By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
JUPITER — Full squad workouts became official at the Cardinals complex in Jupiter on Monday morning and with that change came three new additions to the clubhouse. The first two – a set of televisions tuned to the MLB Network and a stereo system with deep bass – are standard issue across the big leagues. The third didn’t appear until the afternoon, and it was unique.
On either side of the door which exits to the practice fields hung four pieces of paper, two each in English and Spanish, and each on either side the same. They read:
Below those words was printed a grid:
1926 1931 1934
1942 1944 1946
1964 1967 1982
2006 2011 ____
Those dates identify the years in which the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series. The intentional blank space was a striking and aspirational design choice, and as I sat in Cardinals manager Mike Shildt’s office for a one-on-one conversation on Monday afternoon, I asked if he was the one responsible for the design.
“That was us,” came the answer, the emphasis Shildt’s. “We’re a complete organization.”
Monday was Mike Shildt’s first day as the manager of a major league team holding a full-squad spring training workout, and if you didn’t know that, you likely wouldn’t have noticed. Infielders corralled pop flies, outfielders sprinkled home run balls among cars in a parking lot, and a careless reporter found himself dodging a screaming line drive – yes, I’m telling on myself.
For those on the field, though, the difference was immediately apparent. Shildt regularly teases reporters about their need to play close attention to his team’s workouts in order to differentiate them from years past. The players rave about the way he communicates and the way in which he makes his intentions clear.
That was what new first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said surprised him about Shildt as he got to know him. He had heard tales about and exchanged text messages with the manager, but the direct connection struck him. “Personable” was the word he used.
José Martínez froze in his tracks and contemplated for a minute before deciding that it was impossible to be surprised by Shildt. He’s everywhere, Martínez said. Always on top of everything.
Dexter Fowler was asked the same question and his answer was immediate and definite: “Patience,” Fowler said. That was what surprised him about Shildt the most.
The manager comes by the patience earnestly. While serving as the baseball coach at West Charlotte High School in the 1995-96 school year, Shildt found himself in an unfamiliar position as he searched for a spot on the school’s faculty.
“I have a degree in business and a concentration in marketing [from UNC Asheville],” Shildt said. “There wasn’t a job for that. I was a full-time substitute the first day of school.”
“I show up first day of school and they tell me, ‘somebody’s gonna call in sick.’”
The opening he found was in the special education department. Shildt found himself with a full-time position teaching high school students in a cross-category class for those with behavioral and emotional handicaps, as well as those who were autistic or had a learning disability. He stayed with the class the entire year and found himself experiencing new perspectives on life he might not have otherwise come across.
“I have an appreciation for everybody in every circumstance and that really helped me appreciate, give me different perspectives where people were coming from,” Shildt said. “[It] gave me growth to try to help them grow.”
Shildt said the experience helped open his eyes to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities and that he internalized it as he worked on his personal growth. That growth is something that Shildt, clearly highly introspective, has been able to chart.
“The best two ways you grow is you grow through your own experience,” he explained. “I just did something, how do I grow? So you reflect on it, then you prepare, then you execute the next day.”
“The other way you can accelerate your growth is through other people’s experiences. The smartest people in the world I think there are are the people that grow through other people’s learning curves and then use [their] own experience to personalize it.”
I asked Shildt if what he was describing was empathy. He agreed that was a component, but added, “that can also be being open to listen and hear what somebody’s saying. A big part of communication’s listening. It’s a lost art, generally speaking.”
Shildt also credited a big part of his personal growth to work he’s done through his men’s group at his church at home in North Carolina. I mentioned to Shildt that he hasn’t spoken much about that aspect of his life and he quickly laughed and said, “nobody’s ever asked!”
His chosen method for expressing his faith is, typically of Shildt, understated and subtle. Asked how he can be a witness in the way he desires, Shildt said, “live it. Appreciate it. Glorify it. Honestly, the mission for us is to get the most out of this ability and ultimately for me it’s about honor and the gifts I’ve been given from God.”
Shildt said he was raised with faith but came to a deeper understanding as he aged and grew. He spoke of changing his understanding of achievement and how he learned to be intentional and live in the moment.
“When I was younger,” Shildt recalled, “I wanted more for me. I wanted more to [think], like, what’s my next step? I think that’s a pretty natural thing for people in general and it can be healthy.”
“When I became more complete, I always cared for the player and always put players first. But I had sort of an agenda like, ‘them first, them first, them first, we do great, I get something.’ Then, [Cardinals field coordinator] Mark DeJohn helped me with that. I matured.”
Part of that maturity has included giving back to his community. Shildt is the co-chairman of a Charlotte service organization called Baseball For Life, which, according to its website, currently mentors 38 youth between fifth and ninth grades in the Charlotte area. True to form, Shildt’s biography on the organization’s website focuses mostly on his connection to the area. Only two brief sentences identify his connection to the Cardinals.
Getting Shildt to talk about himself can be a difficult challenge. His commitment to the team concept seems to be both sincere and absolute, and indeed, he explains it as a core part of his maturation.
“Hey man, it’s not about me. It’s just not. It’s completely about the relationship with the player and the relationship with the group.”
The group knows Mike Shildt – ever-present, personable, patient. And through his empathy, his growth, his leadership, he’s acting with intention to fill the gap on the poster with “2019.”