Playing free: Wong's extension gives him peace -

Playing free: Wong's extension gives him peace

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St. Louis Cardinals' Kolten Wong is congratulated by teammates after scoring during the second inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst) St. Louis Cardinals' Kolten Wong is congratulated by teammates after scoring during the second inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)

JUPITER, FL. ( -- It’s been 858 days since October 27, 2013. The date means very little to most, but Kolten Wong likely has a tally of all 20,592 hours between then and now.

The second baseman received a five-year contract extension from the Cardinals Wednesday, finally vanquishing the specter of that date, when he was picked off first as a rookie to end Game 4 of the World Series.

“After 2013 they gave me a chance to come back and really reinvent myself and show them that wasn’t me. After that, I wanted to be a Cardinal. It was something I felt like I needed to do,” he said.

In 2014 he played 113 games, performing well enough finish third in NL Rookie of the Year voting and shred the postseason with three doubles, a triple and three home runs.

A look back: Wong erases ugly memory with game-winning swing in Game 3 of NLCS

In 2015, he battled swing mechanics early on, but played a dependable second base and hit .263 with 11 homers, 28 doubles and 61 RBI.

But 2013’s unpleasant end was always in his back pocket. That pressure compounded the stress Wong already heaped upon himself, often weighing his mistakes far heavier than his successes.

“It’s gotten to the point where I’m in the clubhouse and everyone knows that I have something on my mind or that I’m not playing well because I’m pushing. If I’m having fun, I’m loud and messing around with all these guys. They see it. I’m not good at my poker face,” he said.

It kept him from finding peace, from feeling like he was here to stay.

“I wanted to get [engrossed] in this community,” he said. “After that happened it was tough. That whole offseason was one of the toughest I’ve ever had. I knew I had to come in and basically show what I can do. Because everyone’s only going to remember the pickoff. No one is going to remember anything else.”

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 Wong’s $25.5 million deal, which keeps him in St. Louis until the decade’s end with a club option for 2021, is that sense of permanence. Though the organization never appeared to waver on Wong, it’s clear the extension (and the reported breakdown of the payout) addresses a key element of his personality; a desire to commit and be committed to.

“This offseason I took over for Jon Jay and Jason Motte in the K for Cancer events,” he said, noting he and his new wife, Alissa, will also be working with The Covering House Foundation  and the Make A Wish Foundation. “With us being so engrossed in everything, I wanted to work out something where I could have a little more time in St. Louis. I love playing for the team, I love everything about St. Louis. The fans have been nothing but supportive of me the entire time, regardless of what happens. I wanted to be able to stay here for a while, to be a mainstay for a couple years. Maybe we can even do a little longer.”

On the field, the extension will likely help the 25-year-old return to the psyche that made him a first round draft pick. Some players respond positively to the pressures of a constant audition; having to prove in every game, every at bat, that they belong brings out an animalistic mentality that drives them to success.

Others thrive when they feel they have the freedom to fail, rather than live each moment a pressure-packed window. Their focus is solely on the moment, not the consequences of failure.  

“Coming up through the minor leagues, I succeeded because I had that security knowing I was the guy. I knew they were going to give me a chance. When you have that security and that piece of mind, it allows you to just play free,” Wong said. “That’s the one thing I haven’t had a chance to do in the big leagues because I knew there was a business side. I understood that, and I didn’t want to mess up. (Now) I have that freedom. I have that chance to go out and play the game free and how I know how to play it. I’m excited.”

It’s a freedom his manager is excited to see as well, having tried over the past few years to get Wong to lessen the pressure he applies to himself.

“It’s fun to watch him breathe a little bit. I think sometimes it’s liberating to just go out there and play the game,” Mike Matheny said. “I don’t think he’s begun to tap into the type of player he can be.”

Top spot: Wong campaigning to hit leadoff in 2016

Whatever player he becomes now will be a major part of the team’s future. Wong’s contract extends beyond the likely tenure of the current core:  Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and perhaps Matt Carpenter (Holliday, Wainwright and Carpenter all came to the press conference and sat in the back to support Wong). The weight of the future doesn’t seem to bother him. For now, his plans seem to only include two things: taking his wife Alissa to dinner and enjoying pressure-free baseball.

“It’s that free feeling to go out there knowing this team trusts me. They believe in me. Now it’s time to just go have fun, let my talent show,” he said.

So maybe, after 858 days, Wong can finally shut down the clock and have a good time.

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