," Wigginton said. "I'm glad they were interested in me. I was always interested in them. It seems like they always do things right here, and they're always in it. They make good decisions, they have good people. They play the game right. I know George Kissell [the Cardinals' late Minor League instructor] ... People talked about him like he was a genius.
"This will be real baseball here. I've always liked the way the Cardinals play, and now I'm one of them."
Pass the champagne please.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.