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'I'm a pro now'

Former UH star Kolten Wong makes his debut with the Class A Quad Cities River Bandits and goes 2-for-2 with two runs batted in

By Matt Veto

Special to The Star-Advertiser

LAST UPDATED: 12:22 p.m. HST, Jun 28, 2011

DAVENPORT, Iowa » A singular thought buzzed through Kolten Wong's brain as he stepped onto Iowa soil for the first time — a culminating moment facilitated by years worth of practice, practice and practice on the baseball diamond.

" ‘I'm a pro now,' " he told himself. "That's something every kid dreams about. To have the opportunity to say that and actually be one — it hasn't really clicked yet."

In his professional debut on Monday night, however, he clicked just fine.

The former University of Hawaii star from Hilo and first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals went 2-for-2 with two RBIs for the Class A Quad Cities River Bandits. It added up to an 8-3 win for his club over the visiting Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Wong said the stories he had been told about the broken-down ballparks of the bush leagues didn't jibe with the visions that filled his eyes when he took the field at Modern Woodmen Park.

The stadium rests beneath the majestic arches of the Centennial Bridge, which carry over the Mississippi River that flows just beyond the right-field wall. The muddy water, he said, "doesn't look clear as the water back home."

So far, however, he likes his new home, and his new family of fellow aspiring major leaguers seem to like him.

As does his manager.

"We went over signs, he cleaned up his locker, got everything under control, and what did he do?" asked Bandits manager Johnny Rodriguez. "He went out to the cage and hit off of the (batting) tee. That tells me a lot.

"He's serious about his career. He's a guy that looks like he likes to learn. He's focused. This is a good pick — an outstanding pick, from my first impressions."

In Wong's first impression on the 6,505 fans in attendance — the largest crowd this season at the Midwestern ballpark — the 20-year-old prospect laced what would have been an RBI single or double down the left-field line. His shot appeared to land fair, but the umpires called it foul, drawing the ire of Rodriguez from the third-base coaching box. Wong, though, still managed to plate his man on a sacrifice fly to center field.

It was a plate appearance Wong said he would never forget.

"I felt a little nervous, but after that first pitch, I kind of settled down and said, ‘It's baseball; I've been playing it my entire life,' " Wong said. "I just said, ‘Keep doing what you've been doing.'

"It was kind of surreal, but then everything was back to normal."

And back to business.

He finished his day with a pair of singles and a walk. Wong also drove in a run when he was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.

For two more games, Wong will get to prove his $1.3 million worth in front of a key member of the Cardinals' front office — Jeff Luhnow, the big league club's vice president of scouting and player development.

Luhnow said no timetable will be put on Wong's advancement, but added that there's "no reason for him not to stay (in Quad Cities) all year.

"You can argue that some time in August, toward the end of the season, you move him up just to give him a taste of another level," Luhnow said. "But the reality is, we're in the playoffs here and want to do well. He's going to learn a lot here.

"He's a complete ballplayer. He is a hard worker, he's confident and he's willing to listen to people that can give him advice."

Some trademark traits of a true pro.

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