The old adage in sports is that the name on the front is more important than the name on the back. It’s been shouted numerous times in bars and coffee shops, around water coolers and dining room tables, or inside a car during a road trip. The logo and team name, holders of rich history and the pathos of the franchise, mean more to people.
That’s noble, but not exactly true. Kolten Wong’s goodbye video this week, produced in conjunction with The Players Tribune-where players can post introspective articles and connect with fans-shows how the name on the back can matter. How it can reverberate through an idea fan base. Here is Wong’s column, which also has the extended video.
Wong had that effect during his near-ten years with the St. Louis Cardinal organization. He wore his heart on his sleeve the entire time, even during the toughest moments of his career. One like the 2013 World Series, where he got picked off and stood up in front of the media to take questions. a 23-year-old kid taking the heat instead of escaping to the showers. As Wong put it in the video, he took a few punches to the mouth, but always got back up.
And he did, becoming the complete player after Mike Matheny was fired and Mike Shildt was brought in. It wasn’t until then that Wong became more consistent at the plate and in the field, winning two Gold Gloves and becoming an on-base machine with speed and some pop. But that’s not even the best thing about the guy. It’s his gigantic and full heart. That matters.
It will hold up long after he is gone from St. Louis, and even the game of baseball. To hear him talk with such passion and grace about the city, and how he and his wife Alissa were treated, is first class from a guy who didn’t have the smoothest career here. But it’s those ups and downs that carve out the character in an athlete, deciding if he or she can hang around or if they will be wiped off the table like so many promising and gifted players unfortunately are. Wong stuck around and showed the gratitude in the end. I mean, did anyone else watch that video a dozen or so times?
That’s why I like to see these guys as individuals and not as just a team member. The name on the front carries more weight, but the name on the back shouldn’t be forgotten. I can’t do my job as a sportswriter if I only think of human beings as mere temporary number holders. One of the things easily forgotten by fans during games are that these are flesh and blood humans under those threads, ones who feel pain and sadness just like we do. Their mistakes are broadcast worldwide, unlike our gaffes that may only be spotted by a few people. And it’s not as if the money is guaranteed to keep coming. Just look at the Cardinals declining Wong’s 2021 option on his contract. He had to wait a few weeks until Milwaukee came calling.
They’re getting a gem of a human and a fine ballplayer. One who tosses the helmet and smiles wide after a walk-off blast or game-winning run scored. They will get a guy who could easily win 4-5 Gold Gloves in a row. The Brewers have a player who will connect with their fanbase, create a home there, and make them proud. In the video first shared on Wong’s Twitter account, you can hear his dad telling the Cardinals they would be happy for drafting his son. I think they were very happy, but not as happy as Cardinal Nation was.
The thing that resonated with me the most in the goodbye video was Wong telling St. Louis that he hopes we are proud of him. Immense is the word I would use, Mr. Wong. From the stands, the couches, the press box, and all the writers watching from around the city. He did it right and that counts.
Maybe I am too sentimental at times to be a sportswriter. I like to think it mixes well enough with my blunt cynicism of the game to create good stories, but I wouldn’t exactly call it the healthiest way to view and write about the game. But I like that there are players like Wong who allow the consumers of his efforts, the souls who buy the jerseys and posters, to see him a little closer. Most players keep that wall up, allowing only the baseball side of their lives to be seen-and for good reason. But sometimes, a professional and highly paid baseball player will step down from the glitz and glamour of the game, revealing the human side that makes them even more fun to follow.
Thanks for being you, Kolten Wong. Thanks for reminding us that the name on the back can be meaningful too. St. Louis will never forget you.
Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images