Cardinals Core spurs succes for minor leaguers

By Dan Kukla
Special to

“Hey, do you know about this thing with Shelby Miller?”

Mike Matheny’s phone call caught John Hartwig off guard. Taking a call from the St. Louis
Cardinals manager wasn’t unusual; Hartwig and Matheny were friends and former business partners. That Matheny made a point to call about this is what stood out.

“This is a big deal. It’s a big deal for the Cardinals and it’s a big deal for you. This is exactly the kind of guy that you can help. He is struggling not only with baseball, he’s struggling off the field, too. His character—made some mistakes. And you know he’s our top prospect.”

Shelby Miller’s explanation for his early struggles will unsettle even the savviest general managers.

MLB executives know how to counter nearly every possible threat to their players.

Not this one. Not at first.

“I didn’t know what I needed to do,” Miller said. “I was just kind of clueless up there, and I was scared. I wasn’t really there. I wasn’t really trying as hard as I should be.”

Miller’s 6.14 ERA heading into the MLB All-Star break sent St. Louis scrambling. The former first-round pick was repeatedly passed over for big league promotions that once belonged to him. The Cardinals even began listening to trade offers for the supposed crown jewel of their farm system.

Instead of helping the parent club as expected, Miller needed help himself. But no one in the organization’s brain trust could figure out how to help.

Pitching coordinator Brent Strom worked with him on mechanics and reviewed video of his starts from earlier in his young career. The Cardinals skipped his turn in the Memphis rotation and levied a “no-shake rule,” forcing Miller to work on his off-speed pitches by accepting every sign given by his catcher.

All the tinkering just drew more media attention to the star’s struggles and added even more pressure for him to perform.

The list of adjectives describing Miller ranged from “stubborn” and “uncoachable” to “entitled” and “aloof.” Writers criticized everything about him, from his “unimpressive attitude” and “lack of team spirit” to his “self-pity” and “refusal to heed advice from veterans.” Even his offseason conditioning that brought him to training camp underweight drew scathing critique.

His suspension in 2011 that once looked like a small speed bump now looked like the tip of a disastrous iceberg.

Failing on the field didn’t help.

Miller’s fastball velocity dipped from the high to low 90’s. He gave up 43 walks and 17 home runs in 77.2 innings. He made it through only 2.1 innings in a July 7 start against Nashville after posting a 7.71 ERA in June.

After exhausting all options, Miller and the Cardinals were just exhausted.

They couldn’t identify the problem, so they couldn’t even begin to fix it. The trade deadline soon passed, meaning they couldn’t get rid of it, either.

It was a dead end until the unlikeliest person showed them the way.


You don’t need to know much about baseball to realize its fundamental problem. John Hartwig couldn’t even spell WHIP much less tell you what it means when he first spawned the idea for Pro/Spur, his company that now looks poised to revolutionize player development in the minor leagues.

The idea came to him while watching television. He saw yet another story about a professional athlete making an all too human mistake.

“Somebody needs to do something about this,” he blurted out loud.

He wasn’t talking about the specific crime or criminal flashing across the screen, but rather the more general epidemic of human nature in professional sports.

He wasn’t talking to anyone other than himself and his electronic hardware, but his wife overheard the conversation.

“Whenever the kids say that, you always tell them to be the ones that do something,” she said.

The unsolicited comment clearly struck a chord. At first Hartwig only responded by muttering to himself. That muttering later turned into a conversation with his friend Mike Matheny.

Hartwig and Matheny each had a son playing for the Westminster Christian Academy baseball team. They also shared a passion for mentoring men, and they each had their own business where this passion became a practice.

Once Hartwig shared his big idea, the fellow entrepreneurs quickly became business partners. It was a perfect match, a union of existing companies, skills and — most importantly — passions.

Somebody needed to do something to help young professional athletes develop into quality men. They would be the ones to do it, with strong doses of character and integrity.

Just as quickly as the partnership formed, however, it split into a sole proprietorship. Matheny accepted a better offer from another company, leaving Pro/Spur to Hartwig.

Under any other set of circumstances, the drastic turn of events would likely have stopped everything before it ever began. Although it was Hartwig’s idea, it was Matheny who had all the baseball experience and connections.

But the twist turned out to be exactly what Pro/Spur needed to prosper. Matheny’s better offer came from the St. Louis Cardinals. They didn’t just want him to mentor some of their minor league players. They wanted him to manage the entire major league team.


Hartwig asked the Cardinals to select key players from the Double-A roster most likely to make it from Springfield to St. Louis. Seven were chosen to meet with him on a regular basis, some because of their talent and other because of their circumstances.

Instead of opting for a proposed series of videos or seminars, the organization’s brass voted to let Hartwig work personally and individually with their top prospects. It signaled that they took Hartwig and his new one-man company seriously. The team wasn’t just humoring its new MLB manager by giving insignificant work to his friend and former business partner. A strong endorsement from Matheny led to a much more high-risk, high-reward approach.

“It made the most sense,” said farm director John Vuch on why the Cardinals chose the most involved format. “It had the biggest impact on the right players at the right level. From a selfish standpoint, you don’t want to invest that much time in a bunch of guys you don’t think have a realistic chance of helping you at the major league level.”

Three more players joined Hartwig’s program when an open invitation was given to the rest of the team. The group of 10 formed a class that meets mid day during home stands in addition to one-on-one sessions.

Springfield’s first-year head coach Mike Shildt called the class “Cardinal Core,” playing off the team’s charitable arm “Cardinal Care.”

Catchy names aside, the concept took time to catch on.

“It’s a foreign entity,” said Shildt while recalling his conversations with the seven prospects handpicked by the organization to try the experiment. “People are used to a certain culture. This is a little different. Players aren’t used to it. There’s going to be skepticism with anything that’s a little out of the box.”

Shildt noted that Hartwig’s genuine care and lack of agenda helped the players eventually buy in to the concept. But even Hartwig picked up on the initial reluctance.

“One of the guys I talk with is a No. 1 draft pick,” he said. “He told me, ‘In the beginning it was slow. I wasn’t excited about being here.’ Then there was a particular topic that hit him right between the eyes. He really engaged after that.”

Hartwig learned much more than he taught when he first arrived in Springfield.

He interviewed the organization’s executives, coaches, roving coaches, players, parents of players, radio broadcasters and even the grounds crew—anyone willing and able to teach him baseball.

After all that, he still doesn’t know what most of the stats mean, nor does he want to. In fact, he makes extra effort to ensure he does not know the stats produced by the players meeting with him.

It’s not because he doesn’t care. It’s because he cares much more about the person than the player. He even ignores calls from the Cardinals front office if he’s with a Cardinal Core member, knowing full well that the person being silenced controls the fate of his company.

So Hartwig didn’t just endeavor to learn about baseball. He specifically learned how baseball affects people. To him, building a curriculum without knowing “the other side” would have been half-hearted.

“The whole business of professional baseball — oh my gosh, I had no idea,” Hartwig said. “I had no idea how hard these guys worked. I had no idea how committed you have to be to be successful. I had no idea there were so many minor league teams. Why they do the things that they do, I’m still learning that.”

One of Hartwig’s most dynamic lessons came via his company’s original source of inspiration: T.V.

He watched a player botch a media interview and later discovered that most athletes rarely see themselves on camera.

That gave him another idea.

Hartwig quickly developed a way for Cardinal Core to supplement the many hours of film review from on-field performances with a film study for off-field performances.

His frequent sit-ins with the radio broadcasters paid off as Jeff Levering connected Hartwig with Dan Lucy, a news anchor for KLOR Channel 10 in Springfield. Lucy came in with a cameraman to conduct “High Character Interviews.”

The first round was soft — easy setting and easy questions. The class watched each video and critiqued each other for basic elements like eye contact, posture and mannerisms.

Round 2 was much tougher. The interviews were held at each player’s locker to simulate post-game questioning. The scenario now placed them in the major leagues and their best friend in possession of performance enhancing drugs.

How do you answer those questions honestly without throwing anyone under the proverbial bus? Can you tell when a reporter is leading you down the wrong path?

The lesson helped the players literally see how Cardinal Core could help them become better professionals.


Michael Blazek was already business savvy when Shildt assigned him to Cardinal Core.

He knew Matheny endorsed Pro/Spur, so it didn’t require a strong recommendation from his current manager for him to realize that it was “probably something we should take seriously.”

Blazek really caught on when Hartwig helped him with goal setting. His goals aren’t different from any other ambitious ball player. For him, all roads lead through St. Louis and to the Hall of Fame.

The only problem was making those goals attainable.

Hartwig helped him and the rest of the class set sub goals to reach their bigger goals. He also made sure to align their goals with those set by the team and organization. The group compiled a list of 50 goals and printed copies for everyone to read on a daily basis.

“I can’t say that we’re heroes for doing that, but we’re just kind of shedding a little light on business common sense, but maybe not sports common sense,” Hartwig said.

It’s a simple trick, but the results were profound.

“The main goal for me right now is just to be a better person and to share what we’ve learned with other people to help other people out,” Blazek said.

Sam Freeman was excited about Cardinal Core when he received Shildt’s assignment. He saw it as a way to break up the monotony of doing the same thing every day.

Yes, it was different. No one really knew what they were getting into. These were all positives for Freeman, not reasons to be reluctant.

His tone nearly changed when Hartwig started assigning homework. Reading “Who Moved My Cheese” seemed rather, well, cheesy. Hartwig himself seemed rather “high on life.”

When Freeman actually read the book beyond its cover, however, he knew his new mentor was “legit.” He especially took to the group meetings because it forced the team to discuss things “all of us think about but nobody talks about.”

Freeman found Cardinal Core so helpful that he took extra effort to keep up with Hartwig as he moved from Springfield to Memphis to St. Louis. The promotions provided an easy excuse for him to drop the commitment, and Hartwig even offered that opportunity himself. But Freeman realized the value in these lessons, especially if he wanted to contribute at the MLB level.

Tommy Pham’s fate took him in the opposite direction. He too passed on the chance to drop out.

The outfielder tore his labrum during spring training, but built back enough strength to play 12 regular season games for Springfield. A second, more complete tear then ended his season and sent him to Florida for rehab work.

Pham’s circumstances made it even more difficult to keep up with Hartwig. But he identified Cardinal Core as a program that could help him in the long run, so he saw no sense in quitting.

“When you’re educated about the things we talk about in Cardinal Core, it betters your personal brand,” Pham said.

The 24-year-old can’t swing a bat or throw a ball, but that hasn’t stopped him from working hard to be a better player. Pham realizes his weaknesses and strives to turn them into strengths. He takes the extra time created by his physical disabilities to study hitting mechanics online.

Hartwig meets with Springfield transplants like Freeman and Pham over the phone. He has also made trips to Memphis, while Pham has made trips back to Missouri.

Neither situation is ideal, but no one’s circumstances were as unique as those surrounding the organization’s top prospect.


“I knew the name but I wouldn’t say I knew he was your top prospect,” Hartwig replied, quickly realizing why Matheny had called.

“Well, you need to take this seriously because it’s a big deal for your company, too,” Matheny continued. “If you succeed, it will make a big difference for Shelby and the Cardinals.”

Obviously, that call changed everything. 

Shelby Miller was not among the original members of Cardinal Core. He wasn’t even a member of the Springfield Cardinals.

No, Miller began the 2012 season competing for a spot in the St. Louis starting rotation. He eventually settled for Triple-A Memphis, with a big league promotion later in the year seemingly inevitable. Chris Carpenter’s early injury only revved the anticipation higher.

As the walks and home runs plied up against the farm’s most prized possession, however, that anticipation turned into anxiety.

When the effort to fix Miller exhausted all traditional options, the Cardinals turned to Hartwig.

“Every name I’ve ever heard of in the Cardinal organization knows about me working with this young man,” Hartwig said matter-of-factly.

The ensuing phone call from Matheny completely changed the context, but it didn’t at all change how Hartwig treated Miller. He not only ignores the stats, but the names, draft status and prospect rankings as well.

At first, the only thing Miller ignored was Hartwig. After a reluctant first meeting in Omaha, the two had trouble connecting for a follow up.

“Shelby kind of stonewalled me,” Hartwig recalls. “He always had something more important going on. He had a dentist appointment, his parents were in town, they were going to go to Elvis’ house—on and on and on and nothing happened.”

A second meeting did eventually take place. Once again, everything changed. The next time Hartwig left Miller a voicemail, the young prospect called back within 20 minutes just to chat.

His favorite lesson was on proverbial body armor. It used every piece of the uniform as a metaphor for promoting success and managing failure.

The cap reminds him to seek out wisdom. The jersey reminds him to guard his heart with character and integrity. The belt reminds him to surround himself with winners.

Every item—seven in all—has a purpose.

“Each of these things are putting strength and confidence in the person who reads them,” Hartwig said. “It was kind of like a reassurance to him that you are the man. You are here for a reason. Your coach values you, otherwise he wouldn’t give you the ball. Your organization pays you a lot of money to play for them. They value you. They want you to succeed. I think that gave him a self-esteem boost and helped him to realize the capabilities that he has.”

Hartwig insists he didn’t put any special thought into selecting this particular lesson for Miller and his particular circumstances. It just happened to be where he was with the Springfield crew. It also just happened to be the lesson that spurred Miller’s resurgence.

“At first, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Miller said of participating in Cardinal Core. “I was a little antsy about it, and I was like, ‘I really don’t want to have to deal with this.’

“Now I love it. I haven’t been having the best year and it’s been helping me a lot on the field with my struggles. I’m pitching a lot better so I want to give some of the credit to that. John has definitely played a part in getting my mind right.”

Hartwig may not focus on statistics or results, but the Cardinals don’t have that luxury.

It was hard to ignore Springfield’s first Texas League championship under a first-year manager, who also won consecutive Appalachian League championships with Johnson City. Scott Gorgen, who finished as the title game’s winning pitcher, just happened to be a late addition to Cardinal Core.

Even harder to ignore was Miller’s remarkable turnaround shortly after his second meeting with Hartwig.

Miller went 7-2 with a 2.88 ERA in 10 consecutive starts since July 14. He limited opposing hitters to a .217 batting average and struck out at least nine batters in three of the last five games during that stretch. He was named Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Week twice during the month of August.

It all culminated with his long awaited promotion to St. Louis during the first week of September. He pitched two scoreless frames with four strikeouts and only one hit allowed in his major league debut September 5 against the New York Mets.

“Their results are their results,” Hartwig said. “I would certainly never say that his performance was fabulous because of me. I don’t think that’s right. His performance was fabulous because of himself. The things that he was having a problem with he worked through. He handled himself really well on the mound. The next day he was really happy.”

It’s easy to see how Miller improved as a player. Hartwig is even prouder of how he developed as a person.

This year’s roller coaster ride taught Miller how to handle failure—something he rarely experienced before on a baseball field. The call up also gave him another chance at handling success.

All the twists and turns of 2012 left the 21-year-old a little woozy at first. Maybe Hartwig was a dose of Dramamine needed to calm the motion sickness. Maybe he was just a barf bag Miller needed to release all the junk he kept bottled up inside.

Whatever the case, Miller is now riding quite the upswing after his stomach-curling drop.

The lessons he learned along the way not only made him a better pitcher, but a better man. That’s an impact that will affect much more than his role on a mound or in a dugout. It will last much longer than the years listed on the back of his baseball card.

Seeing it cure turmoil inside the lines, however, certainly settles St. Louis’ savvy general manager.


Hartwig’s vision for Pro/Spur expands well beyond Cardinal Core.

It’s not a non-profit organization, but right now he’s not making any profit. He provided his services to the Cardinals for free this year, allowing him to accrue a season’s worth of experience and results.

Now that his track record is established, however, he intends to work with both the Cardinals and other teams under contract. Hartwig did some goal setting of his own and hopes to land one or two teams in 2013. That number projects to expand to 3-7 in 2014 and eventually encompass nearly half the league by 2015.

As it takes off, other sports could enter the equation as well. Hartwig is already in the process of lining up meetings with Kevin Demoff and Tom Stillman, top executives for the St. Louis Rams and Blues.

Clearly one man can’t tackle this rapidly expanding workload alone. Hartwig says he can only manage 2-4 teams himself. He has already begun recruiting other potential mentors to join his company.

Candidates must already be living the life taught by Pro/Spur. They also need to be driven towards players, not teams—people, not production.

“There are people that have retired out of a sport and would love to get back in,” Hartwig said. “We’re not looking for that person. We’re looking for a person that wants to make a difference for the athletes.”

Hartwig’s vision for Pro/Spur also expands well beyond the players he coaches. Those players will significantly increase their sphere of influence as they advance to the majors. Hartwig hopes the difference he makes in the player’s life will make a difference in the million’s of lives they impact.

Farm director Vuch is certainly a believer in the company’s impact on a baseball team.

“I thought it was an intriguing concept because one of the things the Cardinals have always emphasized is a player’s character and how he’s going to fit in with the clubhouse,” he said. “We’ve seen quite a few players get tripped up by off-field issues as much as they do lack of talent.”

Vuch knows Hartwig is not a psychologist, but he does see the benefits of providing someone for his players to confide in—someone who isn’t directly in control of their fate within the team or organization.

Shildt offers an even stronger endorsement.

“It was a value to our players,” he said. “You saw them be able to deal with situations a little more consistently. You saw them be able to focus a little better. You saw them be able to deal with the adversity that comes with the game.”

“I called my wife within 20 seconds of hanging up with Mike (Matheny),” Hartwig recalls. “It totally changed my relationship with the Cardinals. Now I’m on assignment where before I was asking for the opportunity. Then things changed and they were driving me deeper into the organization.”

Everyone agrees that Pro/Spur adds value to a baseball organization, but no one can quantify that value.

Vuch says it’s premature to know if the Cardinals will contract for Hartwig’s services next season. Shildt knows Hartwig played a role in his team’s success, but also thinks the company could go either way.

“Will the culture of baseball embrace it? I don’t know,” he said. “People are always looking for edges. If a couple of organizations are doing it and people are seeing success with it, you know it would catch probably like wild fire.”

Developing personal edges is of course one of Hartwig’s lessons. The class even ends with the players dulling and sharpening the edge of a knife to make the metaphor memorable.

He’s a man always seeking inspiration. Now he may be just one high character interview of his own from being paid to perform his passion.

It’s only fair, because everyone else involved sure seems to profit.