ST. LOUIS -- A little over a week after Yadier Molina put the Cardinals on the clock by imposing an Opening Day deadline for extension talks, the two sides reached an agreement that all but assures Molina will end his career with the only organization he's ever known.
With the city already buzzing in anticipation for the Cardinals-Cubs season opener on tap Sunday evening, the Cardinals held an afternoon press conference to announce a three-year contract extension with Molina. The deal, worth $60 million, will carry Molina through the 2020 season.
"I can't be more happy than I am right now," said Molina, who cried when his agent informed him the deal had been finalized. "This is a dream come true. I always wanted to be here."
That wasn't always assured, however, especially after Molina issued public statements last weekend indicating that he had interest in testing his value on the free-agent market next offseason. The Cardinals never wanted to let it get that far.
They reopened negotiations a week ago, understanding, as general manager John Mozeliak said, that they were "running out of runway if we wanted to get something done."
It was a complex negotiation because of the age and importance of the player involved. But while this extension wasn't crafted solely to celebrate a legacy, it will likely cement one.
"To me, this is much more than what he's done," Mozeliak said. "What it means to me is what he's going to do. In a way, today is just the next chapter in our future. We believe he can compete at the highest level, and we still feel that Yadi is one of the greatest catchers in the game. He's in great shape. He trains well. He eats well. And he knows what's important about not only today, but tomorrow as well.
"So today is not about a sun-setting career. Today is about us retaining the greatest catcher to ever wear a Cardinals uniform."
Sunday marks Molina's 13th consecutive Opening Day start, a streak surpassed by only two players (Stan Musial and Lou Brock) in franchise history. By the end of his contract, Molina will have played 17 years in a Cardinals uniform, matching Bob Gibson's tenure with the club. Only Musial, who played 22 years for the Redbirds, will have spent more time playing for the franchise.
"Yadi and I were [reflecting] on it earlier, that when we first met, fourth-round pick [in the 2000 MLB Draft], and to be here today is truly a remarkable story," Mozeliak said. "I think about my time and [owner Bill DeWitt Jr.'s] time with the Cardinals, and we've really had two players that we drafted and you think about legacy. Albert Pujols being one, and, of course, now Yadi spending his whole career here is something special."
But as the Cardinals found out during their unsuccessful attempts to retain Pujols in 2011, these negotiations are never simple. Both Molina and Mozeliak cited the emotional "ups and downs" of the past week as the two parties worked toward an agreement palatable for each.
Molina sought to become the game's highest-paid catcher, while the Cardinals worked through the difficulty of projecting future performance for a catcher who will turn 35 in July. With an average annual value of $20 million over this next contract, Molina got his wish.
As for the Cardinals, they are betting that regression arrives late for Molina, who has thus far shown exceptional durability at the game's most demanding position.
"I think everything's already kind of been addressed with how Yadi prepares -- the discipline of how he trains, how he spends his winters, how he prepares each game," manager Mike Matheny said. "There's just something about certain guys that they still contribute no matter what, no matter how they're feeling. That's something Yadi has done on a pretty consistent basis. That kind of sets him apart."
The accolades are beginning to set Molina apart, too. He is an eight-time National League Gold Glove Award winner, a seven-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion. Molina already ranks 25th among catchers in Major League history with 1,593 hits, and ranks among the Cardinals' all-time leaders in games played (10th), hits (13th), doubles (12th), home runs (19th) and RBIs (13th).
It's the sort of resume that could eventually lead Molina to Cooperstown, N.Y.
"Defensively, I don't think I've ever seen anything even close to him, and there's some great catchers out there," said longtime batterymate Adam Wainwright. "He's no doubt shepherded our pitchers over the years. I just think he's such a clutch performer. He's the guy no pitcher wants to face in a big moment."
The Cardinals are keenly aware of how Molina has his fingerprints on so many within the organization. He's a mentor to young catchers during Spring Training and the rudder for the pitching staff. As was recently showcased in the World Baseball Classic, Molina can also fill the role of in-game pitching coach.
His impact in this organization could extend beyond the length of the contract, though the Cardinals did not include a personal-services clause into this deal that would allow him to work with the organization in a coaching or advising capacity. The Cardinals would nevertheless welcome that continued relationship.
For now, however, Molina is exactly where he wanted to be -- and, as the Cardinals see it, exactly where he belonged.
"As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Cardinals franchise, Yadier Molina has become an iconic player, one of the all-time greats in Cardinals history," DeWitt said. "We are thrilled to have Yadi continue his remarkable career with the Cardinals through the 2018 season and look forward to much continued success with No. 4 behind the plate."
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.