PHOENIX – It’s getting dark. The game ended hours ago. The only people remaining in the stadium are the grounds crew putting a tarp on the field.
And one man who remains in full uniform.
Mike Shildt, seated on the San Diego Padres bench, hasn’t moved for 90 minutes. He has nowhere to go. Plenty of time on his hands, trying to process how he ever got here.
One minute, he’s leading the St Louis Cardinals to one of the most stunning September runs in baseball history, making the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
The next, he’s abruptly fired, interviews for the Padres’ managerial vacancy, and lands in the organization as a player development consultant and interim third base coach.
He’s still trying to heal from the emotional scars, wanting to focus on the present and the future, but realizes for now he’s still defined by the past.
“I have a broken heart,’’ Shildt tells USA TODAY Sports. “It still hurts. It hurts bad. When it first happened, I broke down. I was inconsolable. I got better as time went on. Then I got down here, put on the Padres uniform, and it hit me.
“Now, it just hit me again.’’
Just hours earlier, Albert Pujols and the Cardinals were rejoicing during an impromptu press conference announcing that Pujols was returning to the organization for one last dance, ending his Hall of Fame career with the Cardinals where it all started.
Shildt should have been on the stage too, smiling in front of the cameras.
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Instead, he’s alone with a reporter in the visitors’ dugout at Camelback Ranch, where his job as the Padres’ third-base coach is expected to end in a few weeks when Matt Williams returns from his hip-replacement surgery.
“I love that organization, gave it everything I had for 18 years,’’ Shildt said. “We make the playoffs after they hadn’t been there for three years. We get back to the standards of the Cardinals. We’re set up to really go. The clean style of play, the culture, everything is in place.
“And you get removed from it.’’
Shildt pauses, momentarily looks away, and softly says, “It feels like it was stolen away from me.’’
The Cardinals’ season ended on Chris Taylor’s walk-off homer in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ NL wild-card victory, when John Mozeliak, Cardinals president of baseball operations, summoned him to a zoom call with himself and owner Bill DeWitt at 11 a.m. on Oct. 14.
“I was getting on the phone with the thought it was going to be about a contract extension,’’ Shildt said. “I had one more year on my contract. So I was looking at some of the numbers of the last three years, feeling good about them, and then Mo started talking.’’
Mozeliak opened up the call by saying, "Mike, this conversation isn’t going to go the way you think it’s going to go.’’
The conversation lasted four, maybe five minutes, top. To this day, Shildt can’t remember exactly what was said. Everything became a blur. His body went limp. His mind went numb.
All he knew is that after spending 18 years in the only organization he has ever known –revering the Cardinals’ uniform so much that he never put it on the floor to be washed with other clothes, leaving it nearly folded with the Cardinal logo always facing up – he was fired.
“I never thought it was a possibility,’’ Shildt says. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.’’
He walked upstairs to tell his wife, Michelle. She didn’t believe him. She thought it was a joke. It actually took several minutes for Shildt to convince her that he was fired.
The news quickly swept through St. Louis like a Midwest twister, with no hints Shildt’s job was even remotely in jeopardy.
“I was shocked, completely shocked, that’s the way I can say it,’’ said Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who finished second in the NL manager of the year voting, one spot ahead of Shildt. I don’t even know what happened. Maybe he doesn’t either.
“I mean what they did in September, there has to be some credit given along the way.’’
Shildt’s first three calls and messages were from Cardinals’ veterans Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, and Adam Wainwright. Fellow managers immediately reached out, and five months later, still are paying homage. Los Angeles Angels Joe Maddon called him over last week to hug him. Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona shook his hand and told him that he’d be back. Three-time World Series champion Bruce Bochy had dinner with him in Nashville, Tennessee. Former Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little reminded him that the landscape is filled with managerial greats who have been fired.
And, just a few days ago, there was an impromptu meeting behind home plate with Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa.
La Russa, who spent 16 years as the Cardinals manager with two World Series titles before returning to manage the Chicago White Sox, said he heard a comment from someone in the Cardinals’ organization that Shildt was fired because of a “toxic environment.’’
“That one frosted my ass,’’ La Russa said. “My comment was that if it was toxic, it must be in the front office. … I’m for the Cardinals. Everybody makes their own decision. But when you start talking about that, it might damage his chance to manage again for those that don’t know any better. He did a hell of a job.
“Philosophical differences? Ok. But toxic?
“He’s a special guy. That’s why it’s so important for his reputation to be intact and not smeared.’’
Mozeliak, when contacted, declined to publicly revisit the reasons for Shildt’s firing. He simply reiterated that there were philosophical differences, saying Shildt’s record and success as manager was inconsequential in the decision.
Shildt, 53, without going into public details, acknowledges he didn’t share the same views with Mozeliak on some components of the organization, but not nearly enough to provoke a firing.
“I thought I was going to die in my Cardinals uniform,’’ he said. “That’s why it still hurts so much.’’
Shildt, who spent endless hours this winter reflecting on what soured the relationship, refuses to publicly point fingers at anyone but himself. Maybe he should have just solely focused on managing without offering his input on any other aspect of the organization. Perhaps he should have just kept his opinions to himself.
Then again, maybe he just loved the organization so much that he refused to idly watch anything stand in the way of their success and mission of being a perennial World Series contender.
“I was so loyal to that organization, and cared so much,’’ Shildt said, “I felt an immense weight of being a caretaker of that organization. Ultimately, I put too much pressure on myself. That was my issue, not anybody else’s. I didn’t want to let Mo down. I didn’t want to let my team down. I didn’t want to let our fanbase now. I didn’t want to let the tradition of players that came before us down. I was very passionate of that, and dedicated to it, and at some level, I probably cared too much.
“There were just some things that I felt could be better, and I thought I was in a safe place to share them. Clearly, I wasn’t.’’
Shildt, who will return to his duties as a player development consultant when Williams comes back, will also be a volunteer assisting MLB’s collegiate summer Appalachian League. It’s merely the latest addendum in his expansive resume. This is a man who coached high school baseball for three years, American Legion baseball for two years, college for five years, rookie ball for eight years, Class AA for three years and two years at AAA, and was a quality-control coach in the big leagues, a third-base coach, a hitting coach, a bench coach, an infield coach and a big-league manager.
He also spent the first three years in the Cardinals organization as an associate scout, assisted in drafting Oliver Marmol, and promoted Marmol to become the youngest bench coach in baseball.
Now, at the age of 35, Marmol is baseball’s youngest manager, replacing Shildt.
“He’s a sharp guy, he’s ready for it,’’ Shildt says. “I’ll be pulling him and for all of those guys. I’ll never stop pulling for the Cardinals. They’re the ones who gave me this opportunity in the first place. They’re the ones who took a chance on me, and I’ll always be grateful for that.’’
Shildt, who interviewed for the Padres’ managerial vacancy before they hired Bob Melvin, is hopeful one day of getting another opportunity. There are big-league managerial openings every year, and surely, Shildt will be a prime candidate for every one of them. His reputation in the game is pristine. He is a proven winning manager, producing a .559 winning percentage, and honored in 2019 as the NL Manager of the Year award.
The biggest adjustment may be simply getting used to wearing a different uniform.
“I’m blessed to have this opportunity and be in the position I am,’’ Shildt said. “These people have been welcoming and great. When I put on this Padre uniform for the first time, I just sat there, processing that I wasn’t putting on a Cardinals uniform any more.
“I just never thought I would not be a Cardinal. It left me shattered. But time heals, to some degree.
“It’s just that I love those guys with all of my heart, and it hurts knowing I can’t be with them.’’
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Shildt bares his soul about being fired by the Cardinals