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Memphis Redbirds manager Ben Johnson brought it up again because he knew Paul DeJong was approaching, and because he knew the guy who’s supposed to be the shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals right now was listening.
“This game will take the joy from you if you let it,” Johnson said, and DeJong stood there nodding his head in agreement.
All around him, outside the batting cages in the basement of AutoZone Park on Wednesday afternoon, were reminders of what can happen when that happens. Of how a promising MLB career can suddenly vanish if you lose sight of who you are in the batter’s box.
DeJong was back in Memphis, back playing Triple-A baseball again, and he wasn’t back for a rehab assignment like last year. He was back for however long it takes, or however long the Cardinals are willing to see if it takes.
“I’m trying not to complain,” DeJong said. “I’m trying not to wish I was somewhere else.”
His appearance is suddenly among the more intriguing sports subplots of the summer in Memphis because it could be a story about redemption, and refusing to give up, and finding yourself again when life throws you a curveball.
But it could also become a story about a player who briefly achieved his wildest baseball dreams, and then watched all of it disappear almost as fast as it arrived, right when he should have been entering the prime of his career.
Whatever it becomes, a comeback or a cautionary tale, perhaps the most meaningful part will now be written at AutoZone Park.
DeJong, 28, could be playing in Memphis the rest of the season. He could be back with the Cardinals in a few weeks. There was no timetable given by St. Louis, no stat line that he must achieve in order to get called back up, DeJong said.
He was an All-Star just three years ago. He’s in the second-to-last season of a six-year, $26 million deal he signed after bursting onto the scene as a rookie in 2017. But he was hitting just .130 in St. Louis this season, after a 2021 campaign in which he didn’t cross the Mendoza Line at the plate.
“They thought it was the best thing for me, but they did not close any doors on me,” DeJong said of the Cardinals. “I know if I’m performing well, I’m the shortstop of this team. I know they want me to just figure it out and be here for a little bit so the pressure is off. Eventually, they’re going to need me.”
He said all this wearing a Redbirds jersey after one of those 11 a.m. weekday games that only happen in the minor leagues, when most of the fans in the stands are school groups more interested in getting on the jumbotron than the players on the field trying to make it to the big leagues.
DeJong discovered during these initial days that even if he doesn’t want to be in Memphis, maybe he needs to be. He’s answering questions from new teammates who long to be where he just came from. He’s socializing instead of stewing over a bad at-bat or savoring a good one. He’s not in his own head so much.
It also might not be enough. He’s hitting just .250 in 11 games with the Redbirds.
But DeJong had his best performance during his first game playing in Memphis, when he went 3-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs Tuesday. Each time he stepped to the plate, the familiar opening guitar riff from the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers song, “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” played over the AutoZone Park loudspeakers.
It’s the same walk-up music he had in St. Louis.
“Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads,” Petty sings in the chorus, and darn if those lyrics never seemed more relevant.
DeJong is, in some ways, further from St. Louis than he had ever been. He is riding the bus again, from Norfolk, Virginia, to Lawrenceville, Georgia, to Memphis, to a hotel room for the foreseeable future and an existence he thought he’d long ago left behind. To a dugout that, in the two weeks after he got sent down to the Redbirds, saw eight players younger than him called up to St. Louis.
He doesn’t sound delusional about this, either. He understands why he’s here and “thankful for this opportunity.” He doesn’t want to get too far ahead of himself. He realizes this is about him much more so than the Cardinals. He knows better than anyone he wasn’t hitting.
DeJong was a pre-med student who majored in biochemistry at Illinois State. He’s intelligent. Maybe too intelligent. His mind, and the instinct to overthink, became his worst enemy in recent years.
“They say a lot of dumb guys are good at baseball, and that’s very true because you’re not questioning yourself,” DeJong said. “For me, I think when things go wrong, I go searching for video fixes or mechanical issues, and I think that’s just a trap. It’s having that plan and sticking to it, and then letting my natural ability take over. That’s the biggest thing. Getting out of my own way.”
So when DeJong joined the Redbirds, Johnson just told him to have fun. He told him this is what you’re supposed to be doing, even though you’re also supposed to be the Cardinals’ shortstop. He told him to find “joy for the game to start” because only then can DeJong find what he’s searching for in Memphis.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Paul DeJong, lost with St. Louis Cardinals, in Memphis to find himself