When the St. Louis Cardinals made the announcement that Kolten Wong would become a free agent, the city wept. The 2-time Gold Glove winner had not only become the team’s dazzling starting second baseman, but a man who fans lovingly adored. Despite Wong leaving St. Louis for the Milwaukee Brewers, Cardinal fans showed just how much he meant to them last week in his first return to Busch Stadium. Although he stepped up to the plate in a rival uniform, there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole stadium – or house in my case.
Humble beginnings in Hawaii
As the son of a former Minor League Baseball player, Wong learned the game at an early age. His father Kolen “Kaha” Wong often took whatever job he could. His odd jobs made time to teach his sons Kolten and Kean Wong about the game. The older Wong would often spend hours daily training. He also would hit in a batting cage daily to improve his offensive skill with his brother and sister Kiani who played softball. During the Cal Ripken World Series playing for Pacific Southwest, scouts recognized Wong’s talents. In 2007, he also appeared in the Senior League Baseball World Series with his team from his hometown of Hilo.
As a two-sport athlete, Wong’s natural athleticism shined in both baseball and football. Despite his prowess in football, his passion remained with the game his father taught him. During his senior year, he was named as a co-winner for the 2008 Hawaii Baseball Player of the Year. Despite being selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 16th round of the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft, Wong opted to attend the University of Hawaii. One of the many scouts from the Twins organization even presented the second base star with a $75k contract. Wong refused, acknowledging after taxes, it wouldn’t be much money. Instead, he played for the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.
While playing college ball, Wong was a three-time first-team All-Western Athletic Conference selection. During his freshman year, he played center field and batted .341 with 11 home runs. Like wine, he continued to get better with age. In his sophomore season, he hit .357 with a .534 SLG, .436 OBP along with 19 stolen bases and an outstanding 40 RBIs. He finished his college career recording a .358 batting average with 47 doubles, 25 home runs, 145 RBIs, a .563 SLG, and .449 OBP. He also went on to steal 53 bases in a total of 71 attempts.
The Early Years of Professional Baseball
In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals selected Wong in the first round as the 22nd overall selection in MLB’s amateur draft. He quickly became the No. 4 ranked prospect for St. Louis. And in the same year, he made his professional debut with the Quad Cities River Bandits. Appearing in 47 games with the River Bandits, he batted .335 with 15 doubles, five home runs, 25 RBIs, and nine stolen bases. A nice start to what has become one incredible career so far.
By 2012, he earned himself a promotion to the Springfield Cardinals. During the season, he was selected for the 2012 All-Star Futures Game and finished with a .287 average. Continuing to shine as a top prospect for St. Louis, he finished up the year in the Arizona Fall League and was selected for the “Top Prospect” team at second base. It wasn’t long before Wong became acquainted with the Memphis Redbirds during his fast track to the show, being called up on August 16, 2013.
Despite his lackluster start with the Cardinals, then-manager Mike Matheny placed Wong on the postseason roster. What happened next was a moment that Cardinals fans wouldn’t forget – for years. In Game 4 of the 2013 World Series, Wong was placed as a pinch-runner in the ninth. Despite his speed, Boston pitcher Koji Uehara successfully picked him off first base. As the final out of the game, Wong felt defeated and many blamed him for the loss of the World Series.
During the 2013 offseason, tragedy struck the Wong family. While Wong was facing harsh criticism from a fanbase, his mother fought for her life. His mother, Keala, who had faced a long battle with cancer, lost her life in December of 2013. While she was able to travel to St. Louis to see her son play in the World Series, her death left a lasting effect. In a heartfelt video from 2018, Wong sat down with The Players’ Tribune to share his journey and the loss of his mother. His interview with MLB.com in 2018 was also an incredible read on the relationship between Kolten and Keala.
Becoming the Gold Glove winner
Although many were unsure of Wong, he became the starting second baseman in 2014. With David Freese being traded and Matt Carpenter moving to third, Wong seemed to be their guy. But soon, Wong began to struggle and the Cardinals brought in Mark Ellis as insurance and a little bit of guidance for the newest starting Redbird. By April of 2014, he was demoted back to Memphis. And like most prospects in the Cardinals organization, Wong was brought back a month later. The crafty left-handed hitter went on to record the highest average for rookies with a minimum of 40 plate appearances in his return. A stark contrast to what he had shown fans previously.
After finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year Award, Wong continued to contribute to his team. At Busch Stadium, his name could be seen on the backs of fan shirts and jerseys. When he stepped up to the plate, the entire stadium roared with excitement. Without a doubt, Kolten Wong had become a great asset for the Cardinals. For his 2015 season, he finished with a .262 average with four triples, 11 home runs, 28 doubles, and 71 runs.
Naturally with his skill, the Cardinals and Wong agreed to a five-year extension in early spring of 2016. The $25.5m extension went with a $12.5M team option in 2021 (which would later haunt all Wong fans in St. Louis). Nevertheless, Wong struggled early into the season and was demoted once again to Memphis. During his time back in Triple-A, he patrolled center field and hit a grand slam in his first game back to Memphis. However, his stint in Triple-A did not last long. In his return back with St. Louis, Wong bounced back and became the glue that often kept the Cardinals together.
By 2018, his dazzling performances at second earned him a Gold Glove nomination. In his first nomination, he fell to DJ LeMahieu. The next season, however, his efforts did not go unnoticed. He finished his 2019 season with 14 Defensive Runs Saved, the best in MLB among second basemen. Nominated for a Gold Glove for the second straight season, Wong’s case solidified any doubts and for the first time in his career, he won the Gold Glove.
A Second Gold Glove and a New Home with Dad Strengths
Although the 2020 season was cut short to COVID-19, Wong made the most of it. Going .265/.350/.326 with one home run and a fielding percentage of .989, everyone expected Wong to return in 2022. After all, he was awarded his second consecutive Gold Glove after leading MLB second basemen in defensive runs saved, defensive WAR, double plays turned, and even double plays started. His chemistry with Paul DeJong at short was often considered unmatched. Despite all of this, the Cardinals declined his team option for the 2021 season, making him a free agent for the first time in his entire career.
The 30-year-old second basemen remained on the market until February 5, 2021, when his former team’s rival made a deal. He signed a two-year $18m deal with a club option for 2023. Instantly, the Brewers accepted Wong and his family. Unlike many free agents who join a new team, Wong made himself comfortable at second base. Unfortunately, Wong found himself on the injured list quickly with a left oblique strain during the St. Louis series.
When he returns, fans can expect his new dad strengths to kick in. He and his wife, Alissa announced they are expecting their first child this year. Wong has already joked that he’s excited to have dad strength on the field. He currently sits with a .105 average in 19 at-bats, so the dad strength will come in handy when he returns from the IL.
Photo By John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)