It was Wainwright's big league debut. The Cardinals were on their way to a 100-win season. Molina was nearing the end of his first full season as St. Louis' regular catcher. Pujols, already one of the game's biggest stars, was working toward his first MVP award.
Seventeen years and three weeks later, on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, the trio was together, still, again and for the last time in the regular season. When the game began, there they were, Wainwright on the mound, Molina squatting behind home plate and Pujols hunched over on the ready at first base.
Given the pomp and circumstance surrounding the weekend, it's not as though any of them could miss the significance of the moment. But if by some miracle they did, all they had to do was peek at the throng in the stands.
"I just think this is probably the best I've ever seen our crowd, ever, since I've been here," Wainwright said.
The playoffs lie ahead, so their collective story remains a work in progress, but as a starting group, this was it for the regular season, as Wainwright won't pitch again before the playoffs.
Although Pujols left St. Louis for a decade before returning this season, the gap between that first game together and the last reached 6,230 days Sunday, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And in case you're wondering, it is the longest gap between the debut and finale of a baseball teammate trio in baseball history.
And when you looked at all the Wainwright, Molina and Pujols jerseys around the park and noticed the disparate ages of those wearing them, it was this longevity that stood out as their last regular-season weekend in St. Louis unfolded.
"For many people in St. Louis that are probably all the way up to 30 years and younger, they don't really remember baseball a whole lot without those two guys," Wainwright said a couple of days before his start, always careful to make sure the focus stayed on Molina and Pujols.
The ballyhooed hardball fans of St. Louis crowded the downtown streets all weekend and jammed into sold-out Busch Stadium. But the three-day celebration of the Cardinals' last homestand of the season reached an emotional crescendo Sunday, when Pujols and Molina were to be honored during a pregame ceremony.
The buzz was palpable. Hall of Fame St. Louis sportswriter Rick Hummel declared before the game that he had never seen pregame lines outside like the ones outside the ballpark Sunday -- not for a World Series, not for anything. And he would know: Hummel is so immersed in Cardinals history the press box is named after him.
What, exactly, was it the fans wanted so badly to see and feel? Well, history. And no one does baseball history like St. Louis.