By Rob Rains
It is a very short trip to come out of the coaches room in the Cardinals clubhouse, go left, walk down seven steps and go left again, through a door that enters a party room where the team owners often entertain guests before and during games.
It’s been exactly one month since Mike Shildt made that walk on July 14, summoned by general manager Michael Girsch, and greeted in the room by team chiairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. It was in that room that they told Shildt the Cardinals were making a managerial change and wanted him to take over those duties.
“Clearly my life changed fairly dramatically,” Shildt said about that meeting.
What changed was his title, moving from a somewhat anonymous bench coach role to becoming the interim manager, and assuming all of the accompanying responsibility, and the media demands, that are heaped upon that position.
Talk to those who have known Shildt the longest, however, and all are adamant that what hasn’t change is the person that Shildt is, one of the reasons everyone he knows is rooting so hard for him to have the interim tag dropped from his title.
That short walk that took Shildt into his new role was actually the final steps of a journey that began 14 years ago when Mozeliak hired Shildt as an area scout to cover the Carolina’s for the Cardinals.
That journey included years of scouting, years of coaching in the low levels of the minors, three years of managing a rookie league team in Johnson City, Tenn., three years of managing the Double A team in Springfield and two years at the Triple A level in Memphis before spending the last year and a half working as a coach on the major-league level.
All of that might not have happened – and could have taken Shildt’s life in a totally different direction – had he been successful in his pursuit of the University of Maryland coaching job in 2009, the same year he became the Johnson City manager.
Shildt had been a college assistant for several years in his native North Carolina before going to work for the Cardinals and had been a Maryland fan all his life. His parents were both from the state and he also had a childhood friend who had played at Maryland and campaigned for Shildt with the coaching search committee.
He was selected as a finalist, and interviewed for the job that ultimately went to Erik Bakich, who had been an assistant at Vanderbilt. Bakich stayed there three years before moving on to his current job as the coach at the University of Michigan.
Shildt believed then, as he does now, that it was all part of God’s plan for his life.
“I’m a man of faith and I surrendered what I think is best for my life a long time ago,” Shildt said. “I look back at how my life’s been put together and I realize it gives me more faith about where i am and why I am. Man plans, God laughs.”
What neither Shildt, nor anybody else, knew back then of course was that he was ultimately headed for a job as a major-league manager. As high as the odds are against players at the rookie-league level making it to the majors, it’s almost impossible to calculate the odds of a manager making that climb all the way to the top of an organization, especially when that manager never played even one professional game.
“The odds were stacked way high against him and I think that’s just a credit to what kind of manager he is and the kind of dedication he has to this game and to this organization,” said infielder Greg Garcia, who was on Shildt’s team in Johnson City in 2010, then played for him again at stops in Springfield and Memphis on the way to St. Louis. “He loves the Cardinals. That is his child. He will do anything for the Cardinals organization. You can see that this is his life’s work. This is what he’s meant to do; he’s meant to lead a major league team and it happens to be the Cardinals.
“The biggest thing is he’s been the same guy from Johnson City to who he is now. The guy loves baseball. … He’s got that baseball mind. This is what he was put on this earth to do, to manage a baseball team. He’s gone through every situation before the game, he’s always communicating with the coaches. There isn’t one situation that comes up that he hasn’t already thought about.”
An early believer
One of the first people who saw that ability in Shildt was Mark DeJohn, now the Cardinals minor league field coordinator. In 2005, he was the manager of the Cardinals’ affiliate in the New York-Penn League when Shildt spent part of the season as the team’s coach after his scouting duties were completed for the year.
It was the first of three seasons the two spent together at that level, with DeJohn gradually giving Shildt more opportunities, including running games as if he was the manager, making out the lineup, handling the pitching decisions and other in-game moves.
“He was a good kid that I took a liking to,” DeJohn said. “I wanted to give him an opportunity to do some things other than throw batting practice and hit fungos. I wanted to pass along things that had been passed along to me.”
That included lessons DeJohn had learned from Ted Simmons and Mike Jorgensen during their years as the Cardinals’ farm director, as well as all of the advice he had gleaned over the years from George Kissell. Shildt, a former teacher like Kissell, was a sponge – soaking it all in and retaining it.
“He just has a way with people,” DeJohn said. “He really cares about the person themselves. The more players are around him the more they will understand that he cares not just about their performance but he cares about them as a person. He’s good with people. I always felt he would be better than I was because of his personality.”
What also stood out to DeJohn back then was the way Shildt processed all of the information, how he analyzed and critiqued his own performance before dissecting what the players had done, or didn’t do, in the game.
“Whether we won or lost he would come in and check himself first,” DeJohn said, “what he thought he should have done differently. When a guy does that you know there is just something about him that he is going to cover all of the bases. You get other guys who consistently say they would have done the same thing; well you lost, you would have lost again. He always checked himself. He was hard on himself about doing things right.”
Shildt has made it a point over the years to publicly thank DeJohn for being one of his mentors during his climb through the minor leagues. While DeJohn appreciates that Shildt feels that way, he also is a little uncomfortable because he knows there were numerous people who played a role in Shildt’s success.
“All I’ve done was be a guy who kind of guided him a little bit,” DeJohn said. “I turned on the engine, I put in a little gas and he went away. He’s trying to give me some credit for where he’s at and there are a lot of people you can give credit to, starting with his upbringing and his parents for him being the person he is. And if Mo doesn’t give him that first job, I never meet Mike.”
As supportive as DeJohn has always been of Shildt and believed in him, he also had his doubts a decade ago that Shildt would one day manage in the major leagues.
He did not want to dash Shildt’s dream, but he also wanted to be realistic and make certain Shildt was not pursuing something which might never happen.
“I told him his chances of making it to the big leagues were not very good,” DeJohn said. “But he was around the game a lot, just not as a player. He learned a lot. He watched a lot. He had experiences that other people didn’t have.
“I told him what I thought was the truth, my honest opinion, and I was wrong. It didn’t hurt him. He was going to keep dreaming. He proved me wrong.”
Making the climb
Shildt’s first official game as a manager, not counting those when DeJohn let me assume the duties, was on June 23, 2009 when Johnson City opened the Appalachian League season at Kingsport. It was the first of what would turn out to be 903 regular-season games in his career before he reached the major leagues.
His cleanup hitter that night, playing his first game as a professional, was Matt Adams, who went 3-of-5 including hitting his first home run.
What Adams remembers most about that season was how Shildt treated him and the rest of his teammates.
“Just how well he got along with his players,” Adams said. “He came in and was personable and made it a point to say hi to everybody and that stuck out to me. I didn’t know what to expect in pro ball. Having a manager, no matter at what level it is, to take the time to go out of his way and say, ‘Hi, have a good day,’ that goes a long way.
“His work ethic got him a long way; the way he prepares for a game. He studies it, he puts in the time. At each level the guys wanted to play hard for him and it showed, and I think that speaks for itself.”
Garcia remembers a moment early in the 2012 season, when the Springfield team got off to a poor start and was swept in a series in Frisco, Texas and then had to make the 12-hour bus ride back to Springfield.
“We had a lot of talent on that team when you look back on it, a lot of guys who made it to the majors, but we were terrible,” Garcia said. “I think we started the year something like 7-20. We were just such a young team. We were getting on the bus and we were all like, ‘we suck.’ Shildt came on the bus and he told everybody to pick their heads up. He said, ‘I know you guys don’t think you are anything now, but I had a dream last night that we are going to win the Texas League championship on this field.’ Sure enough, months later, we won the Texas League title, on that field.
“I just remember this guy believed in us. He saw we were talented. There were not a lot of guys who would have believed in us the way we started the year. The second half we beat everybody. That’s the kind of stuff that he does. He made us believe in ourselves. That’s all you can ask in a manager.”
The same person
What Shildt believes has been a key to his success, whether it was in the minor leagues or in the last month with the Cardinals, is that he has always tried to stay in the moment, not reliving the past or worrying about the future.
“I appreciate what’s going on and always believe you should appreciate what you have and be grateful for it,”Shildt said. “Each day you try to grow and progress. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. You get more aware of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You’re always looking for improvement.”
Said DeJohn, “A manager is only as good as his players. You can manage good games and lose. You’re going to manage not so good games and win. That’s part of the game. Your job is just to be as prepared as you can every day and do the best job you can.
“He (Shildt) is not going to change. If he’s not prepared for something he’s going to blame himself first. That’s what is so good about him.”
One of Shildt’s mantras has always been that “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
What everyone around the Cardinals knows, and has witnessed over the last month, is how the players who were basically sleepwalking through the first half of this season have come alive since Shildt became the manager. The result is that the team has climbed back into the race for both the Central Division title or a wild-card playoff spot.
Shildt refuses to take the credit for that turnaround, but he is enjoying it as much as the players.
He credits his faith as the backbone of his personal success, and being able to maintain an attitude that in reality, all major-league managers are in an interim role, not knowing when the organization will decide to make a change.
“My relationship with my faith, I hope that wouldn’t change,” Shildt said. “I try to keep things together and have the proper focus on what’s really important in life. This is an opportunity for me to use the gifts I’ve been given and glorify what’s been given to me.”
That attitude does not surprise either DeJohn or Garcia because they have seen it first-hand for years, knowing that Shildt stays true to one of the pieces of advice he received from Kissell years ago – the players won’t care about what you know until they know how much you care.
“This is a truly biased opinion, but I think the Cardinals are lucky to have him,” DeJohn said. “They could go out and search for 100 different managers and they are not going to get one who cares more about those players in that clubhouse than the one that they have.
“They talk about the fans in St. Louis and they truly are the best fans in baseball. I grew up a Yankees fan and those fans love their team, but if they lose today they aren’t such a big fan. Win five in a row and they are big fans again. Cardinals’ fans are consistent; they’re loyal; they’re smart and they appreciate good baseball, even if it’s played against them.
“When it comes down to it, the St. Louis fans could not have a better manager to represent their personality than this guy.”
Garcia believes that as well.
“I have probably 50 notes from him, over the years,” Garcia said, “just for little things. He thanked me for going to a children’s hospital or sent me a note after a tough game just to say ‘hang in there.’ He really cares about you and we all really care about him. We would do anything for that guy. He’s our leader and we’re following him. He’s getting us going.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains