By Rob Rains
Vince Coleman was driving from San Jose to Fresno, Calif., on Friday afternoon, heading for a minor-league game, when he received a telephone call from Cardinals’ chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.
It was a good thing Coleman was holding onto the steering wheel with both hands or he might have driven off the road.
DeWitt was calling to inform Coleman that he and fellow outfielder Ray Lankford had been elected to the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame, along with veteran committee selection Harry Brecheen. All three will be inducted in a ceremony on Aug. 18.
Even after he had time to calm down and the reality had sunk in, Coleman was still almost speechless, needing a few minutes to put into words his reaction to DeWitt’s phone call.
“I can’t believe it,” he told STLSportsPage.com. “I’m very humbled. It’s an honor. … It’s amazing.”
Coleman said that his election to the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame is a crowning achievement to his career, and allows him to come full circle back to the team which drafted him in 1982 and where he had his greatest success.
“I’ve felt for like 30 years I haven’t been at peace with myself,” Coleman said. “I never felt like this day would come. The Cardinals fans have always treated me like royalty. It’s the best place to play baseball, and it’s a very special place.
“I’m humbled and I’m honored. This means so much to me. I’m just happy to be a Cardinal for life.”
Coleman led the National League in stolen bases all six years he was with the Cardinals, from 1985 to 1990, and stole more than 100 bases the first three seasons, winning the league Rookie of the Year award in 1985.
He left as a free agent following the 1990 season, signing with the New York Mets. It took about two weeks into the 1991 season before Coleman realized he had made a mistake and never should have left the Cardinals.
“I remember calling Ozzie (Smith) and telling him how much I missed coming to the ballpark,” Coleman said. “He and I were locker mates, and I hung my hat on everything Ozzie said and did, basically how he prepared for the games. I missed that. It just wasn’t the same over there and not seeing Ozzie and Willie (McGee).
“He (Ozzie) had told me that no matter where you go, you will never find what we have built. It was so true and every day I regretted it. The rest of my career was trying to find happiness. I wasn’t happy until I got the phone call today to tell me I am back with the Cardinals.”
The Cardinals won the NL pennant in 1985 and 1987 but by 1990 that team was different. August Busch Jr. had died, Whitey Herzog had resigned as the manager and the team appeared heading into a youth movement.
“They made me an offer which I thought was fair, but they refused to negotiate during the season,” Coleman said. “What they told my agent was for me to go be a free agent because they didn’t really know what my market value was. They said whatever I was offered they would match it. That’s what my agent, Richie Bry, told me.
“The Mets’ offer was $13 million and the Cardinals were at $10 million and said they were not going to match $13 million. The money wasn’t really the issue. Our whole team was dismantled. The whole nucleus of the team I had been accustomed to playing with and that had won the pennants wasn’t there.”
So Coleman took the Mets’ offer, in part because he thought they had the best pitching staff in the game and that could lead to more success.
“Once you taste the winning tradition you always want that,” he said. “I thought that was an opportunity for me, going to the team with the best pitching staff, that I could be a difference maker and win another championship. That was my thought process.”
That didn’t happen, and Coleman spent the next seven years going from the Mets to Kansas City, Seattle, Cincinnati and Detroit trying unsuccessfully to find what he had left behind in St. Louis before his career came to an end.
“There is no other place in the world to play other than St. Louis,” Coleman said he learned. “Sometimes the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I had the world in my hands and didn’t even know it.
“Happiness is everything. I wasn’t happy in New York. I wasn’t happy the rest of my career. What made me happy was being in St. Louis. I will be honored to put on that red jacket and feel like I am back in the family.”
How Coleman, who now works for the Giants as a special outfield and baserunning instructor, came to be a Cardinal also is a happy memory.
Marty Maier was responsible for scouting Florida and Alabama for the Cardinals at the time and he was in Tallahassee one day in the spring of 1982 to watch Florida State play.
“They got rained out,” Coleman said. “Marty heard we were playing and he didn’t want to sit in his hotel room that day so that particular game he came to I stole seven bases against Alabama State.”
That naturally got Maier’s attention, and he picked up the story from there on Friday night.
“The football coach at A and M (Coleman also was the punter on the team) was a friend of mine when I played at Florida State and he had mentioned to me about Vince being over there,” said Maier. “I saw him a couple of more times and I really liked him. Fred (McAlister, the scouting director) also saw him once too.”
As it got closer to draft day, Maier was driving back to his home in south Florida from Alabama, passing through Tallahassee. He called Coleman to see if he could come and work out for him.
“Really the most important thing I wanted was to be around him and see if he could switch-hit, because he wasn’t that good of a right-handed hitter,” Maier said. “He said he couldn’t work out because he had finals. He wanted to know if I was coming back, or going to be in Jacksonville, his home town. I told him no.
“If you want, I said, I live in Hollywood, Fla., but if you can come down there, we could do the workout there. I thought that was the last I would see of him. But he called me about a week later and said would you mind if I come down there to work out for you? He came down with a friend of his.”
Maier first tried to see if Coleman could play shortstop, again trying to take advantage of his speed, but quickly saw that was a bad idea and put him back in center field. The switch-hitting idea worked out better.
“I thought if he could hit at all left-handed, the way he could run, it would be huge,” Maier said. “He had a nice little short stroke. I threw a pitch at him and he jumped out of the way. The next pitch I threw down the middle and he hit a line drive to left field. That’s when I was excited.”
On Maier’s recommendation, the Cardinals’ drafted Coleman in the 10th round. Three years later, he was in the majors.
“It worked out really well,” Maier said. “I’m so happy for him, I can’t even tell you. I’m thrilled. That makes my day.”
Said Coleman, “Some things in life will never change like my Social Security number, my birth date, and now that I’m a Cardinal for life, that will never change. It was a blessing for me to be with the Cardinals.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains