Mike Shildt will serve as the manager of the Cardinals for the rest of the season, named to replace Mike Matheny, after working for the organization since 2004. (USA Today Sports)
Want to know more about Mike Shildt, the Cardinals new interim manager? Here is his in-depth story, excerpted from “Taking Flight, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Building of Baseball’s Best Franchise” published by Triumph Books in 2016.
By Rob Rains
The small black book is one of Mike Shildt’s most prized possessions.
He takes it with him almost everywhere, and reads it daily. He goes to it when he has a question, or when he is looking for guidance on a troubling issue.
It’s his physical connection to the wisdom and teachings of George Kissell, and as a manager in the Cardinals’ farm system since 2009, Shildt has observed first-hand how Kissell’s ideas and suggestions have more than stood the test of time.
The book is an exact replica of the one Kissell kept himself as his manual for much of his career with the Cardinals. It was a gift from Kissell’s son, Dr. Richard Kissell, who is the team physician for the Double A Springfield Cardinals. Shildt was given a copy after the 2012 season, Shildt’s first as that team’s manager. Others in the organization received a copy as well.
“I almost couldn’t verbalize the sentiment,” Shildt said of his reaction to getting the book, “first of all that he put that together and then the thoughtfulness to give it to me and others. Beyond that is just the book itself.
“When you read it you can feel the passion, the attention to detail. You appreciate the years and the wisdom that goes into it.
“It means a lot for a lot of reasons and it’s a blessing to be able to have it. Dr. Kissell was nice enough to put in a couple of pages to take notes. George always wanted you to improve on things and Dr. Kissell told me, “George would want you to make some notes in it. That would please him.’ I just can’t do it. I take notes every day, but I just can’t write them in that book. I don’t feel that it is appropriate or that I’m worthy.”
Shildt knew all about the book from his years in the organization, and the time he did get to spend with Kissell before Kissell’s death in 2008, ironically, on the exact same date, Oct. 7, but in a different year, as Shildt’s own father.
He thinks of Kissell every time he picks up the book.
“I look at it, I meditate on it,” Shildt said. “It helps when things maybe go a little sideways. It’s a good place for solace. It’s almost like a Bible really. I share it with people, some of the newer staff members and players.”
One of Shildt’s go-to sections of the book is for managers, starting with two questions, do you have a checklist, and are you an organization man?
“It makes you think: Are you going about things in the right way?” Shildt said. “We are fundamentally based in this organization but sometimes you can get away from it or lose focus. I go back through my checklist. There are questions I ask myself most days.”
Kissell’s lingering influence in the Cardinals’ organization is felt beyond the pages of the little black book. Shildt didn’t get the chance to spend as much time with Kissell as he would have liked, but was around him enough to understand how skilled he was and how important his knowledge of the game, and of people, has been to the organization’s continuing success.
“His influence is everywhere,” Shildt said. “I don’t want to pontificate that I spent a lot of time with George but I was fortunately blessed to get to know him near the end of his life. On a day to day basis I am more of a second-generation descendent. But you talk about a wake of influence; it’s only growing, which is the impressive thing about it. George is the patriarch.
“I grew up in the Orioles organization and for 25 years they were the winningest organization in baseball. But they lost their way because they lost the people associated with it. George was able to identify people who value what we do here and he would pour into them. We have people who are willing to respect that mindset and tradition.”
Shildt got another reminder of that during spring training in 2008. He was still relatively new to the organization, having originally been hired as a scout but gradually switching over to working on the field in uniform. He had never even been to spring training with the Cardinals when he was asked to run the camp in 2008.
In addition to Kissell, one of the people he talked to about the assignment was Pop Warner, another Kissell disciple who had been in the organization since 1991 as a player, coach and manager.
“Right before camp started I went up to Pop and said, ‘I want to put a theme on camp,’” Shildt said. “He looked at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you? What do you mean.’ He said, ‘We don’t need a theme. We’re the Cardinals.’
“What I realized he meant was that we don’t need to search for an identity. We’re about doing the little things, doing them well; executing the fundamentals, playing the game smart and playing it in a highly competitive manner. It was stuff I already knew, but the point being there was an accountability there. When you start to get off the page a little bit, somebody is going to tell you where the page is. You have that anchor to draw from.”
Shildt had to perhaps rely more on Kissell’s suggestions in 2015 than he had in previous years because of his new assignment to manage the Cardinals’ Triple A team in Memphis. He was working with players at a different point in their careers, many either on the verge of making it to the major leagues, such as outfielder Stephen Piscotty, or others on the way back from playing in the majors.
Triple A is generally considered the hardest level to manage in the minors, and Shildt knew he was taking on a challenging position, realizing a higher emphasis would need to be placed on dealing with the players’ emotions and mental focus more than actual baseball instruction.
“What I realized here is the biggest service I can have is to just be consistent in how I deal with guys and give them the respect they have earned at this level,” Shildt said. “The biggest thing I have learned is how to empathize with this group of guys. We have guys who are so close to their dream, or coming back from their dream, and they are having to deal with all the different distractions and expectations of the organization. I just try to do the best I can to teach the game but also to help guys understand how to deal with things.
“The reality is what can help you the most is how to emotionally deal with so many different things. It’s a teaching challenge and a growth process. There are days I miss the physical baseball instruction, the first and thirds, the cutoffs and relays – all that stuff. But like George would say it’s just trying to give people as many tools in the toolbox as possible. This is just another took for me to help them develop as a player.”
One of the challenges Shildt has been able to overcome in his career with the Cardinals is the fact that he never played professional baseball, even though he – literally – grew up around the game and knew from an early age he wanted to have a career in baseball.
Shildt grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and was about eight years old when his mother got a job working in the office for the Orioles’ Double A affiliate. Baseball was already in the Shildt family blood. His father had proposed to his mother during an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium.
“I started basically when she started,” Shildt said. “I got $5 a game to chase down foul balls. I stood outside behind home plate and waited for balls to come outside the stadium. I chased them down and returned them. That was how I earned my pay.”
Shildt quickly moved inside the stadium, where he worked as one of the clubhouse boys, and where his baseball education really began. It was 1980, and the team’s star was a 19-year-old shortstop named Cal Ripken Jr. Another of his favorites was outfielder John Shelby.
“I shined Cal’s shoes every day,” Shildt said. “I made a lot of observations about how guys carried themselves and Cal was a great example of that. I watched how he worked.”
The impact Ripken had on an impressionable youngster is one of the reasons Shildt wears uniform number 8, Ripken’s number during his career with the Orioles, even though he wore number 12 that year in Charlotte, Shildt said.
Even at that young age, Shildt was watching and learning. When the games began, he went up to the press box, where for several years his job was to run the scoreboard.
“I was smarter than I was talented, even though there is not a high bar there,” Shildt said. “I loved the game and I studied the game. I wasn’t really trying to learn anything specific then but I was around some amazing baseball people.
“I think what helped me as much as anything was running the scoreboard, which I did for four or five years. Guys were always gracious to me. I grew up as a clubhouse guy, so I can relate to our clubhouse guys now, and I hung out with the reporters in the press box and I learned about their side of the business.”
Shildt primarily, however, just watched the game. He had to be aware of every pitch to correctly display it on the scoreboard.
“Somehow if you watch anything enough you learn something,” Shildt said. “I got an education in baseball at a really young age.”
Shildt was also playing the game and after high school walked on to the team at North Carolina-Asheville. He was a freshman there when he learned he was legally blind in his left eye.
“I went through the eye exam and I thought he (the doctor) was messing with me,” Shildt said. “I told him, ‘I realize I probably don’t see 20-20 and he said, ‘You probably don’t see 20-400.’”
More exams revealed that Shildt actually suffered from keratoconus, a degenerative disease, in both eyes. He was able to correct his vision with contact lenses for a while but eventually had to undergo cornea transplants in each eye or otherwise he likely would have gone blind in each eye.
“I had no clue,” Shildt said about his vision problems. “I drove a car. I didn’t know what I wasn’t able to see. I just compensated.”
While in college, Shildt had a part-time job working as a bellman at the Radisson Hotel in Asheville. One day he saw Willie Stargell come in the door. Stargell was a roving instructor for the Braves, and they were in town to play against Asheville.
When he was 11, Shildt had seen Stargell from a different vantage point. His mother, because of her job with the Charlotte O’s, had gotten a ticket for game seven of the World Series between the Orioles and Pirates. Shildt, naturally an Orioles fan, had flown to Baltimore, stayed at his aunt’s house, and went to the game, hoping to see the Orioles celebrate a world championship. Instead the Pirates won 4-1, in part on a two-run homer by Stargell.
That memory had stayed with Shildt, who went into the hotel kitchen and made up a fruit basket, which he took up to Stargell’s room.
“I told him it was compliments of the hotel, but I also said, ‘I want you to know I was a big Orioles fan and was 11 years old and was in the stands for game seven of the1979 World Series and you broke my heart when you hit that home run off (Scott) McGregor,’” Shildt said. “He looked at me and said, ‘You didn’t poison my grapes did you?’”
Another vivid memory Shildt has from his college days came after getting an at-bat in a game at Tennessee. He was on the bus back to Asheville when he said to a buddy that he just realized his future, if it was in baseball, was not going to be as a player. He already possessed enough knowledge of the game to self-evaluate his own talent level.
Shildt was able to work as an assistant with the college team for a couple of years after earning his degree in business, when an opening came up to coach at an inner-city high school in Charlotte, West Charlotte High School, a day before the season began.
“The school historically had not been very good in baseball but had been super strong in football and basketball,” Shildt said. “We took a beating that first year. The next year we had 11 players on the varsity team and started a JV program with nine. Nobody could be sick or miss school because then we couldn’t play. The varsity team went 12-9.”
Shildt’s real education that year, however, came inside the walls of the school. He had arrived for the start of the school year expecting to be a full-time substitute teacher but instead was told the school had a class for him.
“They literally took me down the hall and shoved me in a room,” Shildt said. “I found out it was a cross-category class for kids with emotional or behavioral disabilities or kids with physical handicaps. It was quite an experience, rewarding and trying. It was an opportunity for me to start developing my own experiences in leadership.
“It made no sense to me how they operated that class. State law said you could have up to 12 kids in the class and we had 14. Half were on probation for bringing a gun or knife to school. Then we had learning disability students who were sweet but couldn’t add two plus two. They were some really scared kids who had not been given a lot of love.
“We would have people come in to observe who were qualified to teach the class and they would excuse themselves to go to the restroom and never come back. The school discouraged me from mainstreaming with the rest of the student body.”
Shildt really didn’t know what he was doing except trying to maintain order, but at the end of the year the principal told him he had done the best job of anybody they had ever had teaching that class.
“I challenged him back and said, ‘Dr. Crawford, I didn’t do anything for these kids.’ He said he wanted me back and I told him to find somebody who was qualified to teach those kids. He said, ‘Well you helped them,’ and I asked, ‘What’s your definition of help?’ He said, ‘We had no mainstream incidents.’ I said that shouldn’t be the bar for those kids.”
That year’s experience did help Shildt realize, however, that he might be able to help young people, and that perhaps the way he could best do that was on a baseball field.
“I think my spiritual gift might be to understand how to help people,” he said. “Baseball has given me that opportunity. Those kids were no different than other kids; they just were battling different circumstances.”
Shildt remained as the school’s baseball coach for another year, and that season the team reached the Charlotte city championship game before losing 3-1 to one of the perennial best teams in the state.
“I still keep in touch with a lot of those kids,” Shildt said. “That group let me cut my teeth and learn how to coach.”
Shildt’s next coaching opportunity came as an assistant at North Carolina-Charlotte. “The opportunity was about experience and not a whole lot about compensation,” he said.
Wanting to stay close to home after his father’s death, Shildt decided to use his business degree and opened a youth baseball training academy. He raised money to help cover the costs for players and teams which could not afford it, and with the business doing well, decided it was time to look for another challenge.
Shildt had become friends with Gary Randall, who worked for the Major League Scouting Bureau, and Randall helped him land a spot in Scout School in 2002.
“Candidly I didn’t really ever want to scout,” Shildt said. “But I told Gary I didn’t think I was growing. I told him I would like to try to find something. I don’t know if he told anybody or not, but one day in December 2003 I got a phone call out of the blue from John Mozeliak.”
Mozeliak said the Cardinals had an opening for a scout in the Carolinas and Virginia and wanted to know if Shildt was interested. The two talked for 90 minutes and Mozeliak promised to get back to Shildt within a couple of days.
It was the week before Christmas, and Shildt was a little discouraged when he didn’t hear from Mozeliak. Finally on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Mozeliak called and said the Cardinals wanted to hire him and arranged for him to fly to St. Louis in January.
By that time, Shildt had decided he would take the job – if the Cardinals also gave him a chance to coach. While he was in the team’s offices, he was left alone for a few minutes and casually walked into the office of Bruce Manno, the farm director at the time.
“I told him I was taking a scouting job but part of the deal was that I was going to get to coach and that Mo was going to talk to him about it,” Shildt said. “He was like, ‘Who are you again?’”
Shildt got his wish, and after the amateur draft was over in 2004, went to the Cardinals’ short-season team in New Jersey as a coach.
“That’s where my whole world opened up,” Shildt said. “Whatever I thought I knew was a morsel to what I’ve learned from Mark DeJohn.”
Shildt served as a coach for DeJohn for the next four years, gradually getting more responsibility – coaching third, then serving as the manager for some games. Shildt was so excited he actually got ejected from two games in about a 10-day span.
“DeJohn was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to calm down,’” Shildt said. “He let me act like I was the manager, but he was standing right beside me and kept asking me questions. ‘Why are doing this, what are you doing that for?’ It was like he was 15 steps ahead of me. My head was spinning.
“I had no clue he was grooming me to be a manager. I never thought there was a chance I was going to manage. I thought in the best-case scenario I was going to be a hitting coach in rookie ball for the rest of my life and I was fine with that.
“The one thing I was smart enough to do when I got in this organization was just listen and not talk. The only time I spoke was to ask a question or clarify something.”
DeJohn’s influence helped Shildt get the chance to run the instructional league program for a brief period, and then came the chance to run spring training in 2008.
“I had been to one spring training game in my life, between Toronto and Philadelphia, in 1991 in Clearwater when I was on spring break,” Shildt said. “Luckily I had a lot of help from a lot of other people, managers and instructors.”
The Cardinals thought Shildt was ready for his first official manager’s job, so after serving as coach in Johnson City in 2008, he took over the rookie league team the next season, one of the few people to actually get that opportunity without ever having played in professional baseball at any level.
“People threw jabs at it occasionally but I don’t give it a second thought anymore,” Schildt said. “I used to worry it was going to hold me back. I had to earn my way. I feel to some degree I’ve put my time in. I did a lot of stuff outside of pro ball. I slept on some couches. I coached a lot of Legion ball. I sold a lot of ads for programs so I could eat. I put my time in.
“I took every opportunity to coach as much as they would let me anywhere. I gained experience traded out for compensation and comfort. I developed a personal mantra that I was comfortable with what I didn’t know but confident in what I did know. That served me well.
“I knew I had a baseline of being able to think the game and I knew I was going to work hard and be organized and more importantly cared about the greater good of the players and the organization. That’s why I think I’ve been able to fit in.”
One of the first realities that Shildt came to know and appreciate about the organization was how many employees had been there for 20, 30 or more years, and many of whom had never worked anywhere else.
“The common trait among those people was that they cared more about the Birds on the Bat than they did about themselves,” Shildt said. “That’s a special unique place. It felt like home to me for that reason. I wanted to help young people and I wanted to be with an organization that does things right and is serious about excellence.”
Shildt was 40 years old when he got the chance to manage Johnson City, and led the team to a winning season, going 37-30. His own personal growth, however, was not completely measured by those won-loss numbers.
One of the first things he learned, another lesson passed down from Kissell, was the players won’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.
Working with players who in some cases were playing as a professional for the first time, or living on their own for the first time, meant a lot of Shildt’s time was spent dealing with off-the-field concerns as well as teaching baseball fundamentals.
Instead of having those players live in hotels or apartments, the organization tried to set it up so each player lived with a host family.
“Some kids are able to handle freedoms, but the host family situation typically worked pretty well,” Shildt said. “It helped them with their diet because they were fed better and had a little bit of accountability for what they were doing.”
Shildt learned quickly at Johnson City that comfort was a key ingredient to a player’s success at that level.
“A lot of players are inconsistent at the lower levels and it’s harder for Latin players based on their age, another culture and different factors such as playing under the lights maybe for the first time,” he said. “Their level of consistency is harder to replicate.
“Getting them to be comfortable with everything as quickly as possible is important. There are more obstacles for Latin players. We just tried to make everything as comfortable and consistent as possible so they could just go out and perform.”
The players – for the most part different players – did that in Shildt’s next two years in Johnson City, winning back to back Appalachian League championships in 2010 and 2011.
That provided another valuable lesson for those players, Shildt believes.
“Development supersedes winning and is the primary responsibility of the minor league department, to develop championship-caliber players, but within that I do believe teaching guys how to win is invaluable,” Shildt said. “At the end of the day when they get to the big leagues they are playing to win. To know how that looks and the dedication and focus that it takes on a daily basis – that’s what we strive for.
“To me the most beneficial part of being able to play in minor league playoffs is the opportunity and evaluation you get for the players – to see how they respond to that atmosphere, how they deal with it and react to it. I have seen lots of examples of guys growing from those opportunities. Gary (LaRocque) has a good quote which we use a lot – ‘Who you are is what you do when you are at your most uncomfortable.’ We want to see where guys are when they are a little uncomfortable. When you are in a playoff or championship scenario, how are they going to learn from that? Hopefully what they learn during the year is not to do anything different when it becomes a ‘pressure’ situation. You’re either applying pressure or feeling it, and you always want to apply it.”
After three years in Johnson City, Shildt was promoted all the way to Double A Springfield for the 2012 season – and promptly led his team to the Texas League title, his third championship in as many years.
Shildt is quick to point out, however, that any minor-league title is an “organization” championship, citing the variables of the health of teams above you and the involvement of the rovers and other personnel who work with the players during the year.
“I was fortunate to be there because it was such a rewarding year because of the opportunities to see guys grow,” he said. “There was pain involved with that. Word it any way you want – through growth comes pain or through pain comes growth. What I respected and appreciated about that group was pretty much at every step, at every turn, those players on that team who got met with individual or collective adversity continued to push, continued to grow, continued to learn. They continued to understand what it was about. It was a hungry group too that wanted to do well.”
Shildt’s success in his first six seasons as a manager led the Cardinals to promote him again for the 2015 season, to the Triple A Memphis Redbirds, where he traded three years of 12 to 14-hour bus rides from Springfield to Texas for 4 a.m. wakeup calls and 6 a.m. connecting flights.
The Redbirds actually had to postpone a game in the 2015 season because their flight from Dallas to Memphis was cancelled, forcing them to spend six hours in the Dallas airport. The teams then had to play a double-header the following day, on a travel day.
“The travel in this league is a challenge for everybody,” Shildt said. “It’s a mindset and I choose not to make an issue of it. But I am pretty sure it’s a league rule that you can’t get a direct flight. I think it’s in the bylaws somewhere.”
Shildt found himself in more than just a new city with new travel issues when he got to Memphis. Many of the players he was now in charge of had already appeared in the majors, and others – on their way up – thought they should be there already. The requirements of being the manager at this level, Shildt quickly realized, were different than when he had been in rookie ball or even Double A.
“People say Triple A is the hardest place in general to manage, play, whatever,” Shildt said. “I have to try to do the best I can to teach the game but also to help guys understand how to deal with things. You have to teach things differently at this level.”
Trying to make certain players are ready for the major leagues when the opportunity comes up also is a different responsibility.
“I’m a messenger for Mike (Matheny), Mo (John Mozeliak) and the big league staff and for Gary (LaRocque),” Shildt said. “The message to me is to understand what they want. What are their expectations? And then it’s my responsibility to make sure everybody in the clubhouse understands what those expectations are – the kind of player they want you to be, what you need to be ready to contribute. I have to understand what the player needs to do to be able to meet those expectations. Sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming, which is why we are very process driven.”
Because of injuries, the major-league Cardinals had to dip down to Memphis for multiple reinforcements during the 2015 season, and what Shildt was proud of was how those players went up and met or exceeded the expectations of the organization to be ready to perform when called upon.
What Shildt was happy to see was how the Memphis teammates cheered the success of the players promoted to St. Louis, something he wasn’t positive would be the case.
“When Piscotty hit his first homer in St. Louis, everybody was watching and cheering,” Shildt said. “When Greg Garcia got a big hit everybody was excited. Guys who have been other places tell me that evidently that’s not a very normal thing. It’s another example of how the Cardinals get people to care more about the greater good than about themselves.”
Some of those players promoted to the majors later had to come back to Memphis, which presented Shildt with another challenge.
“They do a good job in St. Louis of explaining to guys what’s going on and what they need to work on when they come back that they come back with a sense of purpose,” Shildt said. “Knowing that they need to work on a certain pitch or whatever it is helps them focus. Having that sense of purpose is important.
“It does take a while to get them going again and let them get their head around being here again. Memphis is a great place. It’s a great setup and a great park with a great staff. But even with all of those great things, it’s not St. Louis. As good as it is, it’s not close. It’s just different. I emphasize with these guys because of that.”
Shildt also helps players identify the areas they need to work on by having everybody on the team complete a progress report midway through the season. It is something which is done at every level of the organization.
“We get them to fill it out, listing what they think are their strengths, areas that need improvement and then come up with a plan,” Shildt said. “What’s important is for me to find out what the player knows, to establish that baseline. After the player fills it out, the coaches go over it and then we set up a half-hour meeting with each player.
“We ask them for their thoughts. We learn so much from that. It gives them ownership, because they are telling you where they think they are, and then you can give them your thoughts so everybody can get on the same page. It is just another way of opening up communication.
“We want them invested in the plan, so they can continue to grow. Invariably they get it, and then they take off and rise to whatever level of ability they have. That’s all you are asking for.”
For many players, their ability – combined with their work ethic and desire – will result in Shildt getting a phone call from Mozeliak with the news that a particular player is being promoted to the big leagues.
It is then Shildt’s assignment to inform the player of the news.
“It’s by far the best part of my job,” he said. “Telling people they are going to the big leagues for the first time is so special. To be able to share a moment like that with somebody like that, it doesn’t matter what kind of day you are having or how you are playing. It’s just unbelievable.”
During the 2015 season, Shildt got to break that news to Piscotty, Mitch Harris, Ed Easley, Cody Stanley, Tim Cooney and Marcus Hatley, just as he had done in previous seasons when Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales made the jump directly from Double A.
“What I appreciate the most is that the general public really has no clue of what these guys go through and the dedication, the sacrifice and the mental and physical toughness that it takes to work your way through a system and become a big-league player,” Shildt said. “When you start out there are no guarantees that the end result is going to be what you want.
“When you are able to tell a guy that he’s being rewarded for all that sacrifice, hard work and dedication – going back to when they first started playing baseball as a young child – all the things they did to play this game and chase their dreams and go for it. To get the payoff is unbelievable.”
Recalling all of those moments, and how special each one was, is a feeling Shildt never wants to forget.
“You try to paint the picture of players at the lower levels about what kind of player you need to be to get to the big leagues,” he said. “Some of them have an understanding that It is out there but it seems a long way away. Some guys will never get there and never get to fulfill their potential.
“Our job is to help them realize their potential and give them the tools they need to get there. That is our job. That’s why we are here. That’s the definition of player development. That’s why we have our jobs.”