FORT MYERS, Fla. • For those who dare to take 90 feet that isn’t theirs, base burglar Lou Brock has a story he tells about the chutzpah required to burgle bases.
He starts by setting the scene. There is an immovable base. Converging at that obstacle is a professional athlete with metal spikes, a leather glove and no intention of delicacy. Rushing to meet him is a baseball traveling faster than a car and willing to bludgeon wrist, ankle, or batting helmet if it takes a detour. Into this tinderbox of wreckage races the thief, headlong.
Brock’s point is that it takes more than speed to steal.
It takes want-to.
Oscar Mercado has it.
Kolten Wong wants to prove it.
“That’s why spring training is big for me, right now,” Wong said. “I have to establish the fact that I want to run, and show them that I’m having success running.”
During the Cardinals’ two-day stay in Fort Myers, Mercado and Wong have run away with their appearances. Mercado, a prospect, stole two bases Monday against Minnesota, and, in his start Tuesday, Wong stole a base and flipped the game with a sneaky bunt. Against a lefty, Wong placed a pitch down the first-base line and drew an errant throw to first. Two runs scored on the error, and the Cardinals snapped a tie on the way to a 6-1 victory at JetBlue Park. Later, after he was hit by a pitch, Wong swiped second and then scored on a single.
It was the kind of game from Wong that manager Mike Matheny described during batting practice: Wong has the ability to overcome a mistake in the field (he had an error) or a fruitless day at the plate (he went zero for two) with a run on the bases that could alter the outcome.
“Fun to watch when he gets something right, and he’s got some things right now,” Matheny said. “He’s got so many different weapons. Whether he can change a game with his glove. He can change the game with his speed. He can change a game by doing the little things. That was kind of a game-changer there.”
A day earlier, Matheny described how Mercado gets on base and is “out there hunting. He’s on the prowl.” And as a result, he and Wong have four of the Cardinals’ seven stolen bases in five games. (Boston, for context, has zero.) Given that Matheny and his staff have a fixed green light during spring training, this isn’t unusual. It’s become annual, especially when it comes to a young spitfire like Mercado pocketing bases. It gets contagious and soon enough base-stealing is a mania.
“If you see guys running like chickens with their heads cut off,” Wong said, “you want to join that party.”
Yet, every spring is similar. The young runners head back to the minors. Habits come home to roost. By April, the brakes are applied.
This past season, led by Tommy Pham’s want-to, the Cardinals stole 81 bases, the most since Matheny’s first year as manager and their highest ranking in the majors (17th) in his six seasons. The Cardinals stole a law-abiding 35 bases in 2016, the same season they were caught 26 times. Spring only goes so far forward.
“Every spring we steal so many bases, everyone gets so fired up and you think we’re going to break all kinds of records,” Matheny said. “Mostly, it’s fun to let them do what they do naturally. We want that atmosphere. I want them to come in and show what they got.”
In the past few years, the Cardinals have made it a priority to increase their base-stealing proficiency and base-stealers in the minors. Mercado, 23, ran to the head of the class this past year by leading the Texas League with 33 steals. He had 50 at Class A Peoria the year before. The Cardinals wanted Magneuris Sierra, the faster of the two, to follow in Mercado’s footsteps by learning that same eagerness on the bases, that same Brock want-to. Asked if that will to steal can be taught, Matheny corrected: “It can be unlearned.”
One misstep can create a reluctance to take any, as Wong learned. Against these Red Sox in October 2013, Wong entered Game 4 of the World Series as a pinch-runner. He edged out too far from first and was picked off to end the game with the tying run at the plate. His want-to wilted. Hesitance crept in.
“It definitely shocked me for a little while,” Wong said before the game Tuesday. “It’s honestly hard for me to explain how that hit me kind of deep. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching, a lot of reading, and just a lot of figuring about how to get over it. I think I made that step. That pickoff stunk at the time. But I wouldn’t change it. I had to learn it, and I am who I am because of it. That’s the aggressive player I am.”
Wong became a starter the next season and stole 20 bases on 24 attempts. It was his third consecutive 20-steal season as a pro. And his last.
Despite his on-base percentage growing steadily from .292 that season to a career-best .376 this past year, his steals have dropped. He had 15 in 2015 and 15 in 2016 and 2017 combined. A contributing factor in last year’s eight on 10 attempts was where Wong hit — eighth, often ahead of a ready-to-bunt pitcher. That’s restrictor-plate racing on the bases. Wong said he expects to be batting eighth again this season and there are more steals for him to find there. He needs the green light. To get it, he has to earn it when he has it.
Before Tuesday’s game, Wong described how one way to pilfer a base was after an event that irks the pitcher. The example he gave was a two-out RBI single. The example he got was a hit batter. Wong took his base — and then on the next pitch tried to take another. Marcell Ozuna fouled that pitch back. Wong was undeterred. He took second easily a few pitches later, and that put him in scoring position for Yairo Munoz’s RBI single.
The want-to is there, but it needs a running mate.
“It’s back. In full effect,” Wong said. “I’m always looking to do something. I want to get that aggressiveness built-in, so when the games start all I’m thinking is going, going, going and being able to react to the rhythm when I should.”