ST. LOUIS — Kolten Wong is 23 years old. He just turned 23.
He’s one of the brightest prospects in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization, routinely making top-100 prospect lists around Major League Baseball, drawing comparisons by prospect guru John Sickels to “Howie Kendrick with a better BB/K ratio or Todd Walker with a better glove.”
Sickels also ended his appraisal of Wong with this: “Wong is one of those guys who always seems to be in the middle of a critical play, and I mean that in the best way.”
Not on Sunday night.
Instead, Wong entered a 4-2 game as a pinch-runner for Allen Craig in the ninth inning. And with Carlos Beltran up as the tying run, and announcers laughing at the idea of even holding him on — what runner would wander far enough off first base in that situation to make a pickoff throw matter? — Wong was picked off to end a second straight playoff game in unlikely fashion.
Unlike Saturday night’s craziness, which lacked a true goat, instead providing a Talmudic situation to discuss and never solve, this could end up being Kolten Wong’s legacy for the rest of his life.
Don’t believe me? Bill Buckner played 22 years in the major leagues, 17 of them by the time he made his famous error, amassing 2,464 hits, seven .300-average seasons and a batting title before the play he made cost the Boston Red Sox a World Series game, and ultimately, a World Series. No one thinks of Buckner, to this day, as that solid hitter with the Cubs. And for nearly everyone who isn’t plugged into the Cardinals’ development system, this is one of the first times they are seeing or even hearing about Kolten Wong.
Now, there’s a good chance the Cardinals weren’t winning Sunday night’s game anyway. Carlos Beltran is fantastic in the postseason, but he’s not a Matt Christopher character. Still, just as Buckner’s error only capped an awful inning for Bob Stanley and Calvin Schiraldi, Kolten Wong merely completed a mistake-filled night for the Cardinals. But to many, forever more, Kolten Wong lost Game 4 of the World Series. And on Sunday night, he dealt with the media aftermath of that perception.
Wong has only begun to learn how to play at this level, let alone deal with the attendant responsibilities to the public. Still, after the game, he answered reporters’ questions as best he could. What words did he get, encouraging or otherwise, from teammates?
“You know, just keep going,” Wong said, having trouble meeting our eyes, still in his full uniform, the dirt from his too-late dive fresh.
He took a deep breath, trying to keep it together.
Was he trying to steal, for some unknown reason?
“Not really,” Wong said, feigning casualness. “You know, being ready to go first-to-third, if Carlos hit one, but got too far off. Made a good throw. Got me out.”
Is he upset the Cardinals had to go back to Boston?
“You know, that’s just the game.” Pause. “You’ve got to earn it. Come back tomorrow.”
I don’t know what was asked next. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t saying much, and I needed to talk to Seth Maness. But I looked over after Maness had finished, and Wong was still answering questions, his eyes reddened.
He just turned 23, and he will be held responsible for losing his team a World Series game, fair or not, and he knows it. He doesn’t know how to hide those emotions yet.
Perhaps he’s at an advantage over Buckner, whose story was written, and didn’t have many years left to override his famous error. It didn’t really work that way for Fred Merkle of Merkle’s Boner fame, though, just 19 when he allowed the Cubs to beat the Giants in a critical 1908 showdown by failing to touch second base. Merkle played until he was 37, finished seventh in MVP voting in 1911, played in five World Series.
So I couldn’t help but feel terribly for Wong as the group interview mercifully ended, and the rookie beat a hasty retreat to the showers, trying to shed a play that probably will follow him for the rest of his life and beyond.
How many fans upset that the Cardinals lost a baseball game realize what the stakes were for Kolten Wong?