He was the Cards' best utility player of all time

May 19th, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- On May 14, 1988, José Oquendo really became the player who could do it all. The Cardinals' utility man pitched four innings in a 19-inning game against the Braves, and though he suffered the loss in a 7-5 defeat after allowing two runs in the 19th, Oquendo put together a performance that was entertaining and admirable.

He allowed four hits and six walks and struck out one while tossing a variety of split-fingered pitches and sliders.

“I’m glad I got the chance to pitch,” Oquendo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the game. “I’m glad nobody got hurt. It was fun for everyone, and that’s all that matters. I’d like to have won, but there’s nothing we can do.”

The American League ranked the top five designated hitters in each franchise this week, as part of MLB.com’s weekly series featuring the all-time best at each position. So the National League beat reporters are looking at the best utility/bench player in each club's history. That’s where Oquendo comes in.

Cardinals All-Time Around the Horn Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF

The Puerto Rican infielder was the ultimate utility man for the Cardinals in the 1980s and early ‘90s. He played every position -- including pitcher and catcher -- at least once in '88, becoming the first NL player since 1918 to play all nine positions in one season.

Perhaps the best example of Oquendo’s role in his 10 years with the Cardinals is that 1988 series against the Braves. After pitching four innings, Oquendo could barely raise his arm above his waist, and his entire body ached. The next day, though, he was in center field for all nine innings, subbing for an injured Willie McGee. Oquendo threw sidearm most of the game because he couldn’t get his arm any higher.

"In those days, you didn't like to say, ‘No,’” Oquendo said in 2010. “It's not my nature to say that. … I enjoyed playing the 19-inning game and I was so fired up, I didn't care. It was fun.”

Nicknamed the "Secret Weapon" for his ability to play skillfully anywhere at any time, Oquendo started his Major League career with the Mets in 1983 at shortstop before he was traded to the Cardinals in '85. Soon after, the switch-hitter changed positions regularly. The bulk of his games came at second base and shortstop, but he played 58 games at third, 23 games at first, 47 games in right field, 11 in left and seven in center. His four-inning outing on the mound was the second of three pitching appearances for the Cards (six innings total), and, yes, he caught the seventh inning of a blowout loss on Sept. 24, 1988.

In 1989, Oquendo started 156 games at second base. A year later, he set single-season records for the highest fielding percentage (.996) and fewest errors by a second baseman (three).

In 10 seasons with the Cards, Oquendo hit .264 with a .690 OPS. He could have been the finest fielder on any other team’s roster, but his time in St. Louis overlapped Ozzie Smith, the club's greatest shortstop of all time. So Oquendo became a master of all positions as the Cardinals’ super sub. He hit .286 for the 1987 pennant-winning team, and he batted a career-high .291 in '89, when he also led the Majors with 163 games played.

Oquendo’s versatility hasn’t left since he retired in 1995, and neither did his nickname. He was a field instructor in the Cardinals' farm system in ’97 before managing in the Minors in ’98. The next year, he joined the big league staff, where he was the third-base coach for 17 seasons and became one of the game’s most respected infield instructors. He took a two-year hiatus from his coaching duties to recover from knee surgeries, and during that time, he served as a special assistant to president of baseball operations John Mozeliak.

Now, Oquendo is a Minor League instructor in Jupiter, Fla. He works with the Major League infielders at the start of Spring Training, too, and his impact is not lost.

“I’ve always relied on [Oquendo],” second baseman Kolten Wong said in 2017. “He taught me how to become a good fielder. He taught me how to play the game the right way, how to play the game the Cardinal way.”

Honorable mention

Phil Gagliano was a secret weapon of the 1960s Cardinals, with the ability to play first, second and third base, as well as some outfield. When Gagliano made his Major League debut in '63, the Cardinals' infield included first baseman Bill White, second baseman Julian Javier, shortstop Dick Groat and third baseman Ken Boyer -- also known as the starting infield for the '63 All-Star team. Gagliano worked hard for a regular spot but prided himself on his versatility. He hit .236 in eight seasons with the Cardinals. His best season came in '65, when he played 122 games, hit .240 and split time between second base, third base and the outfield.