If I had to guess, I’d say playing professional baseball would qualify as a dream come true for a long list of youngsters (and even some not so young!) with a developing love affair with America’s Pastime.
Hawaii’s Kolten Wong is no exception.
Then again, maybe he is. Because his dream is coming true.
Wong — who will turn 21 in October — was the Cardinals 1st round pick in the 2011 draft. Regardless of anyone else’s expectations or opinions, for Kolten, it was the culmination of work that began as a 9-year-old.
“There [are] no words to really explain it,” Wong said when I spoke with him on Monday. “I was just super excited and it was a dream come true for me. And to have the opportunity to play, especially for the Cardinals was something I always wanted to do and I was ecstatic that I got the opportunity.”
Back home, he’s a local hero — the first ever first-round draft pick from the Big Island. The Hawaii Tribune-Herald even has a special “Keeping track of Kolten” section to post his stats every day. Despite that obvious support, when I told him I had people following me on Twitter solely for updates on him, he seemed surprised.
“Really? That’s awesome.”
I thought so, too.
He’s a quiet kind of guy. Not over-the-top emotional or excited. But when he starts talking about baseball and what this career means to him, you can read the entire story in his eyes — he absolutely loves this game.
“I’m getting paid to do this,” he said. “Other people get paid to do things they don’t really want to do, so I’m just excited about that. I don’t know. Just something about being here makes me happy. It’s like [I’m] where I need to be.”
He’s happy because he’s passionate, both about what he does and how he does it. Since his professional debut with the Quad Cities River Bandits in June (the Cardinals low-A affiliate), manager Johnny Rodriguez has learned that much.
“He brings energy, passion, aggression and a desire to play the game the right way,” Rodriguez said of Wong. “Now, he’s going to make errors like everyone else, but he brings a very big-time energy to the top of the lineup and to the team itself. ”
Rodriguez has had plenty of players to compare with the young star. Between his time as a coach in the big leagues with the Yankess and the Marlins, and his work with players like Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Grady Sizemore, Jason Bay and Mike Stanton (… to name a few), Johnny has developed a keen eye for spotting major league talent. His first clue that Wong is the real deal? When the University of Hawaii star was criticized for weak defensive skills, he worked tirelessly to improve.
“Since day one, he got after it, paying attention to detail, what we told him,” Rodriguez said. “… when the prospect tools came out, he was ranked the best defensive second baseman in the Midwest League.”
In 40 games, Wong is batting .327 with 31 runs, 20 RBI and a .886 OPS. Add that to his recent best-in-the-midwest defense, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by his manager who has challenged his playoff-bound team to settle for nothing less than a regular season title on the way to September.
As I sat and talked with Kolten, I asked what his expectations were for the rest of the season. Just as he answered, Johnny walked by to hear:
“Well, playing here, I want to win a championship this year.”
A quick nod from the manager and a finger pointed in his direction — as if to say, “That’s what I like to hear!” — made us both chuckle. Like manager like second baseman? Perhaps. And that’s no accident.
“That guy’s a whiz, Wong said of his skipper. “He has so many things to teach you from fielding to hitting to just life. You know, he’s taught me a lot about fielding and he’s made me a better player, I can tell you that.”
Rodriguez prepares a “Word of the Day” for his players. This particular day, it was more a mantra than a word.
“‘The passion for the game is fueled by the wonder of the game itself,'” he read to me from a book on his desk, then continued. “You have to have that passion so it fuels you to play the game. If [fans] see a player playing with passion like a Kolten Wong or a Chris Edmonson playing with that total abandon — not worried about anything, running into walls, diving for balls, doing whatever it takes to win — if you get half a team doing that, you have a chance to win something.”
At the moment, Kolten is battling a minor hamstring injury. While neither coach nor player are worried, there has been a noticeable difference on the field without Wong’s reckless abandon. Rodriguez compared it to an engine with a missing part. It still runs, but not as well. With the playoffs looming, one of the manager’s favorite pieces of advice comes into play.
“It’s called ‘Competitive Greateness,'” he said. ” Be at your best when your best is needed.”
For now, Kolten is needed in Davenport, as the River Bandits strive for that championship. But rest assured, his greatness won’t stop there. And if the twinkle in his eye is any indication, he’s not intimidated by the legacy of Cardinal greats before him. He’s inspired.
“I mean, that’s a lot of pressure on you,” he said. “But at the same time you know you’re playing for the right team. You know you’re going to go in there and you’re going to play for a team that wants to win championships and that’s what everyone’s goal is once you get to the professional level … so I’m excited and I can’t wait to start.”
“Players with passion will be winners in the big leagues,” Johnny Rodriguez told me.
If that’s the case, Kolten Wong should give Cardinals fans their own dreams to smile about.
Tara Wellman is a St. Louis cardinals reporter for Aaron Miles’ Fastball. Find her on twitter @tarawellman.