SAN DIEGO — It was during a recent “Ball Talk” meeting — where the Cardinals gather each day for an open, honest and communal conversation about the game — that catcher Yadier Molina posed a series of questions to his teammates about what strength they had to find, what areas they had to improve to finally break orbit from being a .500 club.
Manager Mike Shildt paraphrased them Friday.
“How do we get better?”
“How do we do this?
“How does this look?”
“Every day,” Shildt added, “is a challenge to work on that.”
The Cardinals’ manager recalled this moment as an example of what he intended to do with his comments last Wednesday: He wanted to offer the fans a view into the conversations the team was having, and the positives in their play that offered the team a source of confidence. His comments erupted from the page — web or newspaper — and stirred discussion, debate and some consternation in St. Louis.
Some viewed Shildt’s statements as a criticism of the fans (they weren’t), a commentary on the negativity of the media (they were), or just cover for a team that remains perched in the division race despite underachieving.
Through club officials and others he trusts, Shildt heard about the reaction, felt some of the comments lacked context, and expanded on them Friday at Petco Park. He sought to be “transparent” and “speak the truth,” empathize with any fan frustration, and offer a look at the ball talk his team is having.
“There are areas in our game that improved because of that,” Shildt said. “Now, has it moved the needle big enough to get more wins? Yes. But has it moved enough to please the masses? We are the masses, too. No, we’re not pleased.
“I will not apologize for being an ‘encourager.’ I will not apologize for supporting the group. I will not apologize for being positive. But I also will be realistic. These are not rose-colored glasses that I’m looking out from. We get where we’re at. We also know where we want to go, and right now we’re not where we want to go.”
When Shildt took over as manager almost a year ago, he said it was time for the Cardinals to hear more “positivity.” He felt for a long stretch last season the Cardinals heard only about the things they did poorly and that it had skewed the team’s view of itself. He thought discussing elements of the team that were strong would be a bridge to improving their flaws, not fixating on those flaws. And, he has said repeatedly in his first 12 months as manager, that he will field all questions and be as transparent as possible.
He tried to do that Wednesday during his 30-minute conversation with members of the local media, a conversation that ignited a brushfire of hot takes.
Positivity, he agreed Friday, is not a surrogate for acceptance of their record. And it is not a substitute for urgency.
“One of the things that people appreciate about me — or don’t, which is fine — is the transparency. Like, what you see is basically what you get,” Shildt said. “You ask me a question and I’m going to give you my version of an honest answer that I think is thoughtful. What I think people appreciate is they’re going to get an answer. I’m not going to give you a canned yes-no answer. I’m going to try and share my feelings of where we are with this team — which I think I owe pretty much our whole fan base.
“That’s the whole point I want to get at,” Shildt continued. “I’m not excusing the fact that I feel like collectively we’re not in a place we’d like to be or expect to be. But my confidence level in this team is very high. It’s got a confidence that needs to reward everybody a little bit more with wins.”
Several members of Shildt’s coaching staff joined first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and reliever Andrew Miller on a visit Friday morning to the U.S. Navy SEALS training facility near San Diego. Goldschmidt, who has visited the area before, spoke of the respect he has for the servicemen and servicewomen there, and described how the visitors got a peek into how the SEALS must operate as a team and prepare so that they are “as elite or more” than any athlete in a professional sport.
From his staff, Shildt, who was unable to attend, heard that one of the elements of the training that stuck with them was how the SEALS “debrief, as a team, after every mission.”
This, Shildt said, is what Ball Talk has to be for his team.
It’s a chance to “share, grow, push, pull” and do so in “an open, healthy environment.” But Ball Talk is not always Happy Talk.
“We know we have areas to improve in,” Shildt said.
On Friday, he repeated the two specific areas that he mentioned in his comments Wednesday: scoring runs and starting pitching, and the “consistency” of both. These are the same topics that come up in Ball Talk, along with the improved baserunning and reliable defense that the Cardinals do well. And as he tried to offer a look into the team’s confidence, he suggested that the media could ask more about them. He specifically pointed to the media’s questioning of the team, not the fans. The fans, he added Friday, have the same expectations that the team does.
And regardless of their content, comments, like the calendar, aren’t going to get the Cardinals any closer to October in June. As he closed this thoughts Wednesday he said “actions speak louder” anyway.
“Look, I get it,” Shildt said Friday. “End of the day, people want wins. That’s what we’re here for. If I need to be a little briefer and talk about how we need to win more, I’m going to be pretty dull.”