Benjamin Hochman: Cardinals' Shildt was NL Manager of the Year in 2019, but his 2020 is more impressive

©St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Over in Tennessee, they called him “Smokey,” though it had nothing to do with any nearby mountains or tobacco-related endeavors; the guy just looked a lot like singer Smokey Robinson. His name was Ramon Ortiz, and he was a hitting coach in the Appalachian League for the Johnson City Cardinals, who had an up-and-coming skipper named Mike Shildt.

“And he would talk about … when things weren’t going right, it was an opportunity, not a threat,” said Shildt, now the manager of a different Cardinals team. “Just a great mindset. You know, life’s not always going to be ideal for any of us. Choose to accept the uncomfortable and learn to be comfortable when you’re uncomfortable. And the second you start complaining about something, you’re taking away from figuring out the solution.”

Winners find solutions.

That’s Mike Shildt’s mindset — he’s sure said as much, repeating the phrase with reporters throughout the 2020 season. He’s also spread this mindset throughout the Cardinals clubhouse, six feet at a time. And it worked. In a season besieged by injuries and the coronavirus, doubleheaders and doubters on the outside, the Cards cobbled together enough solutions to make the playoffs. No, they didn’t bat 1.000 in their execution of solutions, but they kept swinging and surely led the league in solution-searching “at-bats.”

His fatigued team had exhaustion, but not excuses. Solutions are currency, and as Shildt said, “there’s no money in complaining.”

Last season, Shildt won the National League award for Manager of the year. What he accomplished this year was even more impressive.

“He’s one of the best human beings I’ve ever met,” Ramon “Smokey” Ortiz said by phone on Monday. “I told Shildt (in 2009), ‘I know you’re going to be in the big leagues some day, because you come into this game with passion.’ And now, two years back-to-back in the playoffs.”

In his salute to solution-finders, Shildt mentioned many Cardinals throughout recent weeks.

There was rookie pitcher Kwang Hyun Kim, who didn’t speak English, who hadn’t seen his family in Korea since before spring training, who even battled a non-COVID illness that sent him to a hospital, but he pitched resiliently and resplendently (1.62 ERA) — “He’s as a microcosm of what we think and how we want to be,” Shildt said, “and that’s finding a solution.”

There was catcher Yadier Molina, who tested positive for COVID-19, who was hit in the wrist with a swing, who said his body felt like the Cards had endured 180 games, but he played courageously and capably (especially down the stretch, hitting .303 in his final 10 games) — “Winners find solutions and that’s Yadier Molina,” Shildt said.

There was pitching coach Mike Maddux, who lost starter Miles Mikolas and closer Jordan Hicks before the first game, who had to fill innings with healthy no-names in those first weeks after the quarantine, who had to build back arms on the fly, but he coached creatively and incredibly (3.90 staff ERA, fourth-best in NL) — “Maddux said that we need to be elite adjusters,” Shildt said, “and everybody in this group have been.”

A lot of this solution-finding mindset is a mindset in itself — staying positive helps you problem-solve. The Cards showcased this on Sept. 19, the night Pittsburgh’s Mitch Keller no-hit the club for the first six innings. Oh, and the Cards were down, 4-0. But in the seventh inning against relievers (because of Keller’s pitch count), the grinding group scored five runs and won.

“In that dugout, everybody was present and figuring out a way to compete and get it done,” Shildt recalled. “And you say, ‘Well, of course, they’re supposed to do that.’ Nah, that’s pretty special stuff. It really is.”

The Cardinals, the No. 5-seeded team in the NL postseason field, might not have made the playoffs if it wasn’t for Harrison Bader. But on Aug. 21, he made a costly error that lost a game to the Reds. Channeling Shildt, he took accountability for his play and ascended the next day (a homer in a win). From Aug. 22 on, Bader had a .354 on-base percentage and a .524 slugging percentage. That’s an OBP of .879. That’s tremendous.

“There’s a (self-help) book I read and when we were quarantined, and it talks about problem-solving leading to happiness,” Bader said. “That’s kind of what Shildt does. He kind of forces you to dig deep within yourself. He allows you to understand and realize that everything on the outside is just noise. You take yourself to centerfield, you take yourself into the box, you take yourself on first, on second, whatever base you’re on. He just does such a good job in his own way of just allowing everybody to kind of really, really understand that.”

The 2020 Cardinals aren’t as good as the 2019 Cardinals, who won their division and won a National League Division Series. And there were sure nights in 2020 when onlookers wondered how bad some of these batters could be. But the 2020 Cardinals emulated their manager and made the playoffs. Winners find solutions, and they had a winning record.

“It’s a great example for a lot of things in our society,” Shildt said, “and what happens when you bond together.”

———

©2020 St. Louis Post-Dispatch