JUPITER, Fla. • When he was a very young man and still something of a baseball neophyte, there was nowhere Jose Oquendo wouldn’t go to gain knowledge about the game that would ultimately become his life. As a major-league player and later as a coaching apprentice, Oquendo would sit for hours in cramped clubhouses, soaring hotel lobbies, dugout benches and the occasional watering hole trying to glean as many valuable bits of wisdom as he could from some of baseball’s keenest wise men.
“The conversations would go on for hours,” Oquendo said Sunday, basking in the morning sun outside the Cardinals spring training clubhouse. “You’re trying to learn as much as you can, and I found people who were willing to teach it to me.”
As a young player, he would pick the brain of his legendary countryman, Vic Power (born Victor Pollet), one of the first Latino superstars of the post-World War II major leagues. As a veteran player and neophyte coach, his conversations with Cardinals coaching legends Dave Ricketts and George Kissell minted even more precious baseball jewels.
One of the best gems ever collected from one of those lengthy conversations is something Oquendo carries with him every day when the Cardinals third-base coach walks out onto the practice fields at the Roger Dean Stadium complex with major-league and minor-league apprentices trailing behind him. When it comes to the relationship between a player and a coach, you had to learn the biggest — and the most important — word in the English language.
“It’s the word ‘why,’ ” said Oquendo. “If you can’t understand ‘why’ or can’t teach ‘why’ you will never reach a player. I think the player or the athlete has to understand what it’s all about. Why he has to be in a spot. Why he has to throw the ball a particular way. It’s not about why I want you to do it. It’s understanding why you need to do it.”
Baseball is a word-of-mouth sport. Its art form and knowledge are passed on by constant repetition and a thousand conversations. When you look around the practice fields at the Cards spring training complex on any sunny morning, you’ll see small clusters of men in uniform talking. It’s coaches and players, veterans and wide-eyed minor leaguers. Everyone is a part of the chain of information being passed from one generation to the next.
Over the past few days on the Jupiter practice fields, Oquendo and last year’s rookie hitting sensation Matt Carpenter have been practically inseparable. It’s Oquendo’s job to transform the second-year player from a third baseman and utility outfielder into a smooth major-league second baseman capable of starting or at least playing some quality defense in late-game situations so his valuable bat can be used on an everyday basis. When you see them on the field, either roaming the outfield warning track, or doing endless drills, or just standing around the bag in the middle of the infield, the conversations flow like blood through veins.
Whitey Herzog once said that George Kissell was “the only man I know who can talk 15 minutes about a ground ball.” Well now one of his favorite students has gone ahead and done Kissell one better, because Oquendo has been bending Carpenter’s ear endlessly not just on ground balls, but bunts, stolen-base situations, the pivot play, relays from the outfield and the intricacies of turning a double play.
“It’s going good,” Carpenter said. “It’s definitely a retraining of my brain, learning a new side of the field, learning a new position and trying to get comfortable with it. But I have a real good instructor helping me in Jose Oquendo. Being able to pick his brain from a guy who not only played second, but played all the positions and has a real good feel for what it takes to play a different spot. So it’s been great to get down here early and working with him and getting rolling.
“It’s just the mental side of playing this position, which really in this game is the toughest part of the game. ... The stuff that comes up throughout a game that comes up in a split second you have to make a decision. Where do I have to be? Do I throw to this base? The physical stuff, I don’t want to say is easy, but as a baseball player you do it all the time. ... The toughest thing is the mental side and that’s where we’re talking all the time. I’m picking his brain. Him telling me where I want to be and those kinds of things.”
Since Carpenter arrived last week for expedited instruction, if you got to the complex after 9 a.m., you’d already missed an hour or more of this intense one-on-one instruction. “He’s a good student,” Oquendo said. “And he wants to understand why he’s doing things in a situation. Why he’s making different plays.”
They talk about everything. They drill on every situation. Oquendo pounds ground balls at him to his left, to his right. Over the weekend, Oquendo assembled a simulated infield, including all-star catcher Yadier Molina serving as a shortstop, third baseman and bilingual partner in crime for the coach.
The drill was on double plays, with the ball being hit to either short or third, and Carpenter expected to cover second and make the pivot to first. But before every ground ball that Oquendo hit to Molina, they first chatted in Spanish. Carpenter doesn’t speak Spanish.
“I wanted to make sure Matt gets balls thrown to him at different angles, different places,” Oquendo said. “High ball. Low ball. Ball to this side, that side, so he can react to all the unexpected things that can happen when a second baseman is covering the bag. So I figured if (he and Molina) talk in Spanish so he doesn’t know what’s coming, we’ll see exactly how he does react.”
Wicked teaching technique, huh?
“You gotta get him up to speed fast,” said Oquendo with a slightly devilish grin. “We don’t have a lot of time.”