Cardinals Caravan Makes a Stop at Westminster
BY JIM MALVEN
Players shared their toughest challenges and most memorable experiences with The Columns.
Current and former St. Louis Cardinals players stopped by Westminster Saturday night as part of the 2016 Cardinals Caravan, a series of annual January tours throughout the Midwest.
Infielder Dean Anna, former infielder and current Fulton resident Charlie James, pitcher Tyler Lyons, former pitcher Kyle McClellan, prospect Jacob Wilson and second baseman Kolten Wong arrived at the Marsh Jones Room shortly after 4:30 P.M., roughly an hour before the main event in Backer Dining Hall.
From there, the players, accompanied by Cardinals mascot Fredbird, were given brief introductions by McClellan, participated in a Q&A session with audience members and signed autographs for children under age 15. Meanwhile, Cardinals tickets and memorabilia were auctioned off, and Fresh Ideas served a “ballpark-style meal” in Mueller Student Center.
According to Director of Alumni Engagement, Sarah Munns, event coordinators gave out 150 autographed tickets, and approximately 320 to 340 people attended the event.
While most of these attendees were visitors to Westminster, many students made the cross-campus trek to the Dining Hall. Among them were Andy Ford, ’18, and Brett Simon, ’17.
Both Ford and Simon consider themselves huge Cardinals fans and had been to Caravans before — for Ford, “three or four” and for Simon, “at least a half-dozen.”
When asked about his experience at the Caravan, Simon immediately responded, “Kolten Wong is shorter than anticipated,” while Ford nodded in agreement. The two then said they were glad to have the opportunity to meet Wong and the rest of the players. They were even able to get autographs after all of the children passed through the line.
Prior to these festivities, The Columns sat down some of the players to learn more about them and their experience playing for the Cardinals.
Dean Anna (debuted 2014)
Position: Infielder; Bats: Left; Throws: Right; Born: Nov. 24, 1986, in Glenwood, Iowa (age 29)
Anna enjoys playing for the Cardinals because of the team’s “winning culture,” which he thinks comes from the fact that they have “a great manager, great front office [and] great coaches. … All down the line, it’s just solid,” he said, referring to the members of the Cardinal organization.
Although with the New York Yankees at the time, Anna’s most memorable experience is hitting a home run at Yankee Stadium against the Boston Red Sox. “That was really cool,” he said, “especially since it was in Yankee Stadium.”
Anna said that his toughest challenge is remaining in the Big Leagues.
“You just want to stay there all year, and you don’t want to get called up and get sent back down,” he said. “You’re just trying to grind and stay up there as long as possible.”
When asked how the experience of playing in the Majors differed from his expectations, Anna said he really did not have any expectations.
“You don’t really know unless you experience it,” he said. “You can’t expect what you’re going to feel, you know? The lights are brighter; the balls are whiter. … It’s a way better atmosphere to play baseball in.”
Tyler Lyons (debuted 2013)
Position: Pitcher; Bats: Left; Throws: Left; Born: Feb. 21, 1988, in Lubbock, Texas (age 27)
What Lyons likes most about being a Cardinal is the team’s fan base.
“I know they make a big deal out of that, but it’s pretty special to see on a weekday night — Tuesday, Wednesday night — middle of the summer or fall or spring [that] you’ve got a full, packed house,” he said. “Even a lot of other big cities just don’t draw as well.”
Lyons’ advice for aspiring baseball players is to work hard.
“It doesn’t matter where you came from or what your credentials were prior to making it,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who signed out of high school, signed out of junior college, went to college. … Guys make it [who] were first-rounders, and guys make it [who] were drafted in the last round, so there’s always a possibility; it’s just about who puts the work in and who makes it happen.”
Kyle McClellan (2008-2013)
Position: Pitcher; Batted: Right; Threw: Right; Born: June 12, 1984, in Florissant, Missouri (age 31)
Born within 20 miles of Busch Stadium, the Cardinals’ home ballpark, McClellan did what so many kids dream of and what so few end up doing: play for his “hometown team.” McClellan said this is what he liked most about being a Cardinal.
“I grew up in St. Louis, and I got a chance to play for the Cardinals in front of my friends and family, so that was certainly a highlight,” he said.
McClellan said his most memorable experiences from the Big Leagues are making his Major League debut, which he did in St. Louis in 2008, and winning the World Series in 2011.
Like Anna, McClellan said that his biggest obstacle was simply staying competitive at the Major League level.
“The guys are the best in the world at what they do, and trying to come in on an everyday basis and play at that level is difficult, especially in your hometown, where you’re from, where you have more distractions,” he said.
As far as dealing with those distractions and dealing with that pressure, McClellan admitted that the pressure goes away when he gets into the game.
“When I’m on the [pitcher’s] mound, that’s the place where I’m most comfortable,” he said. “You’re nervous about the preparation … and all that leading up to it, but as soon as I ran onto that field, it was like that was what I’m good at; that’s what I’m most comfortable doing.”
Jacob Wilson (debuted 2012 – Minor Leagues)
Position: Infielder; Bats: Right; Throws: Right; Born: July 29, 1990, in Bartlett, Tennessee (age 25)
Wilson has not yet made it to the Major Leagues, but he said he is impressed by the “respect that is shown throughout all levels” of the Cardinals organization.
“Last year was my first Big League camp; I got to go to for Spring Training,” he said, adding, “Within 30 minutes of being there, I had some of the veteran guys coming up to me, wanting to talk, getting to know me, which makes you feel better about working with a bunch of Big League veterans.”
Wilson’s two most memorable experiences are getting invited to Spring Training for the first time and then being promoted to AAA, the level just below the Major Leagues. A Memphis resident, Wilson explained that the latter was especially exciting because the Cardinals’ AAA team is located in Memphis. Plus, he hit a home run in his first game at AAA, and his dad took off work to see it.
“I remember touching home plate and going to the dugout, and I saw [my dad] smiling from ear to ear, and that was like a sense of accomplishment, that I had made him proud,” he said.
In terms of advice, Wilson said he could “write a book” on the subject. However, he said the most important thing for young baseball players to do is to be appreciative of their parents if they are supportive enough to attend games and pay for expenses. Then, he said, a player can turn that appreciation into dedication and motivation.
Kolten Wong (debuted 2013)
Position: Second Baseman; Bats: Left; Throws: Right; Born: Oct. 10, 1990, in Hilo, Hawaii (age 25)
Young second baseman Kolten Wong was, by the crowd’s vote, clearly the most exciting person at Westminster on Saturday. That is the name that came up the most; that is who people flocked to the most; and days earlier, that is who the Caravan promoted the most.
When asked about his greatest challenge so far, Wong admitted somewhat jokingly, “Everyone in this room knows my challenge. In ’13, I got picked off in the World Series, and I could have easily folded and [given] up, but I didn’t. I knew that I was a better player then; I knew that wasn’t going to define the kind of career I was going to have, so even though I got picked off, and I was mad at the fact that I did, I told myself that that’s not going to determine how I am as a player.”
True to his word, Wong has bounced back from that blunder. In Game 2 of the 2014 NLCS, he hit a walk-off home run, becoming the fourth Cardinal, after Ozzie Smith, Jim Edmonds and David Freese, to hit a walk-off home run in the postseason. Including that feat, Wong told me that postseason has been his most memorable experience.
“I hit three home runs that whole playoff series, one being a walk-off home run,” he said. “When you have something that special happen, you’ve got to just enjoy it.”
Wong’s advice is to “never lose the love of the game.”
He continued: “It’s hard to play this game and enjoy it, but when you do and you start really enjoying this game, that’s when the training becomes fun and the playing becomes fun; that’s when you start playing at the best of your abilities. Don’t take it too hard when you’re not doing good; just enjoy the experience.”