Old-timers illuminate rich history of NLCS clubs
Former Dodgers, Cardinals greats remain active, loyal to their organizations
ST. LOUIS -- The National League Championship Series is returning to Busch Stadium stocked with star power, from the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and Hanley Ramirez to the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina.
Not to mention Sandy Koufax, Don Newcombe, Steve Garvey, Bob Gibson, Red Schoendienst, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith.
All of those old-timers have appeared at the ballpark in this postseason, and as Cardinals manager Mike Matheny says, they're not just "hood ornaments." With two of the NL's storied franchises playing for the pennant, history is everywhere.
"It means an awful lot, and I've tried to convince our people -- you've got to bring back guys who performed for this ballclub, who gave their heart and soul to this ballclub," said former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, a fixture at Chavez Ravine. "A couple of years ago, I counted them. I think we had 19 guys working for the Dodgers who were ex-Dodgers. We have to continue that. They wore the Dodger uniform with pride and dignity. We've got to give them something back. Let's give them a job, let's let them work. A lot of them that we put out there were winners."
At Busch Stadium, the role of Lasorda is played by Schoendienst, the 90-year-old Hall of Famer who played 15 of his 19 Major League seasons in St. Louis, then managed the club for 2,013 regular-season and postseason games between 1965 and 1990.
Every day the Cardinals are home, Schoendienst is there. Still in uniform, still teaching.
"[Players] aren't different," Schoendienst said. "The players like Mike [Matheny] has, the players that Tony [La Russa] had, they want to learn. ... I feel like a part of the club. Not that I am, but I feel like it."
In both cities, that's the idea.
"People ask all the time about this organization and some of the things that make it different," Matheny said. "The fact that this organization understands the value of a Red Schoendienst, and a Lou Brock, and Bob Gibson, and [Whitey] Herzog and Smith, and Bruce Sutter -- our Hall of Famers have helped define what this organization is all about.
"But they're not just kind of hood ornaments. They stay involved, and they want to help, and they want to pass on what the expectations are, what the culture is here. We're fortunate that Red can be around just about every day. This guy is amazing. He walks in there, and you can see the respect that everyone has."
Ditto in Los Angeles, where former stars like 81-year-old Maury Wills, the first man to steal 100 bases in the Major Leagues, remains active as an instructor. He was just explaining to a pair of reporters that players call him "Uncle Maury" when Dodgers speedster Dee Gordon respectfully interrupted, leaned in and exchanged a few words -- including those two.
Wills played parts of two seasons with the Pirates and Expos but has essentially been a Dodger since 1950, when he signed as a 17-year-old.
"It's my life. I hope it never ends," Wills said. "I'm 81 now, and I'm still out there teaching them. We try to teach the players the fundamentals of the game, because that's the strength of an organization."
Asked what it feels like to put on the Dodger jersey today, Wills said, "I'm like Tommy Lasorda, and he wants to be buried in his. He doesn't have an exclusive on that."
Isn't there a generation gap?
"What's a generation gap?" Lasorda said. "Every year you try to do the best you can and try to do everything you can within your power to give the club a championship club. I don't have that power anymore. I'm not the manager. I'm not the general manager, but I'm a part of this organization for 64 years. And I will continue doing it until the day the big Dodger in the sky calls me."
Said Wills: "The game hasn't changed. We're all egomaniacs. There are just as much egomaniacs today as there were in the 50s and 60s, and I remember what approach [by instructors] turned me off, and what approach I was open to. I carry that with me all the time."
When Wills talks, players listen. The same is true in St. Louis of Gibson, who spent a few moments chatting before Game 1 of this NLCS with rookie Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal. Gibson is 77 and Rosenthal 23, but the latter plans to work on a tip from Gibson about pitching right-handers outside.
"When a guy like that says it, it maybe has a bigger impact and you focus on it a little bit more," Rosenthal said.
The Cardinals may be ahead of the Dodgers in terms of hands-on involvement from former players, but former Dodgers infielder Ron Cey is working to change that. He said he helped last year to revive a program of guest Spring Training instructors that existed when Cey was a young Dodger himself.
"We're finding more people who can do it and want to do it," Cey said. "Our history and tradition is right up there with the Cardinals. It's really interesting that the two teams with the greatest history and tradition in the National League are playing in the postseason. It's been more frequent for them in the last 10 seasons or so than it has been for us."
La Russa deserves some credit for that in St. Louis, where the Cardinals have appeared in the NLCS nine times since 1996.
"I remember getting here it was Red, George Kissell, Jack Buck, Mike Shannon -- those guys pull you aside, and they tell you what the history is and what your responsibility is to keep it going," La Russa said.
The Cardinals will have another chance to clinch a trip to the World Series in Game 6 on Friday night (7:30 p.m. CT/5:30 p.m PT on TBS). The Dodgers must win two more games to bring the World Series to Dodger Stadium for the first time since 1988.
Wills would love a few more nights at the ballpark.
"They say if you live your passion, you never work a day in your life," he said, "and I've never worked a day in my life."