The Cardinals’ second baseman and leadoff hitter, Kolten Wong, makes waves in an explosive season for the red-hot Cards.
The Cardinals’ 24-year-old leadoff hitter and second baseman defies his fair share of norms: He’s a Hawaiian who loves baseball more than the ocean; a self-described procrastinator whose drive has propelled him to the major leagues; and a star batter who channels his fierce aggression to the benefit of the whole team.
Wong stepped into the lead-off role following in the footsteps of Matt Carpenter, whose career on-base percentage—the most important stat for the first guy to the plate in a game—is a very respectable .379. At press time, Wong’s was at .360—not bad for a 5’9″ player who’s only been in the majors since 2013 and has since had the second-highest vote total among second basemen vying for a spot on the All-Star roster. He’ll find out in early July if Cards fans have forgiven his early gaffe of getting picked off at first base for a game-ending out in the 2013 World Series by voting him one of the most popular players in the game.
Since coming to St. Louis, Wong has developed a taste for some of the local favorite pastimes like visiting breakfast dives and watching hockey. But he’s still “not a big snow person,” and heads back to Hawaii during the offseason, where he stays with his father in his hometown of Hilo. He met his fiancée, Ohio native Alissa Noll, when they were both students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and they’re currently in “non-stop” planning mode for a November wedding.
In the meantime, the pressure is on for the increasingly clutch Wong—and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
ALIVE: What has it been like being the leadoff hitter for the past couple of months?
KW: Different. I’ve never really led off before, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. What I want to do is give the guys an idea of what the pitcher has and what he’s trying to do. That’s my job. I want to see as many pitches as possible, and if I get on base, that’s a plus.
ALIVE: Your dad—who coached you growing up—has been such a strong influence in your career. What does he say about the role?
KW: Dad said, “Run with it!” It’s a tough place to be, but I’m up for the challenge and I’m excited. … I still stay aggressive.
ALIVE: You came up to the major leagues not long before the 2013 postseason. Was that pretty intense for you?
KW: It was fun—I enjoyed it! I love being in clutch situations and being right in the thick of things. It’s something that I was happy to be a part of.
ALIVE: Your first major-league home run last June was pretty intense too—it was a grand slam.
KW: I’d never hit a grand slam before, even growing up … It’s something I’ll never forget.
ALIVE: What did your dad say after that?
KW: I called him, and I could hear that he was kind of choking up when we were on the phone. He was really excited for me. For Father’s Day I actually gave him that ball, and he was pretty excited about that.
ALIVE: Does your dad still give you advice?
KW: Yeah! I talk to him every single night about the game and stuff that went wrong.
ALIVE: Tell us a little about how you grew up.
KW: It was baseball 24/7. I really loved the game, and because of my dad coaching older kids when I was growing up, I was always around them and watching them play. I started to fall in love with the game, and he asked me if I wanted to be serious about it. I told him yeah.
ALIVE: What position did you play?
KW: I was a catcher at the start. That was my dad’s position. During my freshman year in college, the coaches told me I wasn’t catching anymore because of my speed.
ALIVE: Does your background as a catcher come in handy?
KW: It does—I’m fortunate enough to have been a catcher for a good long time, so I have that catcher’s mindset of what pitch is coming at what time. I can also pick up on pitchers’ tendencies because I caught basically my whole life.
ALIVE: Did you think you had a shot at the major leagues growing up in Hawaii?
KW: We all knew it was hard for Hawaii-born players to make it. … But I didn’t really let that take away from my dream. I just constantly worked at it. Luckily I had parents who gave everything up for me and my dream. My dad was the main reason I am where I am. In the small town where I’m from, Hilo, there wasn’t really any baseball program until he jumpstarted it. Now baseball’s a big thing.
ALIVE: So when you go home, do you get mobbed?
KW: I always go and work out with all the kids my dad has on his teams and talk with them. It’s good to give back—we never had people like that when we were growing up, so I want to be that guy for them.
ALIVE: Who helped mentor you as you adjusted to the majors?
KW: John Jay is one of the biggest guys who helped me grow in the team and learn what you need to succeed in this club.
ALIVE: If there weren’t a ton of baseball role models in Hawaii, who were your childhood heroes?
KW: My favorite player was Jimmy Rollins [a longtime Philadelphia Phillies shortstop now with the LA Dodgers]. He’s a small guy like me. He was out there playing in the big leagues and succeeding. I figured if this guy can do it, then size isn’t a limitation.
ALIVE: We’d love to get the stories behind some of your ink. You have some pretty intricate tattoos.
KW: The tattoos represent the protection of my family and the tight bond that we have together. I have a Chinese scroll that represents the Wong family symbol. Then on my back I have Proverbs 3:5-6. It’s something my grandma told me that’s stuck with me. “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy path.” It’s something I live my life by, because in this game you can’t get down on yourself too much, nor can you be worried about anything. You’ve just got to go out and give your best.
ALIVE: Any of your fiancée yet?
KW: Not yet. I’m thinking of something I might do, like my finger, when we get married. She knows I like tattoos and she understands it.
ALIVE: You have a tattoo of a ribbon on your forearm to represent your mom’s death from cancer just after you got called up to the Cardinals, and you have her signature on most of your custom-made maple bats. What was her reaction to your major league debut?
KW: She was kind of struggling toward the end of everything, but she was super excited about me finally making it. … When I first got called up, she was there in Chicago … and we just cried the whole time. It was a dream that we never thought would come true, but it actually did. It was a blessing at that time. She also got to come to the World Series, so she got to see an important time.
Photo credit: Wesley Law