ST. LOUIS — Could Kolten Wong ever become the full package? A classic tale of "to be or not to be" has unfolded in St. Louis for years.
Baseball truly is a game of attrition. It's a durable yet relentless beast of emotional alliances that can change daily. 162 games, twists and turns, and surprises. You'll be proven right, wrong, and dumbfounded inside a single day of action. The 2019 Cardinals are proof of that, especially their second baseman.
Back in March, I wrote a column on this very website that appreciating Wong required the proper expectations. Basically, don't expect greatness, because, for the past five years, Wong would disappoint you with that hope while producing a fraction of the value one expected back in 2013.
And then 2019 happened.
The evidence doesn't require a deep search. In the eighth inning of Saturday's first game of a doubleheader, Wong sealed the fate of the contest with a two-run double that one-hopped the center-field wall. The Cincinnati Reds were smelling Redbird blood, but Wong denied them access to the party with one swing of the bat.
After getting on base a total of six times during's Saturday's doubleheader, Wong improved his slash line to .284/.368/.423 on the season. All would represent career-high marks for the 28-year-old Cardinal. It's weird at first to think of Wong as a veteran, but that's exactly what he is. Playing in his seventh season, Wong has experienced just about everything.
The heartbreak of getting picked off to end a World Series game in his first season, the rush of blood off a 12 home run season, and the allure of a starting position on a club to the abrupt downfall and struggles. Under Mike Matheny, Wong couldn't reach his full potential, like an elevator unwilling to go to the penthouse suite. Since Mike Shildt took over, it's like the Hawaiian native shed a full layer of skin and became something else: a complete player.
Elite is a bold word choice, but when you examine Wong's all-around game, it's not outside the realm of reason. The .791 OPS isn't an MVP worthy stat, but that's only the beginning of the showcase. Wong's defense is Gold Glove worthy; I'm talking to you, 2018 voting committee. Every single game, he does something memorable in the field that few others at his position, or people on this Earth, could do.
He goes to his right up the middle to steal a hit. Wong sprints to his left to rob a single off a hitter, spinning, and diving before throwing. He runs out into the shallow outfield to track down bloopers, taking care of business that no outfielder could dream of doing. The simple plays that used to eat him up are now pieces of cake, a lay-up for a pro with one eye closed. Double plays are highlight-reel worthy just to see Wong make the turn at second or Houdini the ball into Paul DeJong's hands for the finish.
Wong also steals bases at a high rate these days. He has 19 steals in 21 attempts, which is one of the best success rates in the National League. He goes first to third without checking his baserunning bank account, and never forgets to show the emotion that kids and adults alike love to see. He's having a great time, and so are we. That's being an athlete and entertainer.
You could sell tickets these days just to watch Wong work. He's pushing this team in a number of ways, going from an inexperienced talent to aging like fine wine at second. Previously tearing the cover off the ball in the seventh spot, Wong now fits into the second spot in the lineup, chasing Dexter Fowler around the bases or waiting on a Marcell Ozuna-issued plane ticket home.
It's not unrealistic to expect this to just get better now that Wong is operating on a premium level of confidence. With him, having the right level of respect in the dugout and diligence on the field is the signature mix for success.
Wong's 3.2 fWAR is second on the team to Paul DeJong, who has brought out the best in his middle infield partner, and the virtue goes both ways with these two young gents. It wasn't always meant to be. DeJong was a third baseman once upon a time, and Wong was almost gone or face-planting in the outfield.
DeJong has a long term deal. Wong should be getting an extension soon. That's baseball for you. An ever-changing humble playground for fans, writers, and players alike. It'll keep you on your toes while occasionally knocking you down.
I've always liked Wong's ability but questioned how far it could go. When trade talks involved his name, I was fine with the transaction with something good coming back. I said this much just this season when July 31 rolled around. Wong's salary jumps up next year to $10.25 million, so he's coming into his own at just the right time.
What can't he do? Wong is even bashing lefties this year because Shildt is letting him face them more often. The dog leash is off offensively, with Wong being able to get a base hit, slap a double, and steal a base right after making a highlight-reel play in the field.
He can beat you in a number of ways. Off the field, he's one of the kindest and most giving people you'll see, going to bat for his homeland and serving St. Louis charities as well.
Let's just say I am eating a small crow salad when it comes to doubting how high Wong can reach. He could easily pull off a 4.0 WAR season this year, which would make him a bargain at $6.5 million on the season.
Baseball, unlike any other sport, is a game of attrition. A forever humbling bout of patience on everyone's part. Sometimes, you are right. Most of the time, you're wrong.
But you keep coming back for more. Kolten Wong sure did. He never gave up, dropped his head, or believed in a platoon status. He wants it all, and he's got it, six years later.
Now pardon me, I need to go watch some Wong highlights before I fall asleep.