Somehow, Mike Shildt got the St. Louis Cardinals to buy into "Ball Talk."
It would've been all too easy for the Cardinals players, especially the veterans, to roll their eyes. After all, Shildt had never played a single inning of professional baseball. He had never managed in the majors. But there he was on the first day of the second half of the season, fresh off replacing longtime skipper and former big leaguer Mike Matheny, who had been fired by the club after a 47-46 start, telling his new charges that team meetings would become a regular thing. Not once a series, like every other club in the majors, but once a day. Before every single game.
Operating under the name of Ball Talk, the Cards' position players all huddle up in a room and brainstorm. While the time varies (after batting practice at home, before BP on the road), the content does not: They discuss what went well the day before, what they need to improve on and what they can do to be successful in the game that's about to happen. Usually the chats last about 10 minutes, but they've been known to run as short as two minutes and as long as half an hour. Although Shildt is always in the room, his yellow notepad crammed with thoughts and observations from the previous game, it's the players who drive the discussion.
"It's like group therapy," says infielder Matt Carpenter. "It really is productive. There's something of value. I don't want to go sit in a meeting just to say we're doing it. But if things are actually getting accomplished and we're getting better, I'm all for it."
For the record, Carpenter and the Cards have gotten better. Much better.
Since Ball Talk first debuted July 20, St. Louis has been red-hot. The team's 33-20 mark after the All-Star break is tops in the National League and fourth in the majors. The Cardinals went 22-6 in August, tying a franchise record for most victories in a month. During a ridiculous roll that started in late July and ran through late August, they won 10 consecutive series, matching another franchise best. In the process, they've gone from a team that looked like it had no chance of making the playoffs to one that holds a one-game lead for the second NL wild-card spot.
To be sure, there's more to the Redbirds' resurgence than a simple pregame chat. First and foremost, Carpenter has righted the ship after an awful start (he was hitting .140 in mid-May), carrying the offense on his shoulders at times and bullying his way into serious MVP consideration. In the outfield, rookie Harrison Bader has been a revelation since becoming a regular, especially on the defensive side (he leads all NL outfielders in defensive runs saved), and Jose Martinez has provided pop the Cards weren't getting from Dexter Fowler (out since early August with a broken foot). The bullpen, following a midseason makeover that brought in a slew of fresh young arms and injected injured starter Carlos Martinez into the closer mix, has improved. And a solid starting rotation, anchored by journeyman Miles Mikolas and rookie Jack Flaherty, has been even better in the second half. Still, if you ask anyone in the Cardinals clubhouse, they'll swear Ball Talk is at the core of their comeback.
"It was a complete change in the way we go about our business," says Bader. Adds shortstop Paul DeJong: "It makes a huge difference for us. It's the new normal."
What is the new normal for DeJong and the Cards is old hat for their freshly minted manager. "It's something I've always done," says the 50-year-old Shildt, who started with the organization as a scout and minor league instructor in 2004 and learned the daily meeting ritual from franchise icon George Kissell. Although Kissell called it "Yellow Pad," Shildt eventually rebranded it and took it with him wherever he went, from Johnson City to Memphis to Springfield, all the way up the minor league managing ladder. The fact that he has been able to sell it in St. Louis, despite a résumé that's paper-thin when it comes to traditional managerial credentials, speaks volumes about his interpersonal skills.
"Some people have a way of making everyone feel involved," says Carpenter. "You either have that skill set or you don't. He's got it. He has a way of bringing everyone into the conversation."
It's a conversation Shildt goes out of his way to keep going. Back in March, shortly after DeJong signed a six-year, $26 million contract extension, Shildt -- who then was serving as bench coach under Matheny -- took the time to craft a handwritten congratulatory note. Not long after Carpenter started to turn around his abysmal start, Shildt penned another note, this one praising the veteran for how gracefully he handled his early struggles. During the All-Star break, Kolten Wong was sitting poolside at his St. Louis home when the phone rang: It was Shildt, who'd just been named as Matheny's surprise successor, calling to say he believed in his second baseman and respected the way he plays the game.
"Some people have a way of making everyone feel involved. You either have that skill set or you don't. He's got it. He has a way of bringing everyone into the conversation." Matt Carpenter
"That showed me that this guy really cares about me," says Wong, who posted a .213 average during the first half of the season but is hitting .322 since Shildt took over. "I'm going to give everything I got for someone like that."
Wong and his co-workers also rave about the way their new boss handles their failures. On Labor Day in D.C., the Cards fell to the Nats in the series opener to give them their first three-game losing streak of the Shildt era. The day after, Ball Talk -- and the guy who organized it -- was the same as ever. "He's very even-keeled," says Carpenter of Shildt. "He doesn't get flustered or emotional or panicked." Adds Wong: "What separates him is that he's not a skipper that lives and dies by the win. He understands that this is a hard game." Oddly enough, that uncommon perspective is a byproduct of the one thing Shildt's detractors harp on most -- his lack of experience.
Back in July, when the Cardinals announced Shildt would replace Matheny, some outsiders bashed the organization for handing the reins to someone who, by his own admission, never amounted to much between the lines. "I played a lot of left out, and couldn't hit a lick," says Shildt of his stint as a utility infielder at UNC-Asheville, where his diamond days came to an end. Those weaknesses as a player have produced an empathetic manager who, unlike a lot of former big leaguers-turned-managers, knows he doesn't know it all, and acts accordingly.
"He lets guys play the game," says first baseman Matt Adams, the longtime Cardinal who spent five-plus seasons playing for Matheny and who recently returned to St. Louis in a trade with the Nationals. Although he has been back only a few weeks, it didn't take long for Adams to notice how loose his former teammates seem. "They have the freedom to be themselves," he says.
That sense of freedom is heightened by the fact that, at one point or another, nearly everyone on the big league roster played for Shildt in the minors. That includes Adams, who had Shildt as his very first manager in pro ball back in 2009 at Johnson City. Nearly a decade later, the two were reunited. Says Adams: "It's like one big happy family."
Just how happy is this current Cards clan? So happy that they can't keep themselves from dancing. When they hit a home run -- since the break, St. Louis has more homers than any NL team not named the Dodgers -- everyone in the dugout forms a conga line behind the guy who went deep. When they're in the field and they get two outs, Wong and Martinez start doing the salsa (a nod to the homemade dip that supposedly has fueled Carpenter's standout season). When they win, the guys in the outfield meet in the middle and engage in The Shoot, one of several well-known jigs from the ubiquitous video game "Fortnite." "It's a different chemistry around here," Wong says. "Guys are just having fun out there."
The players aren't the only ones pleased with the way things have been going. On Aug. 28, just 38 games into Shildt's big league managerial career (26 of which were wins), the Cardinals' front office removed the interim label and gave him an extension through 2020, an affirmation of just how impressive the team's turnaround was.
"He came into a tough situation and really unified the clubhouse," Carpenter says. "He got guys to buy into what he wants."