Mike Shildt has been part of the St. Louis Cardinals organization since 2004, the last seven years as a manager. He won championships at rookie-league Johnson City (2010 and 2011), then with Double-A Springfield in 2012 (a team that featured current Cardinals Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez, and Seth Maness). In his first season with Memphis, Shildt has the Redbirds in contention for another playoff spot.
What have you found new or different in managing at the Triple-A level?
There’s a learning curve anytime you do something new, at a different level. This has been a step up in play, more experienced players, travel, just a different dynamic. I’ve got a staff that’s been great. They’re not just experienced, but they’re good at what they do. [Hitting coach] Mark Budaska is experienced with the game. I run things off him; we try and be as proactive as possible. And Bryan Eversgerd, our pitching coach, has been here three years. They’ve steered me in the right direction. Beyond that, it’s a good group of guys, a good clubhouse.
I’ve always valued the perspective of players. You gotta know when to push, when to pull, when to punt. I’m ultimately responsible for messaging and for accountability, playing the game right. You have to be a little more assertive at a lower level. I’ve got a good relationship with our club. It’s an easy group to trust. They prepare hard and work hard.
Is there less teaching than was required at Double-A . . . or still a learning curve?
There’s less fundamental teaching. Here, it’s about opportunity and experience and playing. There’s still an understanding we can grow and learn. We take our cue from the big-league staff [in St. Louis]. And that staff is always looking for continual improvement. There’s always dialogue going on. It’s a great culture. When the big-league club has it, and players get to experience it and know what it’s about, it makes it easier to foster that environment here.
Players [at this level] know what they need [to work on]. The thing I personally use as a barometer for whether a guy can continue to move up the ladder is if he owns what he’s doing to compete at that level. That’s the goal. When a player is self-sufficient, gets the most out of his ability, and — when things don’t go right — has an anchor to use as a reference point, he’s owning his game. To me, that’s a championship player. There are so many distractions in this game to potentially pull you away from your anchor. It’s a game of habits, repeating good habits. Learning consistent mental habits. Bryan Eversgerd says “Who you are is what you do when you’re at your most uncomfortable.”
There’s been a lot of roster fluctuation this season, which isn’t that unusual. But how do you adapt from one week (or game) to the next?
There’s movement at every level, but there’s more here. The group that’s [been to St. Louis and back] has not needed a lot of coaxing, or refocusing. I give credit to our big-league staff. They do a good job of having a candid conversation with a player about what they did well, and why they’re going back [to Memphis]. [Cardinal manager] Mike Matheny is a tremendous communicator. It’s a good staff and clubhouse. When players go up, they’re welcomed and acclimated. And when they come down, there’s clarity about what’s needed moving forward.
Describe the influence of the parent club. Cardinal legend Willie McGee was here last week. There seems to be full engagement between St. Louis and Memphis.
Willie is such a good guy, such a humble guy. We had a couple of sessions with him. Players don’t want to know how much you know until they know how much you care. With Willie, it’s not about the guy who won the World Series, won a couple of batting titles, or won an MVP. He genuinely wants to be here for the guys, and that comes across. When he speaks, they listen.
People feel an obligation to help others wearing the birds on the bat, the tradition of it all. Move it forward in a classy and dignified manner. You sit across from [Hall of Famer] Red Schoendienst during breakfast at spring training. We were working on bunting during spring training a couple of years ago. And Red told us how Ty Cobb told him that if you’re ever in a slump, go bunt. To work on strike-zone discipline and tracking [the ball]. That’s unbelievable. These are generational icons in our sport.
This year’s club got off to a rough start (13-22 on May 15th), but has played steady, winning baseball since (44-30 through Sunday). What helped this team find its groove?
It was a combination of things, guys getting settled in. The competitive balance at this level is very thin. We’d done some things really well, but we hadn’t pieced it together yet. That stretch early in the season, the record didn’t look good, but I felt pretty good about the direction guys were going individually. Just little things.
What interests me about player development is the evaluation at the end of the night versus the scoreboard. We all want to win the game. But if we’ve been stressing something to a certain player, and it clicks for the guy — his breaking ball is better, he gets a read on a ball in the dirt, he has a better approach with his swing — you feel pretty good about that. We may have lost the game, 4-2. As individually we started getting more consistent, then collectively we became more consistent as a club. It’s a process, and there’s some intent behind it.
Are there players who have pleasantly surprised you this season, either with their performance on the field or their work between games?
If you have a vision for what a player can become — without putting a ceiling on him — then I don’t think you’re surprised. I’ve been pleased with the development of the guys. I could give you the name of any player on our roster.
What do you see in Jeremy Hazelbaker, who seems to like Triple-A pitching after arriving in early July?
He’s been a really nice addition to our club. He’s got a skill set [beyond the impressive hitting numbers]. He’s got a nice stroke, and some power. What’s impressed me most about him is how consistently hard he plays the game. He gets after it. He won a game for us, effectively, just by beating a throw to second base on a ground ball. A good, hard-nosed player. And he’s a good outfielder. He can run, takes good routes [on fly balls], throws to the right base.
You’ve been with the Cardinal organization for 12 years now. Where do you see your path leading? Managing (in the majors?), or in other roles?
When I got done playing — and I wasn’t very good — I told myself I wanted to go as far as I can. I was comfortable running the race. I tell kids when they arrive at rookie ball, just run the race. Be all in. I knew I loved the game. And I knew I was smarter than talented, though that was a low bar. I wanted to see how far I could go and contribute. By the grace of God, I got a call from John Mozeliak [with the Cardinals] with a scouting opportunity. If I look at just trying to get better and grow every day, the end result will be the end result.
One thing I’ve learned from Mr. Kissell [late, great Cardinal instructor George Kissell] is that you have to care more about a player’s career than your own. There’s a human component to it. You want to give yourself opportunities and challenge yourself. But my overriding thoughts are devoted to making our organization and players better. I enjoy managing. Would I like the challenge of managing at a higher level? Absolutely. But I also don’t want to leave this organization unless that opportunity is presented. The Cardinals have been good to me.