Baseball: Kolten Wong feeling spirit of St. Louis, even in winter – Hawaii Tribune Herald

At the end of the most maddening summer of baseball he’s ever had, Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong left Busch Stadium in October with a list of things he wanted to do this winter, from unplugging for a break to unwinding his swing.

But first, he needed to buy a winter coat.

Or four.

Hilo’s Wong heard it would be a chilly winter in St. Louis, and seeing as he had less experience in the snow than he has in center field, he wanted to be prepared. He raided a local store for four winter coats, two pairs of snow pants, two pairs of boots, cold-weather training gear and several beanies. Anything. Everything. For warmth. He and his wife, a University of Hawaii alum, had made their decision during a warmer season: This year would be the year that they would leave the beach behind and call St. Louis home.

“We wanted to engulf ourselves in St. Louis,” Wong said this past week, as he prepared for the holidays at his new house. “We really, really wanted to see what St. Louis is like, enjoy our first home, get to know what St. Louis is all about in a way that didn’t mean going to the ballpark. I really wanted to find a place to call home, something more than, ‘This is just where I’m playing.’ I wanted to be a part of a place.

“That can add fuel to the fire, right?” he said. “This is a place to be, to stay.”

Wong and his wife, Alissa (nee Noll), welcomed his sister and younger brother to St. Louis this week and spent the weekend hosting Christmas for the first time. Wong described his first offseason without a return to Hawaii as a natural extension of the commitment the Cardinals made to him this past spring with a five-year, $25.5 million contract. But there’s another commitment the Cardinals have in mind for 2017.

All winter, as they’ve described how to revitalize the Cardinals’ play, officials have said it’s time _ past time, even _ to give Wong what he needs so that his gifts give back: playing time.

“I don’t make lineups but you have to have the understanding of patience,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “He’s such a talented defender and when your team is built around groundball pitching it’s nice to have that behind you.”

Said manager Mike Matheny: “I see exciting things ahead for him.”

At various times this offseason, both Matheny and Mozeliak have referred to Wong as a “Gold Glove-caliber second baseman” and an “exciting everyday player.” Like newcomer Dexter Fowler does a new-look outfield, Wong personifies what the Cardinals want from a renewed infield, what they want more of from the 2017 roster. At his best, he plays an athletic style (check) and can steal hits with his range at second (check). As an option for eighth in the lineup he can be more aggressive on the bases (check) and help the Cardinals be less of a power-oriented offense (check).

But before he can wear those labels, like his new coats, Wong had to shed something.

Last season.

“It took a toll,” he said.

Wong, now 26, saw most of his offensive statistics slip back in 2016, the biggest and most telling of which was his number of at-bats. A regular who hit .262 with a .707 OPS in 613 plate appearances in 2015, Wong had only 361 at-bats this past season. His summer was interrupted by a demotion to Class AAA and a relegation to part-time play. When it was over he had a .240 average, half as many homers (11 down to five), and 23 RBIs to match a .682 OPS. Instead of the long flight to Hawaii to ruminate, he had the short drive to Creve Coeur. From there he wanted only to focus on the future and figuring out St. Louis.

The Wongs started exploring. New restaurants for dinner. Brunch every Sunday. He wants to take his siblings on an Anheuser-Busch brewery tour, and he’s fallen for Blues hockey, the only hockey he’s ever seen. There have been times when he’s out wandering in St. Louis and walks right by someone wearing his jersey or a T-shirt with his name on it. He smiles as he goes unrecognized.

“He has to be home in Hawaii, right?” Wong joked.

After the breather from baseball, Wong threw himself into hitting, earlier than usual. He has focused on explosiveness, not adding weight, and the cold-weather training gear has been helpful for the running. His plan is to stash the coats next month and head early to Jupiter, Fla., and the Cardinals’ spring training complex. Wong’s hope is to get some individual work with Jose Oquendo, the team’s former infield coach who now serves as a special assignment coach for Mozeliak.

By living in St. Louis, Wong also connected with former teammate Jon Jay as a workout partner. Jay, whose wife had twins at about the same time he signed with the Cubs, left Miami to spend this winter in St. Louis. They do more than reps; they compete.

“If I’m not working hard, he’ll get on me,” Wong said. “He’s a pretty straightforward guy, and he’s got that mental strength. He’s pushing me like that, too. Mental toughness. That’s the edge. … The biggest thing for me in all this is I know what kind of player I need to be. Speed more. Explosiveness. I’m an athlete and need to play like it. I understand my game, my position. This has been a really important experience. I don’t need to mimic another player to be successful. I had to find myself.”

He thinks he did, by not going anywhere.

Wong purposefully ignored the trade chatter that circulated around his name earlier this month as teams like Kansas City and the Angels inquired about his availability. For part of it, he was out of the country, seeing Europe for the first time. He and his wife returned to the chill he had prepared for _ a low of 11 degrees this past Tuesday, while there was a high of 82 degrees back in his hometown of Hilo, Hawaii. He’s adjusting. He’s learning. And he’s hoping that he’ll find on the field what he’s found in St. Louis: comfort.

And when he’s asked to do something new, like shovel snow for the first time, well …

“I’ll figure it out,” Wong said.


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