Louis Meyer, Sports Editor
If you mention the name Kolten Wong among St. Louis Cardinals fans, chances are you will get a mixture of cheers and boos. Wong just so happens to be the one Cardinals player that has Cardinals Nation split down the middle. Wong has a long, rollercoaster-style history with the club. Cardinals Nation has seen the best and worst of Wong during his seven-year career in St. Louis. However, what many Cardinals fans do not know are all the off-the-field issues Kolten Wong has had to deal with. Not just off-the-field-issues either, but also issues within the clubhouse that he has had to deal with. Wong’s rollercoaster of a career all started Oct. 28, 2013.
It was Game 4 of the 2013 World Series. The Cardinals were playing the Boston Red Sox and were ahead in the series 2-1. They were losing the game 4-2 but showed life in the ninth inning. Allen Craig hit a one out single and the then-rookie Kolten Wong was called on to pinch run. After Matt Carpenter got out on a pop fly, the Cardinals were down to their last out. However, they had one of the best postseason hitters in history at the plate in Carlos Beltran. Beltran had a 1-1 count when Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara turned and threw over to first base. As Wong planted to dive back to first base, he slipped and fell. That was the game. Wong was tagged out and the Cardinals would go on to lose the World Series three games later in Boston.
That one play represents why most of Kolten Wong’s haters hate him. One play, that is why they hate him. Never mind that Wong was a 22-year old rookie who was playing in the biggest game of his career. To them, the Cardinals losing that World Series was all Wong’s fault. What most people don’t know is that Wong felt the same way.
While on camera postgame, a crying Wong said, “This one is on me.” Wong took the game harder than Cardinals fans did. It took a toll on his mind. It was a moment that would haunt him, a moment that kept him up at night. That is, until Wong experienced something worse. During the offseason that year, Wong’s mother, Keala, lost her battle with cancer. She was Wong’s biggest supporter, someone he always turned to for advice. Before she passed, she gave her son one more piece of advice. She said, “Don’t worry about the pickoff. Just go out and have fun.” Since Wong’s family lives in Hawaii, the death of his mother did not reach St. Louis. Wong also chose to keep it private, so most Cardinal’s fan had no idea what the 23-year-old second basemen was going through.
Despite the death of his mother, Wong was ready to go for the 2014 season. However, while he was physically ready, mentally, he was hurting. The death of his mother left Wong without someone to go to when he needed advice. Sure, he had his wife, dad, brothers, coaches and teammates. However, all those people were not his mother, it was not the same. Manager Mike Matheny did not do a lot to help Wong or his mental game. For the four years he spent playing for Matheny, Wong was always kept on a tight leash. He was rewarded for playing well and put in the dog house for playing bad. This style is not ideal for a young, up-and-coming player, and especially one with a shaky mentality like Wong.
After four years, Matheny had successfully turned Wong into a confidence-addicted player. Wong was addicted to attaining the confidence from Matheny, which he never would. This resulted in countless ejections, broken bats and lots of frustration as Wong knew every time he screwed up meant less playing time. Wong began to divide Cardinals fans in half. One side believing he was washed up and needed to be replaced and the other side believing he just needed a chance. It was easily the hottest topic among Cardinals fans.
Last year, however, some light was finally shed on Wong’s behind-the-scenes struggles. During a Mother’s Day player video for the Player’s Tribune, Wong opened up about his struggles and the passing of his mother. “Losing her, it rocked me,” said Wong in the video. Wong went on to say that his mother’s death caused him to fall into an emotional spiral that has plagued him for the majority of his career. Despite the video, Wong still had Cardinal Nation split down the middle. In fact, the video caused the two sides to become even more entrenched. Wong’s haters claimed that it was just another excuse in a long line and that it was time for him to go. Then the best thing happened, for both Kolten Wong and the Cardinals. Matheny was fired.
On July 14, 2018, the Cardinals fired Matheny after a 47-46 record to start the season. Bench coach Mike Shildt took over and it was a match made in heaven for both Wong and the Cardinals. Under Shildt the Cardinals went 41-28 in their last 69 games, an MLB-best mark for that stretch. The Cardinals would end up barely missing the playoffs, but the results were clear. Shildt’s leadership was not only reflected by the team’s record, but by the play of Wong. Under Shildt, Wong hit .310 in the last 69 games of the season, while also making himself known as the best defensive second basemen in all of baseball. Shildt gave Wong his full confidence, the one thing Wong had craved since his embarrassing World Series moment and the passing of his mother. Wong was finally starting to turn the corner and his haters hated it. 2019 has started off with more of the same from Wong. In fact, he looks to be getting better.
In the 10 games the Cardinals have played in 2019, Wong is hitting .361 with three home runs and eight RBI’s. The three home runs are especially surprising. Last season, Wong hit just nine home runs in 127 games. Needless to say, Wong is well on his way to the best offensive season of his career. This start to the season has Wong’s haters in a frenzy. Some are finally taking their blinders off and realizing that Wong just might be the player Cardinal Nation always thought he could be. He just needed some time, and some confidence from his manager.