Third-base coach Jose Oquendo, on the Cardinals’ big-league staff since 1999, has been in a St. Louis spring training camp every year since 1985.
“But I’m not close to Red Schoendienst yet,” he said.
Then again, no one else is close to the Hall of Famer, who attended his first Cardinals camp as a big-league player in 1945 and who is to be on hand again this year starting Tuesday.
“They’ve got a tradition that they always keep one of those old-timer coaches,” said the 52-year-old Oquendo.
For a long time, there was George Kissell, former coach and player development guru, who is the father of the “Cardinal Way” to play baseball. And then there was Dave Ricketts, the catching instructor who helped make Mike Matheny and Yadier Molina what they were besides guiding, cajoling or whatever it took to get the most out of a young player.
“Those are guys whose pictures are on the (clubhouse) wall and I stop and look at them every time I go by,” Oquendo said. “Those are legends.”
Always there is the 93-year-old Schoendienst.
In his own right, though, Oquendo is gaining his own Cardinals legend status and some day, when Schoendienst is 110 or so, Oquendo will be that man.
“I’ll be the Master Chef,” he said, laughing. “I’m going to go as long as they’ll have me.”
The longest-running of third-base coaches by a wide margin and also believed to be longest-tenured coach for any current team, Oquendo still feels the need for improvement.
“I’ve improved every year in how I communicate to players and how to teach,” said Oquendo. “From year to year, I don’t know what I’m going to do as a teacher but … every year there’s somebody new, where I’m going to learn something and that’s going to help me improve my teaching.”
Much of Oquendo’s instructing has little to do with his being in the third-base coaching box. He is in charge of the Cardinals’ infield defense during games and also helps to mentor not only young Latin players, but players of any background.
“I think I’ve done a good job with all the players in general,” said Oquendo. “Latino or American. Whether it’s as a father figure or as a coach or as a friend.”
There is love. And then there is tough love.
“Sometimes you have to put yourself into their shoes and pat them on the back a little bit more,” said Oquendo. “Some of the guys, you go ‘old school’ and tell them the way it is. That doesn’t apply to all the players. You’ve got to figure that out on your way, so you don’t hurt somebody’s feelings.”
Because he was a second baseman for much of his Cardinals playing career, Oquendo perhaps can identify most with young Kolten Wong, who has shown power, speed and defensive flash but has been inconsistent average-wise and, to a lesser degree, in the field, in his first two years in the majors.
“I like to watch (a player) for a while and, at some point, I’m going to find what he does best and what I can help him with,” Oquendo said. “I can’t just say, ‘This is the way I do things.’ I don’t work that way.
“I like to see guys and help them improve by what they’ve got. I introduce different ways to do it and he’s got to find his comfortable way — whether it’s a backhanded play or the pivot or whatever. It’s up to him to find out what’s going to work best for him.
“He has the potential to be a great player, but he still has to work on a few things. Know when to control his swing a little more. He’s not a power hitter, but he has power. I’d like to see him cut down on some of the strikeouts (Wong had 95 last year).
“Sometimes it takes players a little time to figure out who they are as a player. With Wong coming up so young, so quick … it’s up to us to try to help him. But he has to understand it himself, such as hitting the other way when he has to, rather than trying to ‘jack’ every pitch.
“Sometimes a double is just as good as a homer and a walk is just as good as a base hit. Sometimes he goes up there and doesn’t think about the situation. Sometimes a pitcher goes 1-2-3 against the other team and then he leads off the inning and he swings from his butt on the first pitch. (The pitcher) just went 1-2-3 the inning before. Let’s make him work a little bit.”
There was a time when Oquendo harbored major league managerial aspirations. But now he says, “I’m thinking of my future and it’s not managing.”
Oquendo interviewed for managing jobs with Seattle, San Diego, the New York Mets and with the Cardinals after the 2011 season when the position went to Mike Matheny. Oquendo remained, happily, as third-base coach.
“Coaching third is as good as you can get without being manager,” said Oquendo.
“After my last interview with the Cardinals, I figured that was probably my last chance. Now I’m just going to concentrate on ‘How can I help?’
“I care about defense. And I care about winning. I cannot drive in runs and I cannot help score runs.”
It isn’t often that a managerial candidate who lost out with one team remains with that same team. But Oquendo said, “I’m happy with how my life and my career has been. Not too many people get that chance to be here that long.
“I never thought about (leaving). Right away, I said if they don’t choose me, I’d still love to be with the Cardinals.”
Matheny said, “He’s just always been a part of this organization and appreciates the history. I was happy to see that the change didn’t necessarily create a situation where he felt he had to go.
“He’s such a great coach and teacher. What he brings to the table more than anything else is that he’s a teacher.
Your Editor Says:
He knows it. He loves it. He teaches it. Better to be loved than feared?