The guiding light of Cardinal instruction remains George Kissell, who died nearly a decade ago after 69 years with the organization. His methods live on in a leather-bound coaching manual, about the size of a diary, that Shildt keeps on his desk and consults every day. He worked with Kissell only in 2008, at spring training camp, which the Cardinals tabbed Shildt to run.
“I said, ‘Mr. Kissell, we’re not going to change anything, we’re going to keep moving forward,’” Shildt said. “He was real gracious, but he came to me later on the back fields and said, ‘Let me tell you something: You better change something, you better make it better. It’s pretty good, O.K., but gosh darn it, if you do it the same way, you’re going to get passed. We’ve got to keep ahead of ’em.’”
Shildt’s success this summer has been fueled largely by players from the farm system, raised in the ways of Kissell and successors like Mark DeJohn.
Since hiring Shildt, the Cardinals have prioritized up-the-middle defense — sticking with Kolten Wong at second base and Harrison Bader in center — while getting power from Matt Carpenter and sage wisdom from Yadier Molina, the ageless catcher. The slugger Jose Martinez, a defensive liability at first base for much of the season, now fits more snugly in right field.
“With the exception of a few moving parts, the overall mentality change is what’s propelled us forward,” said Bader, a rookie with speed and power. “I remember Shildt’s first game right before the All-Star break. We had a meeting and the message was: ‘There’s X amount of games left, it’s just a matter of whether we want to make a push.’ And collectively, we rallied together.”
That last word means a lot. Every day on the Cardinals’ lineup card, there is a scheduled time for “Ball Talk,” when players and coaches gather to chat about the last game, the next game and anything else that might help the team. This is different from the detailed scouting meeting at the start of every series; this is a daily immersion in the Cardinals’ tradition.
“We don’t always have it figured out,” shortstop Paul DeJong said, “but we’re constantly in search of doing things the right way and trying to get better.”
The Cardinals may not survive the pennant race; they face a tough schedule down the stretch, their young starters are untested and their bullpen can be an adventure. But however September plays out, the Cardinals feel like the Cardinals again.