(Baseball StL) -- Fourth in a series about teaching “The Cardinal Way” in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system.
Charles Tilson learned what it meant to be a St. Louis Cardinal at the Cardinals’ spring training complex in Jupiter, Fla.
Tilson, a second-round pick out of New Trier High School in suburban Chicago, was the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year and hit .406 his senior year. As a sophomore, he hit .409 and led his team to the Illinois state championship. After missing a year for shoulder surgery, Tilson was preparing for his first spring training.
In the room were dozens of other hopefuls, all the best players on the various teams they competed on over the years; now just another player hoping to defy the odds and play major league baseball.
But this wasn’t just another major league team. This was the St. Louis Cardinals and what it meant to be a Cardinal was about to be explained to him.
“Mike Matheny came in and talked to us, which I thought said a lot about him and the organization,” Wilson remembers. “The way he carried himself, the way he spoke to us, I just really wanted to play for him.
“He talked to us about being a professional, and that we will have ups and downs but that it was important to have the same attitude no matter how things were going for us personally. He said we can’t lose focus, that if things were going poorly at the plate, the team was still depending on us to play defense. He challenged us to carry ourselves as men and realize that our duty was to the team.”
For a 20-year-old who was essentially right out of high school, this was a powerful message, one he felt Matheny was delivering to each of them personally.
Jacob Wilson, a 22-year-old with four seasons of experience at the University of Memphis, was equally impressed.
Wilson, a 10th round pick, was the 2012 Conference USA Player of the Year for Memphis, hit .301 with 31 homers and 189 RBIs in his Memphis career. He led Conference USA in 2012 with 17 homers, the most by a Memphis player since Dan Uggla’s 18 in 2001. But at the Cardinals’ complex, he was like Tilson - another young man with tremendous potential hoping to separate himself from all the other talent and be the 1 in a 100 who makes it, even for a day, to the big club.
Matheny’s message had a profound impact on him as well.
“He said that the Cardinals were about character,” Wilson recalled. “And team unity. He told us to work on being the right kind of guy in the clubhouse and playing the game the right way.
“But he also stressed that you have to learn to handle failure the right way. He said you can’t bring down others because you aren’t succeeding at the moment. Help each other out and be a leader.”
Former Cardinal catcher and current Peoria Chiefs’ coach Erik Pappas said Matheny’s message about character is one of the keys to the Cardinals’ success. The Cardinals want players who are good people and leaders on the team and in their community, he said.
He also echoed Matheny’s comments. “This is a game of failure,” he said. “You are going to have ups and downs and you have to learn how to handle that. I know that from experience. Ballplayers go through a lot of that.”
It is that experience that so connects Chiefs’ players to their coaches and ultimately, to the Cardinal organization.
“Some of us were not hitting early in the year and we were getting down,” Wilson remembers. “Then coach took out a calendar and showed us we were only 20 percent of the way through the season. He told us we’d bat about 500 times during the year and most of us had had only about 100 at-bats. They knew from their experience to keep an even disposition. The fact that all three of our coaches played major league baseball really helps a lot.”
Tilson, ranked as the 14th best prospect in the Cardinals system, agreed. “The coaches stuck to the routines and no one got down on us. We continued to work on our approach and our mechanics.”
Pappas said the Cardinals stress a simplified hitting approach. “Whatever you are good at, stay with that,” he said. “Look for your pitch early in the count and don’t make an out on the pitcher’s pitch. You can’t cover a fastball, change, curve and both sides of the plate. Eliminate pitches you can’t handle early and get yourself into a good hitter’s count. Then, look for location.”
The Chiefs’ hitters, following Matheny’s suggestion, also help each other by exchanging information on the pitcher’s location and pitch command.
Because of the involvement of Matheny and the close association their coaches have with the Cardinals, both players said they feel deeply connected to the Cardinal organization and the rich history.
“The coaches encourage us, but (manager Dann Bilardello) also make us play hard. We realize what it means to be a Cardinal,” Wilson said.
Next: Mike Matheny was not the only Cardinal to make young players feel welcome.