After searching for ‘great,’ Wong is finding himself in the pursuit of ‘good’
FT. MYERS, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- In Hawaii, they always played in the rain. It was unavoidable. After all, the annual rainfall in Kolten Wong’s home town of Hilo is anywhere between 130 and 200 inches, meaning rain falls on a near-daily basis.
But rain can make baseball entertaining. The bounce of the ball is unpredictable, slides can take you well past the bag and mud makes a difficult game even more punishing.
“That’s when baseball was fun,” the 26-year-old said recently, standing outside of the Cards’ Jupiter clubhouse, waiting to see if the shower that passed through eastern Florida would cancel their game.
For the past few years, having fun is what he’s tried desperately to do, even in the figurative rain. But for him, 2016 was more of a monsoon than a gentle spring shower.
After he signed a five-year, $25 million deal in spring, Wong spent much of last season as an employee without an office. His playing time was erratic, his production more so, one a product of the other. He was sent to the minors. He tried out center field. He sat on the bench. But mostly, he searched for himself, trying to reconcile the player he wanted to be with the one who fell short of expectations.
“I think the past couple years I’ve still been trying to figure out all these different things people do that make them successful at hitting,” Wong said Wednesday. “You see all these big name guys and they start telling you the things they do to succeed and you’re like, ‘OK, maybe that’s what I have to do to succeed’ instead of understanding if you just add the things they’re saying to your swing, it will make it all easier. That’s what I didn’t understand at first. I was trying to change my swing to be like this guy or that guy instead of understanding that I’m Kolten Wong. If I’m going to succeed, I need to succeed being Kolten Wong.”
An epiphany, perhaps, born of maturity and a recognition that success is not portable and desire does not equate to achievement. Those who burn at a high temperature risk being consumed by it.
But who, then, is Kolten Wong?
He’s certainly a gifted fielder. He’s made plays at second base that range from unlikely to near impossible. In fact, he’s made them at a rate that puts him among the most elite company at his position.
Wong has successfully converted 16.2 percent of all plays considered “remote” or “unlikely” to be made, according to Fangraphs’ Inside Edge Fielding. That’s a better rate than Gold Glove machine Dustin Pedroia, better than Robinson Cano, equivalent to Jose Altuve.
But he’s also a guy who has booted ground balls hit right to him. He’s let them go through his legs or failed to get them out of his mitt. At those times, he’s defeated himself, compounding one mistake into another.
At the plate, he has leadoff-hitter speed and power-hitter potential. For much of his career, he sought conflict, itching to challenge a pitcher early and often ceding control of the confrontation in the process.
“I used to take walks as (though) they sucked. I didn’t want to walk, I wanted to get on by earning my way on,” he said. Pitchers realized strikes weren’t required to get him out and so his impatience inadvertently earned playing time for others and bench time for himself. The majors is about being consistently good, not occasionally great, something he has begun to accept.
“I think he cares so much that you can tell he’s grinding before he needs to grind. Whether it’s in the count or whether it’s within a series of at-bats. You see he’s putting more on himself than he needs to put on,” manager Mike Matheny said. “I’ve been that guy too. All of a sudden you find yourself taking strike one and then you push panic. ‘I’ve got to do something big here.’ You take two at-bats and nothing comes from it and you feel like that third one you’ve got to make up for the other two.”
“I love to try and be the guy,” Wong admits. “I love to try and be the guy in the limelight. If it’s the ninth inning, I want to be up. I want to try to end this game. Understanding I have that in me, but I don’t need to go chasing after it. It only makes me look like I’m doing too much or make errors, stupid errors, I shouldn’t be making because I’m trying to do to much. I just have to let the game come to me.”
Recognizing that emotions are the enemy of consistency has been gradual for Wong. One failure often became two in the pitiless game of baseball. Frustration can follow a player into the clubhouse, out to the parking lot and ride shotgun with him on his drive home.
Soon, each failure magnifies the next opportunity until every moment carries such importance that the imagined consequences of another implosion become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wong has been a baseball dichotomy seldom seen in such extremes. He can be both jaw-dropping and head-shaking; too much and not enough. He’s earned playing time and forfeited it a dozen times, largely because, he believes, Kolten Wong has never really been Kolten Wong. He’s been a strange amalgam of abandoned approaches, unrealistic personal expectations and destructive emotions.
The genuine Wong, the only version with a shot at everyday playing time, is one comfortable enough with himself to accept the unremarkable along with the brilliant.”I think at some point you need to put in the work. It’s not all fun and games. I said, ‘I need to figure this game out. I have to figure out my game,’” he said. “That’s where I was these past years, going through that process. Understanding how to stay in this league. How can I stay in this league for as long as I can? That’s the biggest thing.”
He can stay by making the near-impossible play, by stealing 30 bases, by ambushing a pitcher’s first offering for a home run. But realistically, he can also stay by abandoning the distant pursuit of greatness and accepting that, like every other baseball player, he is imperfect and will often fail.
“I wanted to be a guy with 30 home runs and also be a Gold Glove guy, which I think I can be, but I can’t force that,” he said. “When I’m doing well, I’m one of the best out there. It’ll come eventually. I just can’t continue to chase it, that’s all.”
Matheny said Wednesday there are no names written in ink on the lineup card. There’s still too much time this spring. “We’ve got positions. We’ve got opportunities. Go play,” he said.
But at second, Wong doesn’t see just an opportunity. He sees his office. Through all the identity crises of the past few seasons, one truth has persisted in the Hawaiian’s mind: He is the starting second baseman for the Cardinals. He’s going to play, no matter how hard it’s raining.
“I mean, this is my spot. There’s nobody that’s going to take second base from me. I believe that,” Wong said. “Regardless of the situation, I know what kind of player I am and what kind of athlete I can be.”
He can be spellbinding, he can be confounding. It is likely he himself does not know which he will be on any given day. But this year, there’s a consensus between what the Cardinals need and what he’s searching for; controlling the inner conflict that pushes him past accepting good in pursuit of great.
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