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Cardinals notebook: Fighting tears, Joe McEwing shares story of return to Cardinals

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St. Louis Cardinals bench coach Joe McEwing during a presser

Cardinals bench coach Joe McEwing takes questions from the press on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, at the Winter Warm-up.

Joe McEwing believes things happen for a reason.

So it felt a bit poetic to him when he heard from Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak about the opening for a bench coach four days after he cleaned his garage in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and found the Western Union telegram from the night the Cardinals drafted him in the 28th round of the 1992 MLB draft.

A “full circle” journey for the McEwing, 50, who spent the past 15 seasons as a coach with the White Sox.

“It’s been 30 years since I signed here,” he said when introduced to the media on Sunday during Day 2 of Winter Warm-up. “I’m just truly grateful that I had the opportunity to come back, you know, and I did not see the opportunity to come in and have been rather quick.”

McEwing played for the Cardinals from 1998-99. He started in 152 games during the 1999 season and finished fifth in National League Rookie of the Year voting. A mentee of George Kissell, McEwing fought back tears as he spoke of the influence the former Cardinals coach had on him.

“Huge impact, and I know he’s looking down right now ...,” McEwing said with a pause before finishing, “smiling. There’s not a day that I go through where I don’t think about that man. As a teacher, as a mentor, as a friend. I feel like he’s on my shoulder when I’m teaching, and it’s like, ‘Oh, OK,’ you know. It’s every word that he expressed to me or expressed to others that I learned from, and it’s just the passing down of generation to generation.”

McEwing served as a bench coach for the White Sox for the 2017-20 seasons, then moved back into a bench coach role in 2021 for Tony La Russa.

But when he was told by the White Sox that he would not be returning in 2023, it left McEwing in a situation he had not been in for quite some time. He waited for the right opportunity to come his way and began to wrap his mind around other possibilities as to what his next chapter in life could entail.

Then, after Matt Holliday resigned from his position as Cardinals bench coach, a phone call completed McEwing's journey back to where his professional career started.

"I'm just extremely grateful and thankful to have the opportunity to come back home," he said. "I'm looking forward to amazing collaboration with the whole staff and front office. To be a piece of this puzzle to keep it going."

With just around a month left before pitchers and catchers are to report to Jupiter, Florida for spring training, McEwing is trying to familiarize himself with the organization from coaching staff to player personnel down in the minors.

McEwing said his bond with manager Oliver Marmol came quickly and felt "organic." He shared time in the minors with base coaches Ron "Pop" Warner and Stubby Clapp. He was teammates with outfield coach Willie McGee during the 1998 and 1999 season and even had the honor of replacing McGee in left field during the McGee's last game as a Cardinal.

"It's still a special moment for me," McEwing said. "I was in tears because I'm truly appreciative and grateful for everything I learned from him (McGee) and what an amazing professional he is." 

It'll be hasty introduction with the season nearing, but with his experiences as a player and coach, McEwing believes he understands the characteristics a bench coach should exemplify.

"Communication and collaboration," McEwing said. "Dealing with personalities and just being a soundboard for everyone. For the coaching staff, for players, for Oli, for the front office to communicate. When you have that amazing collaboration from top to bottom, you're able to have sustainable success for a long period of time."

Helsley on arbitration, wild-card loss

Nearly three months after the Cardinals saw a 2-0 lead in the first game of the National League Wild Card Series against Philadelphia turn into a 6-3 loss, the sting of defeat still sits with closer Ryan Helsley.

Helsley dealt with a jammed right middle finger at the time. He tossed a scoreless inning of relief in the eighth, but his finger stiffened and his command faltered when he returned to pitch the ninth.

“I want the ball in that situation,” said Helsley, who walked two batters and hit another in the ninth. “Maybe I had a little bit too much self-pride there and passed it off to somebody else. That’s the moment I want to be in and be a guy that the team can lean on.”

Coming off an All-Star campaign, Helsley and the Cardinals are headed to an arbitration hearing after the two could not reach an agreement on salary figures. Helsey submitted a request for $3 million. The Cardinals countered with a $2.15 million offer.

Helsey stated he did not feel “mad or disapointed” with the arbitration process, pointing out that the process will be between the Cardinals and his agent.

”It’s nice to make more money, but money doesn’t really motivate me this play this game,” he said. “I love this game. I love to compete. I like to be out there in front of the fans with my teammates on the field and getting after it every day. God has a plan, so it’s going to work out the way it’s supposed.”

International class highlighted by big righty

With a signing pool of $5,284,000 for international spending, the Cardinals on Sunday announced they have agreed to terms with 17 international players.

Reiner Lopez, a 6-foot-9 right-handed pitcher from Venezuela listed at 180 pounds, headlined this year’s international signings by the Cardinals. Lopez has been profiled as a starter and lauded for his strike-throwing ability, according to a scouting report from MLB.com. The same scouting report listed his change-up as his best secondary pitch and noted that he has reminded some of a young version of 2022 NL Cy Young award winner Sandy Alcantara, who was once a top prospect in the Cardinals’ system before getting traded to Miami in 2017.

Along with Lopez, the signees include right-handed pitchers Ruben Menes, Jarol Baez, Emaisel Carrera, Xavier Cruz, Keiverson Ramierz and Giovanni Vargas; left-handed pitchers Stiveen Rojas and Bernard Mack; shortstops Daniel Rojas and Bracewell Taveras; and outfielders Andru Arthu, Hancel Almonte, Angel Gil and Facundo Velasquez.

Pallante, Herrera to play in WBC

Two more Cardinals will be away from the team’s Jupiter, Florida, training complex this spring as both will be in Taiwan for the World Baseball Classic. Andre Pallante will play for Team Italy and Ivan Herrera will represent Team Panama this March.

Pallante, 24, is of Italian descent on his father’s side. He’ll pitch for Team Italy after recently getting clearance from the Cardinals.

“Nolan (Arenado) and Paul (Goldschmidt) both had great experiences with Team USA, and the way they talked about it really made it something I wanted to do,” Pallante said.

Herrera, 22, will catch for his home country when he suits up for Team Panama in its third appearance in a WBC and first since 2009. Herrera represented Panama last winter during the Caribbean Series and in the past has expressed the honor he feels in representing his native country in international tournaments.

“It’s always good to represent your country. I was happy to do that,” Herrera said on Sunday.

Italy and Panama will both be in Pool A. They will face teams from Cuba, the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Cardinals prospect mystique, heading into Winter Warm-Up, the annual launch of the new season (if you will). Also, a happy birthday shoutout to Julia Louis-Dreyfus! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat.

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