ATLANTA -- In 2012, Kolten Wong was playing for the Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate in Springfield, Mo., and trying to adjust to life nearly 4,000 miles away from his hometown of Hilo, Hawaii.
It wasn’t easy for the then-21-year-old. He was trying to fit in the clubhouse while also fitting in on the baseball field. But his manager made the transition a little smoother -- and helped catapult the second baseman into the Major Leagues a year later.
That manager was Mike Shildt. He made Wong feel at home, understood him as a player and let him play his own game. More than anything, he had confidence in Wong, who hit .287 in 2012 and helped Springfield to a Texas League championship.
“Growing up in Hawaii, growing up totally different than anyone else in the clubhouse, Shildt knew who I was,” Wong said. “He’d pull me aside and ask, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Why are you pressing, why are you trying to hit home runs?’ He wanted you to be yourself. He knew what yourself looked like. He’s very good at watching people play and making sure you’re playing your best baseball.
“He just found the good things in me and allowed me to exploit those.”
Seven years later, Wong and Shildt are back in the postseason together. This time, though, it’s with the Cardinals, with a chance to go to the National League Championship Series if they can win Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Braves on Wednesday at SunTrust Park. Wong is a necessary part of the Cardinals’ lineup and defense. Shildt, as the manager, molded this team into the NL Central champion for the first time since 2015 by using the same tactics that helped Wong back in Double-A: understanding, confidence and a whole lot of belief.
Shildt, 51, is in his first full season as the Cardinals' manager after taking over halfway through last year when Mike Matheny was dismissed. He is a member of a very unusual club -- big league managers who never played pro ball -- but that hasn’t held him back.
After coaching high school and collegiate baseball, Shildt worked for MLB's Scouting Bureau before scouting for the Cardinals in 2004. He wanted to coach, so president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, then the assistant general manager, gave him a chance. Shildt began every season from '04-07 serving as an area scout and player development instructor before coaching a short-season team in a variety of roles.
In 2009, Shildt got his shot at managing. He took over the Cardinals’ rookie affiliate in Johnson City, Tenn., and won the Appalachian League championship in '10 and ’11. He captured that Texas League title with Double-A Springfield in '12. After two seasons in Triple-A, Shildt finally arrived in the big leagues in '17 as the quality control coach before moving to third-base coach and then bench coach in '18.
It was in 2017 when Mozeliak realized where Shildt’s journey was leading him while having dinner with Shildt and a few others at Kreis’ Steakhouse & Bar in St. Louis. After a conversation he had with Shildt about what was going on in the organization at the time, Mozeliak went home to his wife, Julie, and told her his hunch: Shildt will manage in the big leagues one day.
“I joke with friends that Mike Shildt beat the odds more than anybody that’s ever managed,” Mozeliak said. “I know that sounds a little extreme, but you look at the history of who has put on the uniform as a manager, it usually goes back to their playing career and not a career that started in the scouting world. But when you really look at his journey, and the steps he was taking and why, they were all preparing him to someday get an opportunity.”
Take that 2012 Texas League championship, for example. During the series, former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa surprised Shildt, and the two talked about managing in the postseason during dinner. La Russa had some experience.
“I said, ‘It’s got to be a lot different playing at the big league level.’” Shildt recalled. “He goes, ‘No. More people are paying attention, but playoff baseball is playoff baseball, and championship baseball is championship baseball. Don’t minimize what you’re experiencing.’
“I’ve gone through it at that level. Now, is it different here? Sure, it is. Clearly more people paying attention. It is an opportunity for me to grow and get that battle-testing as well, but to the point of doing anything different, you just prepare to play the game and be ready to make the move that you feel best gives us a chance to win the game.”
So what does make Shildt an effective manager? His confidence in the players, Wong says. His perspective, Harrison Bader says. His accountability, Paul DeJong says. It’s Shildt’s intentionality in all three of those things, bench coach Oliver Marmol says, that prepares him to make the right moves in games. All of it revolves around the players.
“Because of how intentional he is about trying to grow them and get them to a deeper understanding of who they need to be to have success at this level, all of our players have grown from his leadership style,” Marmol said. “If you want to be great at something, that’s what it takes. He’s taken on the challenge of being one of the best to do this. From the second he was given a job within this organization, he has put a lot of hours into helping this organization be the best. It’s just part of who he is.”
Shildt has a good feel for the people he works with, whether it’s the coaches or players. Everyone knows what he expects them to do, Marmol said. That’s also where the confidence comes in. Players know Shildt isn’t going to bail on them if they have a bad game.
“When you’re getting judged on game-to-game statistics and whatnot, usually it won’t pan out,” Wong said. “[Shildt] came in and knew that he was going to give me that chance. He loved how I played the game. He knew me and gave me that confidence -- take the reins and go.”
Shildt talks to all his players before a game to get a read on how they’re feeling. For Andrew Miller, that time comes in the dugout a little before the game starts. Carlos Martínez pops his head in Shildt’s office to tell his manager how many innings he has in him that day. Every player is different, but those check-ins are core of the belief that Shildt has in them.
“Believing in individuals and teams only gets tested when things aren't going your way,” Shildt said. “And the easiest thing in the world is to punt on somebody. Sometimes it's necessary in competition if a guy just doesn't feel or look right, but not necessary when you have guys that you believe in that you know their work is taking place in the right manner, their head's in the right spot. You know they've got a process for what they're doing and how they're doing it.”
The last time Shildt managed an elimination game was in the 2012 Texas League playoffs. Springfield outlasted Tulsa in five games to go to the championship round, where the Cardinals beat Frisco in four games. He has come a long way since then, but he manages with the same style -- heeding La Russa’s advice from seven years ago.
“Outside the mound visits, the game hasn't changed a lot,” Shildt said. “So really it's about playing the game and being prepared just like you always are and seeing what's in front of you and manage it.”