Family ties: Mom, brother molded Wainwright
Growing up, Cardinals' ace had solid foundation for his future success
ST. LOUIS -- The netting still hangs in the backyard of the Couper Avenue residence where Nancy Wainwright used to stay up late hoping she was doing everything right, wondering if she could do enough. Her prayers were often promises, letting God know that she would give nothing less than her all to make certain she fulfilled her obligations to the two wonderful blessings sleeping under her roof.
There was Trey, the high academic achiever, Eagle Scout and future law school graduate whose work ethic also fostered a successful athletic career. Adam was seven years -- eight school grades -- his younger, trailing Trey with open eyes and, not until later, realizing how much a protector big brother had been.
Adam was still in an infant seat when Nancy began taking him to the Little League fields at Mallory Park or the nearby basketball gym for Trey's games. Adam tagged along for years, eventually eliciting enough sympathy from Trey and his friends that they would let him shoot a few baskets or shag a few balls to keep him content as he watched.
"I think they just let me do things kind of to be nice," Adam jokes nowadays.
That was probably part of the motive, but Trey was also especially intentional in how he looked after Adam. Their father had left the family before Adam was in kindergarten, and as much as Nancy insisted that it was not Trey's duty to take on a father-figure role, he saw a least partial obligation.
And so when Trey -- at this point several years into his college studies at Georgia Tech -- started seeing dads building backyard batting cages for some of Adam's teammates, he decided to step in. He believed Adam, then a rising star in several sports, needed a mound.
There were not enough funds to go purchase ready-made clay, so the two brothers began digging. They went down 10 feet, Adam estimates, before finding good brown dirt that could be used. Trey purchased lumber from a hardware store to build the frame. He constructed a netting system and spray painted the edges of the strike zone.
"It was a fun brother project," Trey recalls.
It was potentially a career-changing one, too.
Adam spent hours upon hours on that homemade mound, throwing at the corners of the strike zone during his high school years. If he missed by too much, the ball would be lost within a mix of thorns or shrubs. In other words, command was critical.
That mound has since eroded away, and Adam, who will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series for the Cardinals on Thursday at 4 p.m. CT on TBS, long ago began shining on much grander stages. But the surviving pieces of netting are a tangible reminder of where he came from, and the whole project remains emblematic of a family unit much more precious than the millions Adam now makes.
For that backyard mound was a snapshot of the Wainwrights.
Nancy provided the foundation. Trey did the molding. And Adam thrived behind their support.
Nancy, or nana as her grandchildren now call her, still lives in that modest south Georgia home on the island of St. Simons. She is a real estate agent these days, thriving in a career that she had to give up for several years in order to rear two boys alone.
She supported the family -- or the "Three Musketeers," as she calls them -- as an interior designer, specializing in kitchens and baths. Her studio was at home, and she would escape there in the late-night and early-morning hours to do her drawings and plan the remodels.
Doing her work while everyone else slept freed her afternoon hours for more important work.
"She basically tailored her career for her boys," Trey said. "It was more a means to what jobs gave her the most flexibility to allow her to be home when the kids got out of school or get the kids to sports practices or Boy Scouts or whatever we did."
And those boys did a lot.
Trey played basketball and baseball, in addition to being involved in Scout troops. Adam had soccer, basketball, baseball, football and golf. Nancy recalls one spring night when she made multiple trips back and forth on the interstate to see Trey's first high school game and Adam's Little League season opener at Mallory Park.
She insisted on being in the stands for both.
"I can't put that into words," Adam said. "She's by herself, working two jobs and taking two kids back and forth across bridges. There was just a lot of stuff going on, and she didn't have any help."
On an island where most children wanted for nothing, Nancy made her boys feel like they had more than they actually did. She allowed their lives to be consumed by sports -- as long as academics remained a priority -- and was the head of the household where all the friends wanted to hang out.
It didn't hurt, Adam said, that his mom was a culinary wizard.
She brought them to church, allowed them to keep a dog and made an exception to the family dinner rule when the Braves were on TV. On those nights, they would pull out TV trays and eat while watching TBS. Trey and Adam spent the telecasts dissecting the mechanics and approaches of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
"People talk about how families need to sit at the dinner table and need to have conversations and interact, and we certainly aspire to that in my household now," Trey said. "But I do think that watching TV benefited Adam."
There was an impact in what she did, but also in how she did it. She embodied perseverance, a lesson that Adam has carried close through his career.
"She had it rough for a while there and found a way to get it done," Wainwright said. "She didn't throw in the chips when things weren't in her favor. She had a lot of things stacked against her and always found a way to make us feel like we were comfortable when we probably weren't. She made everything happen."
The image confused Adam that day as he returned home from school and started walking up his driveway. There was Trey, laying on his back, spinning a basketball, trying to perfect his wrist action. He kept at it for many, many minutes, as Adam watched perplexed.
"It was like, 'Oh my gosh. What in the world are you doing down there?" Adam said. "'Shoot it at the goal.' But he was just a big practice guy, a big preparation guy. That lesson translates into what I do now very well."
Trey, the valedictorian of his high school class, had to work much harder than Adam to excel in athletics. Trey consumed himself in the process, the practice and the why. He was analytical and intentional. He had learned that he would have to overwork to outplay.
"People often talk about how Adam is such a smart pitcher and that he thinks things through," Nancy said. "He learned that from Trey."
Throughout Adam's teenage years, Trey, who would later negotiate Adam's $1.25 million Draft bonus, helped his little brother construct a wall of clippings. Any time famed Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone would be quoted in the newspaper talking about the mechanics or mindset of pitching, Trey would cut it out, highlight it and put it on Adam's bedroom wall. They would cut out quotes from the Braves' pitchers, too.
The wall became a collection of quotations, designed to push Adam to think through the art of pitching.
Later, in between graduating with honors from Georgia Tech and beginning law school, Trey spent a year back in St. Simons, where he took a job at a bank. His other job involved Adam.
He took his younger brother to all his practices and games, videotaped his pitching outings and would then sit down to discuss them with Adam afterward. He had always been one to challenge Adam, going back to the days when he used to make Adam his catcher when he was in elementary school.
"He was always taller and more athletically gifted than his peers," Trey said. "There were times where if I needed to practice or throw a bullpen [session], the convenient thing to do was say, 'Let's go outside and throw the baseball.' I didn't let up on him a whole lot. He better hold his own or he was going to get hurt."
It was also Trey who encouraged Adam, as an eighth grader, to try out for the high school baseball team. He hoped the experience would prepare Wainwright for tryouts the next year.
Adam ended up making the team.
"He was always playing up and his brother guided him through a lot of that," Nancy said. "Trey was the excellent student and a good athlete. Adam was the excellent athlete and a good student. They complemented each other's strengths."
The Major Leaguer
Nancy estimates that Adam was about 5 years old when she signed him up for his first Tee Ball league. The family was en route to the ball field for the first game when Trey began to prepare Adam for what to expect. He explained that that there would be no score, that every kid on the team would get to swing until he puts the ball in play and that Adam would likely be the last in line because he was the tallest.
Adam crossed his arms.
"That's the dumbest game I've ever heard of," he said, as recalled by his mom. "Why don't they pitch it to you?"
Indeed, Adam would always be more advanced than others his age. A few years later, Little League organizers approached Nancy to tell her they needed to move Adam up a level because the "parents are scared he's going to hit the ball so hard he'll hurt their children who are playing in the dirt." Nancy begrudgingly obliged.
Adam excelled in whatever sport he tried. He was winning junior golf tournaments by the age of nine. His Golden Isles Heat soccer team was among the elite soccer teams in the state. In middle school, he and teammate Kwame Brown, who would later be selected first overall in the 2001 NBA Draft, led the basketball team to an undefeated season.
As Adam prepared to start high school at Glynn Academy, the varsity baseball coach and a football assistant coach, Chuck Fehr, persuaded him to come to a summer football workout. Fehr placed the football where it would be for an extra point. Adam nailed it. Fehr then set up a 40-yard field goal. Adam hit that, too.
Adam later went on to earn all-state honors as a placekicker and all-region as a wide receiver.
"That was just him," Fehr said. "He could do whatever he put his mind to."
There was something especially captivating, though, in how Adam handled the biggest of moments. It was something that the world would later witness when the Cardinals rookie closed four games and made nine scoreless appearances in the 2006 postseason. Years before that, he had shined in an all-state showcase game to solidify his spot as a first-round pick.
"He's always been the one who wants to be in when it's on the line," Nancy said. "He was the goalie in soccer, the kicker in football, the pitcher in baseball. He always wanted to be the one handling the pressure."
"He was one of those kids who comes along who is just real special," Fehr added. "We knew he had something that most kids didn't."
Adam still lives on that Georgia island during his offseason, giving back to a community that once stepped up to help raise him. Trey is just a few hours away in Atlanta, where he is an attorney. Nancy is busy with her real estate career, though she has already cleared her schedule for Thursday.
She'll spend the early evening hours inside that island home, the one where the netting still stands and the memories still last, watching Adam open the Cardinals' quest for a 12th World Series championship.
"We worked hard," Nancy said. "I always just said, 'Well, did you do the best you could?'"
It would seem that all three of them did.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.