On a day where an unusually large number of cameras were trained on every corner of Busch Stadium, perhaps the most poignant image was one that might have gone unnoticed by observers watching the field of play. In the bottom of the sixth inning, with the Cardinals holding a three run lead, interim manager Mike Shildt sat on the far end of a bench in the Cardinals dugout.
To his right, in order, sat Yadier Molina, Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, and Kolten Wong.
That image spoke – screamed – volumes about the task Shildt has in front of him and the way in which he plans to address it.
“I think to be a winner, to have a winning team, you have to be together,” Molina said, agreeing that it was meaningful to see him seated next to Shildt.
“Transparency. I think that’s key. He’s a pretty good communicator,” said Fowler. “You can tell already. I think the guys that have played for him, they love him. That says a lot.”
Said Wong, “he’s gonna make sure that you know exactly where he’s coming from, and if you’ve got any problems, step into his office.
“He’s gonna dish it out, but he’s always there to take it.”
That connection and openness was evident in Shildt’s first postgame press conference as Cardinals manager. He stood sopping at the podium, and before taking questions, apologized for the mess. It was a celebration that he was sure to point out “didn’t include any nudity,” joking that all involved were thankful for that.
But then, he explained. The laundry basket. The spinning. And then he explained his thought process in aggressively utilizing José Martínez as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the fourth inning in a spot where the game might have hung in the balance. He spoke of a lesson that was imparted on him by long-time organizational stalwart Mark DeJohn.
“Your spot (for Martínez) might be in the 4th, 5th, 6th inning. Don’t let it slide by.”
Perhaps more importantly, when he referred to José Martínez, he called him “Hosey.” Nicknames are commonplace in baseball, and most managers use them interchangeably with formal names. Mike Matheny, for instance, regularly referred to “Carp,” “Dex,” “Waino.”
“Hosey” is different. It’s a nickname that those around the clubhouse commonly hear used by Latin players and coaches amongst each other. And it’s how Mike Shildt, who proudly spoke of himself as a North Carolina native and the former coach at West Charlotte High School, reflexively referred to the team’s leading hitter.
Fowler, Molina, Ozuna and Wong all have lockers clustered together in one corner of the clubhouse. It’s a corner where, of late, the lights seemed a little dimmer and the air was a little heavier. It’s an area that hasn’t featured many post-game media scrums in the last few weeks. And it’s the area of the clubhouse from which it’s fair to assess that much of the friction between the players and their former manager came. Neither side is blameless, but one side is still here.
“Just having a different approach to the game is something that’s gonna be huge,” Wong said. “Mike (Shildt)’s the kind of guy who’s going to let you go out there and just play. He doesn’t want to come in and take away the light.”
Fowler added, “he has good energy. He has a good energy about him. I feed off of that. Even being around him, he’s always smiling, but he works hard. He works hard and he cares. To see that each and every day is awesome.”
Molina called Shildt “an old school manager with old school technique and an old school game.” In doing so, he brought to light an important point. “Old school” is frequently used in baseball to describe people who are resistant to developments in strategy or statistical analysis. “Old school” can mean stubborn. Some might even say it means regressive.
Old school can also, though, mean loose. Relaxed. A sense of team unity and concept that embraces the idea of team as family, even when some members of the team may be forced to sort through personal issues. Molina, for his part, was careful to point out that he views “old school” as a compliment.
After all, the goal in the Cardinals clubhouse is singular. And, if you ask Yadier Molina, the team may be closer to that goal today than it was on Saturday.
“Right now, today, was a good thing for us to be together,” Molina conceded.
“And that’s how you win championships.”
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