The sun doesn’t rise as fast as Kolten Wong does these days.
A breeze curling off a mountain in his native Hilo, Hawaii, has cooled things down — “oh, upper-60s,” he admitted — and each morning he’s up at dawn and off to the ballfield between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m., ready for his father to hit him grounders or for a volunteer pitcher to test his bat. A late breakfast precedes weightlifting, running and other workouts before meeting his father again in the evening for swings at the batting cage Kaha Wong runs.
There are times Kaha said when he wonders if his son should schedule a breath.
“He wants to be a Cardinal. He wants to stay a Cardinal. He’s got this opportunity and he’s got to grab it. He’s got to take it,” Kaha Wong said, with sounds from his batting cage in the background. “I’m not quite sure though what to do with him. I tell him, ‘Take a rest. Take a timeout here. Take a break, Kolten. Go to the beach. Relax.’ ”
Kolten Wong, 23, will return to St. Louis next week from Hawaii to find the situation with the Cardinals significantly different than when he left last fall.
The Cardinals traded former World Series MVP and third baseman David Freese and repositioned All-Star second baseman Matt Carpenter so that they could, as general manager John Mozeliak said, “create an opportunity for Wong.” A week from Sunday at the annual St. Louis Baseball Writers’ Dinner, Wong will receive the organization’s minor-league player of the year award for his .303 average, 20 stolen bases, and robust season at Class AAA Memphis.
He debuted with the Cardinals in August, but struggled during his first swing through the majors. Wong left for the offseason with what manager Mike Matheny called a “list of things to improve on” and returns to the opportunity of a career. This is what gets him up early, hitting late.
His father knows of another motivation.
He can sense his son’s sadness.
In December, Wong’s mother, Keala Wong, died after a lengthy battle with cancer. Memorial services are this Sunday, according to an obituary in local papers. Wong’s mother was able to travel to see her son in the World Series last fall. Kaha said though the family had been encouraged by her treatment, his high school sweetheart passed away on their anniversary. She is survived by her husband, Kolten and his brother Kean, a prospect in Tampa Bay’s organization, and daughter Kiani Wong, a softball player at Hawaii.
“It’s a hard thing,” he said. “We’re trying as only you can — together.”
During a lengthy conversation this past week between a workout and his time in the cage, Kolten Wong spoke about his swing, his opportunity, and the blunt lessons from his big-league debut. He did not mention his mother. He has described in the past the inspiration of her fight through chemotherapy and against the disease. His father understood why Kolten would be reluctant, he said. Work is an outlet.
The Cardinals promoted Wong in August to the majors with the idea that the lefthanded-hitting infielder would add a spark to a scuffling lineup. He had a two-hit game in his third start, a three-hit game in his fourth start, and would lurch between hits after that. He did not have another multi-hit game and moved into a pinch-run and pinch-hit role that further complicated his production because of the irregular at-bats.
Wong finished the regular season with a .153 average in the majors, a .194 on-base percentage and more strikeouts (12) than total bases (10) — numbers that contrasted sharply with his Triple-A stats.
“I didn’t do anything to make people believe that I’m ready to be there. I know that,” Wong said this past week. “All of the games, all of the time I had and I didn’t prove it to people that I’m ready. … That showed me that I had a lot of work left to do to be ready to compete. That’s what I’m doing. I want to make sure this time, going into spring, that’s not the case, that there’s not a question.”
Wong was the Cardinals’ first-round selection (22nd overall) in the 2011 draft, and his climb through the minors would be recognized as swift if not for the just-add-innings advancement of 2012 pick Michael Wacha. Wong won a championship in the Class A Midwest League in his first pro season, won a championship in the Class AA Texas League in his second season, and in his third season reached Class AAA and repeated the individual production he had in every previous season. Wong posted at least a .345 on-base percentage at each stop and hit .301 overall in the minors.
He made stealing bases a goal at Triple-A Memphis and was successful in 20 of 21 attempts. He also showed at the Cardinals’ highest affiliate the continued ability to compete against lefties, batting .289 in 128 at-bats.
These are the trends the Cardinals see beyond his debut.
“The snapshot you got of Kolten Wong is not necessarily what’s going to be his DNA,” Mozeliak said. “I think he’s going to hit. I think, from an offensive standpoint, he will contribute.”
Wong was back in Hawaii and by chance had turned on a sports channel to hear his name come up often during a November press conference the Cardinals held. Mozeliak was explaining the reasons behind trading Freese to the Los Angeles Angels in a four-player deal that returned center fielder Peter Bourjos.
Wong knew what the move meant for him and called it “a bittersweet situation.” Freese had been one of the players who helped Wong learn clubhouse etiquette. He let him know where a rookie could sit and what he had to bring to the bus for the veterans. Freese gave him insight about pitchers and even stoked his confidence.
Yet, it’s the departure of one All-Star and the movement of another that cleared the way for Wong to win the starting job. The Cardinals signed veteran Mark Ellis to a one-year deal in December to offer a righthanded-hitting complement for Wong, but they did so telling Ellis they wanted to get Wong playing time. Opportunity awaits the rookie.
To get ready for spring, Wong said he is working on shortening his swing and maintaining his balance at the plate. His girlfriend, Alissa Noll, a former track athlete at Hawaii, has worked with him again this winter on his explosiveness and efficiency when running between bases. This past week, his father said Kolten faced a pitcher with college experience. They moved the pitcher up to about 55 feet to simulate increased velocity. At his 5,000-square foot batting facility, Kaha Wong, a former minor-league ballplayer, works with around 120 kids at his cages before also working with his three kids.
That’s where Kolten finishes his daily workout.
The lessons he learned from his 39 games in the majors — including seven playoff games — follow him at each stop of his day, including one of the most memorable lessons. Game 4 of the World Series ended with Carlos Beltran, the tying run, at the plate because Wong was picked off first. It’s not the result that echoes for him. It’s the reason.
“The thing that really clicked with me after I got picked off was, sitting down and understanding it, I realized when you get to this level there is no down time, there is no moment to breathe,” Wong said. “Everyone is as good as it gets out there. Everyone is at their best and they are at their best all the time. I had to understand the attention I needed to have. Unfortunately it took getting picked off to learn that. …
“I had to learn it the hard way. Sometimes the hard way is the best way.”
Carpenter was only the third second basemen to have at least 500 at-bats at the position in a season since Fernando Vina manned the pivot in 2003. Whether it’s Ellis or Wong, the Cardinals could have their ninth different opening day second baseman since 2002.
Seizing the opening, Wong has applied that “attention” he learned to his preparation. He starts early because spring training days start early. He wants his swing ready, because it can make an impression.
“He was confident (last fall), but not sure yet,” Kaha Wong said. “He will be.”
Kolten’s father said he and his wife had already purchased tickets to travel to Florida for spring training. They would see Kolten on one side of the state and Kean on the other. Kaha Wong said he isn’t sure who will join him now, but he will be there.
He wants to see where all this work takes his son.
“When I get to spring training, I want to be sure I’m ready,” Kolten Wong said. “I don’t want any part of my game to be lagging. I want to come in ready to be the starting second baseman. I want to show them the confidence I have. I want to do everything to make sure it’s my permanent job. I know that means doing everything now and in spring to show them I’m ready to go.”