CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The St. Louis Cardinals might not be the most talented team in Major League Baseball’s postseason and are an underdog in their National League division-round series against the Atlanta Braves.

But nobody will outwork or out-think Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt, say people who knew him when he grew up in Charlotte.

The National League Central Division champion Cardinals open their best-of-five series with the East Division champion Braves at 5 p.m. Thursday in Atlanta.

Running the show for the Cardinals is Shildt, 51, who played high school ball and later coached a high school team in Charlotte — all part of a long road that took him from shining players’ shoes to being a Manager of the Year candidate.

“Mike Shildt was born for this,” says Phil Tate. “He’s 100% baseball, eight days a week.”

Nearly four decades ago, Tate coached Shildt, then a player on the American Legion Post 262 team in southwest Charlotte. Shildt played second base in 1982 and 1983 with Tate, on a team that also included Stewart Cole, the third-base coach with the Colorado Rockies.

“Mike was a battler,” says Tate, who now lives in Belmont. “He was savvy, always smarter than the other guys. He always wanted to know everything — how we did things, why we did them.”

A few years before that, Shildt worked with the Charlotte O’s, the city’s Double-A team in the Southern League. His mother, Lib, was an assistant to O’s owner Frances Crockett, and Mike did everything from shine players’ shoes to help operate the scoreboard at the old Crockett Park off South Boulevard.

“He was this little rug rat running around at first,” Lib Shildt told the Observer in 2018. “Those years clinched his love for baseball.”

He made friends with players, like Cal Ripken, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Orioles. Later in the 1980s, Mike Shildt bonded with infielder Jeff Schaefer.

“Mike was like my little brother,” Schaefer says. “He always had his ears on conversations in the clubhouse. He wasn’t the most gifted player, but he was an observer.”

Schaefer was traded to the Los Angeles Angels organization and for a time played Double-A ball in Midland, Texas.

“My wife and I would fly him out there to visit us,” Schaefer recalls. “He wasn’t interested in any sight-seeing. He just wanted to be at the ballpark.”

You might have heard Shildt’s story — playing at Olympic High and UNC Asheville; landing a job at West Charlotte High and turning a last-place team into a playoff qualifier; coaching a few years as an assistant at UNC Charlotte; operating a baseball academy; serving as a baseball scout in the Southeast before landing a job in the Cardinals organization; winning titles with teams at three levels of the minor leagues; and finally joining the Cardinals as a coach.

A year ago, he became manager when the Cardinals fired Mike Matheny midway through the 2018 season.

He is only the eighth person since 1900 to manage a major league team without playing in the minors or majors.

“I couldn’t hit a curveball,” Shildt has said several times.

Tate says Shildt enjoys studying the game of baseball.

“In baseball, each pitch means something,” he says. “Mike loves to study each pitch.”

Or as Schaefer says, “That boy has already watched more ball games than most people will in a lifetime.”

Shildt has never been married and told the St. Louis Post Dispatch earlier this year that he wants to be a “baseball lifer.”

“I love that term,” the Cards’ manager says. “I want to be in this game in this capacity as long as I’m drawing breath.”

Schaefer says the biggest part of Shildt’s success is his ability to connect with players.

“He knows his players,” Schaefer says. “He’ll get the most out of every player. In a world of individuals, Mike gets them to play together.”

Under Shildt, the Cardinals have become a team that runs the bases smartly, has good pitching and doesn’t make mistakes. St. Louis led the majors in fewest errors this season (66, compared to 133 a year ago).

Mike Shildt remains a Charlottean.

He owns a house near Weddington. He stays in close touch with people like Schaefer, Tate, and athletic officials who worked with him at West Charlotte.

“He has donated some of the balls that were historic for him to a collection we have,” says Tommy Viola, vice president of communications with the Charlotte Knights. “He remains a big supporter of baseball in our area.”

Schaefer says he knows the Braves are favored in the division series but adds, “When you get to this point, anything goes. Mike has his rotation set up nicely. I like their chances.”

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