POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 27, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 10:13 p.m. HST, Jun 27, 2011
One day, Busch Stadium, the next day the bush leagues. But it’s still all good for Kolten Wong.
Nah ... make that all great.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ first-round draft pick from Hilo and the University of Hawaii got a little taste of The Show on Sunday at Busch Stadium, taking BP and infield with the big leaguers (and his possible teammates in a couple of years).
Third base coach Jose Oquendo, a longtime Cards second-sacker, gave him tips on turning the double play in the pros. Hitting instructor Mark McGwire advised him to “have fun,” and McGwire reunited with his old USC teammate, Kolten’s dad, Kaha.
Then it was off to the Quad Cities, where Kolten gets down to work tonight as a member of the River Bandits, one of the Cards’ A-level teams.
You could tell over the phone that he was a little jet-lagged after flying to St. Louis from Hilo and Honolulu over the weekend to finish up a contract with a $1.3 million signing bonus and get his pro career started. But Wong said he has slept pretty well despite all the excitement, and was forcing himself to stay awake to get his body on Central time while riding with his family the 2 1/2 hours from Chicago across Illinois to the Mississippi River.
Assuming that Bandits manager Johnny Rodriguez will start the Cards’ top draft pick, Wong’s got a game to play tonight.
“I’m just excited to get it going,” he said.
WE KNOW Wong can hit good fastballs, and bat speed is one of his strengths. We saw that for three years. How quickly he progresses as a pro may depend on how well he deals with consistently better breaking stuff than what he saw in college.
“I think he can, and I think he will,” said Mike Trapasso, his coach at UH. “Pitch recognition, that’s another area he’s really good at, plate discipline. He’s very good at not chasing breaking pitches out of the strike zone.”
As Trapasso points out, a guy who says he can’t hit really good major league sliders forgets something: No one can hit really good major league sliders.
“It’s like saying you’re not gonna draft a guy because he can’t hit Mariano Rivera’s cutter,” Trapasso added. “Well, I guess that means you’re not gonna draft anyone, huh, guy?”
Wong got picked in the first round because scouts see him at age 20 as being relatively close to being a reliable starter at the big league level (with the bonus of defensive versatility). Playing every day in the minors for a couple of years will help him improve at second base — don’t forget, he’s only played there two college seasons after catching in high school and playing center field as a freshman at UH. It also gives him time to improve his base-running chops; his aggressiveness on the paths is a plus, but needs to be balanced with judgment earned through experience.
WONG’S ATTITUDE is another big plus. He concedes he needs to keep working hard and continue to improve, that making it back to St. Louis for real isn’t guaranteed.
The Cardinals are a great organization for his skill set, and he’s getting into pro baseball at the perfect time for a player like him. Some of the greatest St. Louis teams were built on pitching and scrappy guys who hit line drives to the gaps, bunted, stole bases and were great fielders.
This has been one of the nation’s most popular baseball teams for a very long time. Before there were big league teams in Kansas City, Florida, Atlanta or Texas, the Cardinals dominated a huge swath of the country, with kids all over the South and Midwest living and dying over the radio utterances of Harry Caray and Jack Buck.
“They’ve been a class organization for so long,” said Trapasso, a Cardinals fan born in St. Louis who pitched a year in their farm system. “Everything is done the right way and the focus is on player development.”
WHAT AWAITS Kolten Wong in the Quad Cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Silvis, Ill.?
No L&L, no Zippy’s. But plenty of aloha for Hawaii athletes.
Almost exactly six years ago, Michelle Wie arrived in the area amid much fanfare, a high school girl ready to take on the adult male PGA Tour pros at the John Deere Classic in Silvis.
The Midwesterners were smitten before she even teed off, and after Wie nearly made the cut in 2005 and withdrew due to heat exhaustion in 2006, it didn’t matter — she’d already been adopted.
At the same time, a posse of five Hawaii boys played arena football for the Quad City Steamwheelers; they were also loved by the locals and vice versa.
I told Wong to expect plenty of hospitable, friendly people. But not to expect too much on the seafood front. There are a couple of sushi joints, but the best fish I had there was the freshwater kind, at Miss Mamie’s Catfish House.
“Catfish? I don’t know about that,” he said.
There were some really good pork chop sandwiches and Whitey’s ice cream that he might enjoy.
Then again, Wong doesn’t plan to be around too long to worry about cuisine. Greg Garcia was promoted from Quad Cities to Palm Beach a couple of weeks ago (and is tearing it up). When I mentioned it was too bad he missed his former UH double-play partner by just a couple of weeks, Wong said, “I’ll see him pretty soon.”
And there’s plenty of good seafood in Florida.