As Carpenter trains at third, Kissell's legacy remains
Lessons of longtime coach still reverberate throughout Cardinals' camp
JUPITER, Fla. -- Imagine Vince Coleman dressed in the hand-me-downs worn by Tim McCarver, Ted Simmons or some other Cardinals catcher and doing squats behind the plate. It must have been a scene. Picture Lou Brock working a few feet further back from the plate, like some Jocko Conlan or a miniature John McSherry. Or visualize Joe Torre on his knees during his first hours in a Cardinals' uniform, forbidden to stand.
And now, picture Matt Carpenter as the Cardinals' third baseman, like a Kenny Boyer, Whitey Kurowski or Ken Oberkfell. Or a David Freese. No need to imagine; Carpenter is quite familiar with the position which is now his responsibility in St. Louis, the position that regularly challenges reflexes and bruises chests, palms and egos. And he's about to become far more familiar with third base now that his Busch Stadium address has been changed to the No. 5 position (if you're scoring at home).
The baseball universe knows Carpenter can handle it. He was a capable third baseman for 509 big league innings before he was transferred to second base last season. Just the same, after a season of more than adequate performance on the right side, he is spending hours, here in the sun, re-polishing his skills at the sizzling corner.
Carpenter's refresher course is with professor Jose Oquendo, a disciple of the late and wonderful George Kissell who was the game's foremost tutor from the time of Branch Rickey until his death in October, 2008.
Oquendo, himself an alumnus of Kissell U and student of another Cardinals coach -- Dave Ricketts, already has worked with Carpenter and determined that Freese's successor will handle this relocation as well as he handled last year's.
"He's early to camp [5:30 a.m. each day] and he got down here early [10 days ago]," Oquendo said Sunday morning. "He does everything he can to prepare himself to be a good player."
If rough edges developed on Carpenter when he was moonlighting at second, the long-time coach will use some of the intellectual sandpaper Kissell and Ricketts left behind to smooth them. But Oquendo has his own methods as well.
"I don't do what some of those things [Kissell] did with Torre," he said. "But you can tell Matt's skills are there already. Catching and throwing ... no problem. We work on his concentration. You need nine innings of concentration."
Moreover, playing second has afforded Carpenter great insight into the game. Knowing how his pitching colleagues were attacking hitters and being aware of pitch signs were essential at second base. That same sort of knowledge will enhance his preparedness at third. Anticipation is vital when a ground ball covers 95 feet in the time needed to say Ron Cey.
Kissell's methods often were outside the box, even bizarre and, as a result, more conspicuous.
A catcher and occasionally a first baseman during his eight seasons with the Braves, Torre was acquired by the Cardinals after the 1968 season. The plan was to have him play third after attending Kissell's classes.
"A man named George Kissell," Sparky Anderson once said. "The greatest single instructor I ever seen on fundamentals in my life. He could teach a snake to box."
Kissell had Torre kneel 20 feet from a wooden wall. He would stand behind the would-be third baseman and throw balls with either hand against the wall. Torre had to handle the rebounds without using his feet.
"It was an ingenious way to go about it," Torre said years later. "I wish the results were as good as his teaching methods."
Oquendo keeps Carpenter on his feet and uses a bat, not a ricochet off a wall, to sharpen the reflexes of his dedicated student. But the concept is similar. The ground balls hit to Carpenter's left and right are hot and delivered from a short distance. Footwork isn't an issue. There's no time for foot movement. It's glove work and quickness, left and right.
Carpenter was playing table tennis in the clubhouse Sunday afternoon after the Cardinals' workout -- quickness and movements to his left and right were neccesary. Wouldn't be surprised if Kissell had long ago ordered the ping pong table as a teaching tool. Turns out Matt Holliday had it brought in.
The work with Oquendo -- the ping-pong might have helped a bit too -- have Carpenter thinking he's headed back to when third was the position he knew best.
"I won't be able to tell until there are game situations and I have to react," Carpenter said. "But I think playing second has helped me ... I think I'm a better infielder now."
Kissell would be pleased to hear such words. In a perfect world, he would have had all his players familiar with all positions. "Knowledge of the game," he would say, "shouldn't be restricted to one position."
He took misdeeds -- not merely errors -- by Cardinals infielders as personal affronts. After the Cardinals had defended poorly in a playoff victory in San Francisco in 2002, he said, "I'm a bit ashamed in our performance today. We fouled the air defensively."
For decades, every Cardinals player was taught by Kissell -- Musial and Marion, through Maxvill and McCarver, through McKenzie (Spud) and McGee to McGwire and Morris. From Dizzy to Ozzie to Izzy. Kissell was gospel. The Cardinals still use the phrase 'The Cardinals Way' and upper case it. But it is more the Kissell way.
Years after his death, mention of his name here or in St. Louis still prompts reactions of reverence from others dressed in Cardinals red. Young players who became Cardinals since Kissell passed know more of him than they do of Ducky Medwick, Ernie Broglio or Ray Lankford.
"I know when I came here [in 2003], I heard people talking about him like he was a god," former Cardinals reliever Jason Isringhausen says. "And I said, 'Isn't this guy just a coach?' Then after two weeks, I thought he was my grandfather. He knew so much about everything, and he'd help all of us learn."
"George Kissell's influence has lasted," Carpenter said. "I know some of the lessons I've learned came from him. His ability to teach the game must have been amazing. People still talk about him." Carpenter never met the man.
Here's another example of Kissell's unusual teaching methods. Brock's sense of the strike zone was distorted when he joined the Cardinals in 1964. It was the size of Frank Howard, and it routinely changed shape. The teacher had the student call balls and strikes in a meaningless intraquad game the following spring to put his definition of a hittable pitch more in line with what others thought.
Years later, Kissell recognized that Coleman, despite his speed, was unwilling to advance a base after a catcher had mishandled a pitch. So Kissell had Vincent Van Go catch a game in the Instructional League. Naturally, Coleman mishandled most of the pitches. If a runner was on base when he retrieved the ball, Kissell urged him to throw. Coleman resisted: "I have no shot at throwing him out," he'd say. And Kissell would respond: "And you think some catcher's going to throw you out? ... You've got to run, son. No one's throwing you out even if they handle it cleanly."
This was Kissell's time of year, the time to tutor. February and March belonged to him as April to October belonged to Red, Whitey and Tony. These winter days when we celebrate two presidents and a little creature who aims his arrows at hearts always were the days that made the Cardinals special because Kissell was on the job, explaining the finer points and the nuances of the game to men in red. He was 60 minutes behind Carpenter, routinely arriving at 6:30 following church.
"I've heard he was in camp all day," Carpenter said. "I would have liked that. I would have liked to talk to him. I've always heard he was so special. He must have been."