By Rob Rains
One morning this week, Mark DeJohn will wake up, get into his rental car and make the 80-mile drive from Johnson City, Tenn., to Marion, Va.
The trip will take a little more than an hour, but it will signify a much longer journey. One of the last pieces of business DeJohn wants to complete before he steps away from a lifetime in baseball is to go back to where it all began, in that small Virginia town, in 1971.
DeJohn is retiring this week after spending 33 years working for the Cardinals, the last decade serving as the organization’s minor-league field coordinator. The end of Johnson City’s season will be the culmination of a remarkable 49 years in the game for DeJohn, who has had a role in developing every player, coach or staff member who has come through the Cardinals’ system for more than three decades.
Beyond the major-league players and staff, including current Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt, who DeJohn has helped mold are countless others who never reached that level but learned about life, and how to succeed outside of baseball, through lessons and advice offered by the man affectionately known to all as “DJ.”
Those who have shared even some of those years with DeJohn know they are going to miss him. They will miss his laugh. They will miss his knowledge of the game. They will miss his infectious personality and how he could command and light up a room. They know the organization faces a massive challenge in trying to find somebody to take his place.
But they are also happy, because they know DeJohn is happy. He is going home.
“I just have such a great relationship with my wife Ruthie,” said DeJohn, who will be 66 in September. “We kind of enjoy each other’s company, which makes her nuts. It’s really why I’m going home. Yeah I could put in a couple more years or whatever but then we would be saying the same thing. I will miss a lot of things, but it’s just time.
“The bottom line is if I kept doing it, I would miss my wife more. That’s why I am going home.”
A career almost was over before it began
DeJohn was just 17 when he left his home in Middletown, Conn., in June of 1971, heading to Marion as an infield prospect after he was selected by the Mets in the 23rd round of the amateur draft. He remembers that moment like it happened yesterday.
He also remembers his career almost ended there, before it had a chance to begin.
“I flew down with another player who had been signed by the Mets, Ernie DiStasi, who was a better player than me but he quit after three or four years because he wanted to be with his girlfriend,” DeJohn said. “A kid who worked for the team, James Plummer, picked us up in a green station wagon and drove us to the Lincoln Hotel.
“Even before we got to the hotel, I felt like I wanted to quit. I thought, “I don’t know if I want to do this. I don’t like being away from home.’ I hadn’t even gotten a uniform yet. And I wanted to quit. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ And there was like another voice in my head that said, ‘You can’t do that. It’s embarrassing. Hang in there, you will get used to it.’ I did, and by the time the season was over I didn’t want to go home.”
DeJohn has not been back to Marion since playing that summer for the Mets’ rookie league team. The town has not had a minor-league team since 1976. Because DeJohn has really spent this season reflecting on all the things that have happened in his career, and being certain to enjoy all of the moments and memories, he wants his career to end where it began.
“I want to go back to the ballpark and see what the town is like,” he said. “I want to see what Main Street looks like. We played at the high school field. We didn’t have a car. Ernie and me lived with an older lady who had two extra rooms. We walked back and forth to the ballpark and when it rained we tried to get a ride. It was really old school stuff. I wouldn’t have changed anything. That’s why I want to go back and look at it.
“I made a statement when I started out that, ‘If I’m not in the big leagues by the time I’m 21 I’m quitting.’ Since that time I’ve made a lot of stupid statements. But I never thought then it (his career) would lead to me playing in the majors, being a major-league coach, a minor-league manager and a field coordinator … I’m proud of it in the sense that it’s not so much what I’ve done in the game but that I survived for 49 years in baseball.
“I haven’t made a lot of money in the game, I really haven’t. But I’ve made a living. I feel privileged to have made a living in the game. I enjoyed coming to work every day and that’s something a lot of people can’t say. I feel very fortunate.”
All of the people who have crossed paths with DeJohn along the way know the feeling is mutual.
Coming to the Cardinals
Steve Turco first met DeJohn in 1986, when DeJohn joined the Cardinals as the manager of their Class A team in Savannah, Ga. Turco was DeJohn’s coach for the next two years, the beginning of a lifetime friendship. DeJohn, whose playing career was spent in the Mets and Tigers organizations, wanted to work for the Cardinals because of everything he had heard about George Kissell.
What DeJohn first found out that spring was that Kissell then was 66 years old, and DeJohn thought was about to retire. In fact, Kissell worked for the Cardinals until he was 88 years old and was killed in a car accident. The stories that DeJohn can tell about Kissell, and often does, could fill a book.
Turco worked with Kissell too, and he knows one of the biggest losses to the Cardinals’ organization with DeJohn’s retirement is that link to Kissell, one of baseball’s legendary instructors.
“Nobody is bigger than the game,” said Turco, who retired last year after 37 years working for the Cardinals. “We moved on without George and George to me was the Cardinals. But there are just certain people who seem to make an organization work, and I think DJ is one of those guys.
“He did so much for the players. The way he related to players … he lightened their spirits at times when they needed it. He didn’t want to put more pressure on kids who were struggling anyway. He had a knack of being able to do that. But he also was a very honest evaluator. If you ever went to him and asked him something, you’d better be able to handle the truth. He was very honest with guys.”
One of the ways DeJohn related to players, especially those in the low levels of the minors, was through humor. He frequently poked fun at himself, and his career, often telling how he was one of the very people in the history of the game who could remember all of his major-league hits. What he didn’t say was that there were only four of them, all for the Tigers during the 24 games he played in the majors in 1982.
Turco considers the two years he spent as DeJohn’s coach the two best years of his career.
“I had more fun and enjoyed myself more in those two seasons than any year before or after,” Turco said. “First and foremost, he’s a great baseball man. When you listen to him talk about the game, you appreciate his prowess and his astuteness for the game. Sometimes he is so funny that you lose sight of what a great baseball man he is. His personality is bigger than life, and it kind of overshadows the kind of baseball man that he is.
“I don’t know how many times I told him he missed his calling. He should have been a standup comic and I would have loved to have been his manager. We both would have made a fortune. He loves a crowd. He loves an audience. He thrived on that.”
DeJohn has told so many stories over the years that even he has lost sight of which ones are true and which ones he made up.
“That’s the funny part,” he said. “When I told the truth nobody believed me and when I was telling a lie they believed me.”
DeJohn’s biggest stage each year came in spring training, when every morning he was given the floor to talk to the assembled minor leaguers about whatever he wanted to address. Sometimes it was baseball, often times not. He might talk about cooking spaghetti; nobody ever knew what would come out of his mouth.
“You almost had to just let him keep going,” said Gary LaRocque, the director of player development who joined the Cardinals in 2008 and quickly became one of DeJohn’s best friends. “We were supposed to meet for 15 to 20 minutes to talk about instructions and the day’s plan and those meetings would quickly turn into 50 minutes. I can’t begin to tell you the number of stories he would tell that would capture the group and how much everyone enjoyed them.
“I never saw people leave the room when he was talking in the morning, and I saw a lot of people come in. That was a compliment to him. Afterward he would say quietly to me, ‘I’m not sure if that one (story) was true or not.’”
A special relationship
Like Turco, Tommy Kidwell first met DeJohn in spring training in 1986. He was also in St. Petersburg because of Kissell – his grandfather. Kidwell was 9 at the time.
“I was quickly drawn to him by his personality and his ability to tell stories,” Kidwell said. “DJ always looked up to my grandfather as one of his biggest influences in baseball and I know my grandfather looked on DJ like a son … After my grandfather was gone, he kind of filled those shoes a little bit. When he talked, it was wisdom. My grandfather was like that. Some people just talk to talk.”
As much as DeJohn likes to talk, there is almost always a message that was being delivered: A word of encouragement; trying to invoke a smile or a laugh, or a tough message that maybe DeJohn believed needed to be said.
Of all of the conversations Kidwell has had with DeJohn over the years, the one that was the most meaningful came after the 2005 season, the second year Kidwell managed the rookie league team in Johnson City. A graduate of Yale, Kidwell played three years in the system before becoming a coach.
“I was having my doubts about staying in baseball and he told me to get out,” Kidwell said. “I was 28, I wanted to have a family and he told me to get out and go do something else. It was good advice. It probably wasn’t easy for him to tell me that my leaving baseball was a good thing. It wasn’t easy to hear, but I knew he was right.
“I know he’s had that kind of relationship and influence with a lot of players and coaches. Players love him. Coaches love him. He can talk for five straight hours and not take a breath. He’s just a wise old owl, a gregarious fun-loving guy. He’s kind of like your crazy uncle … When my grandfather wasn’t around as much, DJ was the guy I looked to. He became the guy I trusted and wanted to talk to about my future.”
Kidwell now works as a financial planner in St. Petersburg. He took DeJohn’s advice and never looked back, just as countless other players have done for more than 30 years.
“The biggest part for me, having worked with young kids for so many years, is that you know a lot of these kids aren’t going to play in the major leagues,” Turco said. “You know their talent level probably isn’t going to get them there, but you just hope they can become the best players they can be, but beyond that, you know that life goes on beyond baseball.
“Whatever you can do to help those kids about handling life, and get them some ammunition and weaponry to handle the outside world, you want to be there for them. You want to help them with character issues, and integrity. Those are things we all strived to do. He (DeJohn) has done that time and time again.”
Only a couple regrets
After six years of managing in the Cardinals’ farm system, DeJohn made what he says now was one of the few regrets he has about his career. Because he was not getting along with Ted Simmons, the farm director at the time, DeJohn left the Cardinals to become the manager of the Tigers’ Double A team in 1992.
“I made a mistake,” DeJohn said. “I regret that I left. I realized I shouldn’t have done that. I look back and realized I learned so much baseball from the person I left because of (Simmons). It was a mistake on my part and I was fortunate to be able to come back.
“Ted was a professor. He was way ahead of his time regarding analytics and the way the game has changed. Ted knew all of that 20 years ago. I appreciate now what he did for me. I’ve actually apologized to Ted and told him I was wrong. He rode us, but boy did he make us better.”
Kissell helped bring about DeJohn’s return in 1993 and after three more years in the minors, he was added to Tony LaRussa’s coaching staff in 1996. He spent the next six seasons in the majors, first as the bullpen coach and then as the bench coach. The team just missed reaching the World Series twice, one of DeJohn’s other few regrets.
He was reassigned in 2002, going back to the minors to become the Double A manager.
“It was their decision,” DeJohn said. “I was depressed about it, but as I look back it was a good move for them. I don’t have one ill feeling towards anybody. Everything that has happened to me in my career and basically in my life, I’ve felt when something closes something opens. It’s always worked out.”
DeJohn was upset, however, that he got the news he was being let go from the coaching staff in a phone call from general manager Walt Jocketty and not from LaRussa. “He didn’t want to make the call, I understood it,” DeJohn said.
Returning to the minors gave DeJohn the chance two years later to manage Yadier Molina in Double A.
“He was my best managing job ever,” DeJohn said. “People asked me, ‘What did you tell him?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ That’s the God’s honest truth. I just let him play.
“I really think that’s some of what is missing in the game today. Just let them play, and give them a little bit of guidance.”
Going back to the minors also produced moments like what happened a couple of years ago in Springfield, when DeJohn was running the team while the manager was on his team-mandated vacation.
“Anthony Garcia wanted to play center field, and I put him in the lineup and moved Oscar Mercado, who was a much better defender, to left,” DeJohn recalled. “About the third or fourth inning, a guy hit a ball to left field and Oscar leaped over the fence and stole a home run from the guy. I turned to the guys on the bench and said, ‘Hey, that’s why I might be the best of all time.’ They asked me what I was talking about and I said, “Do you think I put Garcia in center field because I thought he was a good centerfielder? No, I knew the guy was going to hit the ball to left. Boys, that’s managing.”
The rest of the story was that the opposing team did not hit a ball toward center field until the seventh inning.
DeJohn has been back in the Springfield dugout this season, along with making trips to Peoria, Palm Beach, Memphis, State College and Johnson City. He was in uniform for every game, sitting in the dugout, watching the game, talking to the coaches and players, and enjoying his last ride.
He spent one game in Springfield sitting in the bullpen so he could talk with the relief pitchers. He went on two bus trips with Peoria, one to Wisconsin and another to Indiana and Ohio. He took a trip with the State College Spikes as well.
“I wanted to do that,” he said. “I wanted to make some bus trips. I’ve always enjoyed that. I just get a chance to tell stories and make them laugh.
“I’ve slowed the game down and enjoyed every single day this year. I had a wonderful spring training and was treated like royalty. I can’t thank people enough. I would have to get one of those planes and put a sign behind it that said, ‘Thank you’ and fly it all around the country.”
One of the experiences from this season which DeJohn cherished the most did not even occur at a ballpark.
“I was at the airport in Charlotte, changing planes, and had a two-hour layover,” DeJohn said. “I looked up and saw Chris Carpenter walking by. I yelled at him and he turned around and he sat there with me for 45 minutes talking. We ended the conversation and shook hands and I just said, ‘Give me a hug.’ It was special. With the Cardinals he’s like royalty. It made me feel good.
“I got a text from Tommy Pham in spring training when he heard I was retiring this year. I still hear from Mercado and people like Jason Isringhausen. It just shows me that, ‘DJ you must have done something right because all of these people have respect for you,’ even if it’s not deserved. I take a lot of pride in that.”
“You don’t replace DJ”
Nobody in the Cardinals organization understands more than Shildt and LaRocque what DeJohn’s retirement will mean for the organization next season and for years into the future.
“You don’t replace DJ,” LaRocque said. “We just hope everyone has learned enough from him over the years to capture the things that were very effective for him and use them as we move forward, including myself. How will we apply it with him not being here? It’s a challenge.”
Shildt’s first coaching job in the organization, after being hired as a scout, came in 2005. DeJohn was the manager of the short-season club in New Jersey and the two became fast friends. DeJohn became one of his mentors.
“We had a common bond in how much we loved the game and the organization and most importantly the players, and had a passion for teaching the game,” Shildt said. “That drew us close. He’s my best friend, he’s my guy – on and off the field … I wouldn’t he here (managing the Cardinals) without DJ. I can confidently say I would have no chance to be here, whether it’s understanding how to manage a game, or emotionally how to deal with different things. I wouldn’t have a chance to be here without DJ.”
Shildt knows that their friendship will not end with DeJohn’s retirement. They will still talk, and exchange text messages. He will still draw on what he has learned from DeJohn over the years.
“His wisdom literally is almost infinite,” Shildt said. “He’s never steered me wrong. His guidance and wisdom always have value … He gives me truth, that’s probably the biggest thing. And he gives me truth even when I don’t want it or agree with it. Typically, he’s right.
“Mark DeJohn is a genius, and that’s not a word I use lightly but it’s so true. He’s got the most amazing ability to deliver wisdom and information to people in a variety of mediums. He can be very direct and stern but he can also talk to a team, a group or an individual and use metaphors or stories and self-deprecation and experiences that are very non-threatening that just ooze kernels of wisdom.
“If you are really listening, man there’s a lot of meat in there … What I didn’t appreciate as much early on as I do now is that he is preparing you for something you haven’t seen or is making you aware of something you haven’t experienced yet.”
Shildt said there really isn’t an accurate way to predict the impact of what DeJohn’s retirement will mean to the organization.
“The void that he is going to leave is going to be a lot bigger than people think,” Shildt said. “He’s got so much that he gives and brings and shares. He grows people, and makes them better – players and staff. He does it for the greater good without any personal agenda. It’s pure, which makes it special.
“He’s just a good soul, a good man. He helps everybody and pours into people. I’ve seen him work just as hard with a guy who’s probably not going to get out of A ball as he does with a prospect. That’s the right way to be because you just never know. He’s going to give you baseball advice and life advice. He’s got a great Christian spirit. He’s a great disciple.”
What do others in the organization think the Cardinals are going to miss the most with DeJohn’s retirement?
“We’re going to miss his love for the organization, his respect for the game,” said Springfield manager Joe Kruzel. “He’s as close to George Kissell as we have in our organization right now. He’s passing along what George taught him and showed him – insights about how to do things, not just about baseball but about life.
“He doesn’t always come in and tell you that you are doing a good job. The thing I am going to miss the most is when he comes to your city and sits down with you after the game in your office and talks the game. He gives you ideas and thoughts. What about this, what about that? He runs the game through you. I think he learned that from George.
“He’s just got such a love for people, a love for this organization and a love for baseball.”
One of Kruzel’s favorite stories about DeJohn came when he was managing Peoria a few years ago and DeJohn called him on the phone one day.
“We started talking, and an hour and a half later, he said, ‘I forgot why I called you. If I remember, I’ll call you back.’” Kruzel said.
LaRocque said he also will miss his almost daily telephone conversations with DeJohn, who also admitted that he knows he is going to have to fight the urge to pick up the phone and call LaRocque for one reason or another.
“DJ is like what they used to say about Kissell in that he could talk about fielding a ground ball for 15 minutes,” LaRocque said. “That’s a compliment. DJ is the same way. It’s pure baseball to him. When we are on the phone I can ask him about a player and we will end up talking about three or four other subjects. He said he always knows when I want to get off the phone because I tell him I am getting another call. He’s been a wonderful friend.”
Their friendship extends beyond baseball. LaRocque, who is the same age as DeJohn, grew up less than half an hour away from DeJohn and followed his career before they ever met. LaRocque’s mother, now 97, lives 10 minutes from DeJohn’s home in New Britain, Conn.
“He will go over and help her out,” LaRocque said. “He grew up in a different era where people really took to heart what they could do to help people … I’ve been in the game for 44 years and I’ve told him without a doubt these last 12 he has been my best memory as a staff member.
“He is so unique. The thing that always drove him, that never wavered, was his love for the game, his passion for the game, and his passion for the Cardinals. He takes it hard when we’re not doing well and he challenged us when we were doing well.”
The way DeJohn motivated players, while making them laugh, was a talent that most coaches or instructors can’t match.
Every player who interacted with DeJohn over the years has his own story.
“I had heard stories about how outrageous he was and how he was full of stories and could captivate the locker room,” said Tommy Edman. “He exceeded the stories that proceeded him. I remembered wondering to myself, ‘Is that what all minor-league coordinators are like?’”
Edman soon learned, of course, the answer was no – along with something else that was important in his development.
“It turned out he was one of a kind,” Edman said. “The thing with DJ is that he is brutally honest with players. He will tell you exactly what he thinks, whether you like it or not. When I was struggling in Double A he told me I wasn’t as good a hitter as I had been in short season ball. I think that brutal piece of honesty from DJ kind of kicked me in the butt a little bit.
“I went back to Double A the next year and worked on a few things and ended up having success. I remember him telling me I went back to what I was doing in State College.
“I think you should almost be worried if he isn’t ripping on you because if he is ripping on you it means he cares about you as a player.”
DeJohn’s impact on players will continue long after his retirement, of course, because of the work and time he has put in the last few seasons with prospects such as Nolan Gorman and Dylan Carlson.
“You can definitely get some really good stuff out of him if you just listen,” Gorman said. “He’s super smart. It’s just little things here and there that he wants you to pick up. I definitely kept my ears open when I was listening to him.”
Added Carlson, “He just gets the message across about what it’s like to be a Cardinal; the respect he has for the organization and the pride he takes in being a Cardinal. He’s not afraid to tell you something, even if you may not like it. That’s something I’ve enjoyed and respected about him. I’m really grateful I was able to cross paths with him so early in my career.”
Even players who have left the organization have kept the fond memories of their time spent with DeJohn.
“He was one of the first guys I met in Johnson City,” said Carson Kelly, who was traded to Arizona last December. “I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ I thought he was a little insane at the beginning. I remember we were working on bunt plays and did something wrong and he started yelling, ‘What are we doing?’ We were just kids, trying to figure it out. He’d take off his hat and start rubbing his head.”
DeJohn was one of the people instrumental in Kelly’s transition to catching after he was drafted in 2012 as a third baseman out of high school.
“He was always on me,” Kelly said. “He would tell me, ‘You’re doing great, keep going, but make sure you do this.’ It was little things, details, telling you what he saw.
“One of the lessons I learned from him was honesty. It was tough love at times but it helps you grow as a player. Learning that at such a young age is going to help no matter what.
“Over the years at spring training he would drive around in a golf cart and stop at your field. He called me over and we had a conversation about baseball and about life. Those are the times I will always cherish.”
Kruzel, for one, knows it will be different without DeJohn being around.
“We’re going to miss him for numerous reasons,” Kruzel said. “We’re going to miss his passion; how he communicates with the staff and players. We’re going to miss his knowledge. We will miss his personality. I think he has helped so many people in so many ways that I don’t think he even knows about.
“He just has such an infectious personality, that’s the biggest thing we are going to miss. We miss guys like Turco too. They were always there, checking on you, to make sure you were doing what you were supposed to be doing. He made us accountable. I could never repay him for what he has done for me, and the organization.”
There is one thing DeJohn will begrudgingly admit about his tenure with the Cardinals.
“I guess what I don’t realize is that I actually have helped some people along the way,” DeJohn said. “I never associated myself with George Kissell. It’s a level that can’t be reached. It wasn’t possible and I knew that.”
People will realize that DeJohn is gone when they don’t hear his booming laugh from down the hall or coming from another room.
“What they will miss from me is my ability to make everybody laugh,” he said. “I haven’t always been the nicest guy some days when I get on people … Sometimes you get more credit for stuff than you really have actually done. I believe that with a lot of people. Kissell, no. What he got credit for he absolutely deserved.
“When I was 17 I wasn’t a very good player. I thought I was good when I first came in the game but I found out real quick I wasn’t very good. I figured out you had better be a good guy and get them to like you. I did that. I had a way of keeping a clubhouse loose … The minor leagues is about a process. To get results you have to go through the process. You learn to accept it, how to go about it. You have to take some bumps and bruises before you get the result.
“I probably helped some people that I don’t think I helped. Who knows, maybe I hurt some people too.”
George Greer, one of the Cardinals minor league roving instructors, is always amazed when he sees DeJohn working a room.
“People gravitate to him,” Greer said. “When you walk into a room sometimes you know right away the vibes you get from some people is to stay away from them. You automatically gravitate to him. He knows the game in and out, but the way he handles people is probably the most impressive thing about him.
“You don’t replace him. He’s going to be truly missed.”
Kidwell is still connected with many people in the organization and he knows it will be hard for them to not be able to seek advice and counsel from DeJohn, and not be able to sit in the manager’s office and hear him interacting with the players in the clubhouse.
“The personality will fade in time but the stories will get bigger and the legend will grow,” Kidwell predicted. “You are not going to replace the personality and the wisdom and the experience overnight.
“You are losing some of the old old-school trench warfare kind of experience. The game is moving to younger and fresher ideas, different backgrounds. That’s great, but at some point there’s going to be nothing to draw on.
“He’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever been around and someone I always looked up to. There’s a lot of guys out there who would say the same thing … His whole persona? Nobody can ever duplicate that. He had a big impact on my life. He was essentially the ultimate Kissell guy, which is probably the biggest compliment I can give him.”
Ready to go home
DeJohn has had more than one conversation with Turco about what life will be like in retirement, without a plane to catch or spending another week hitting fungos and offering advice to young players in State College, Peoria or another minor-league outpost.
Turco has encouraged DeJohn that he will love being retired, but he does have one concern.
“I said, ‘Who are you going to talk to at home?’” Turco said. “You’ve got your wife Ruthie and your two dogs, and your kids are close by, but that’s it … He just comes to life when he is around the players and I don’t know what kind of substitute there is for that. Where is he going to get that rush? I’m hoping he will find something that helps him with that. I hope he finds an audience, because he still has so much to give.”
DeJohn knows his life will be different, and that he will need some time to get used to the changes.
Forty-nine seasons ago DeJohn ignored a voice in his head telling him he should go home before his career even began. He has a lifetime of memories because he didn’t listen to that voice all those years ago.
He is listening now.
“I just am looking forward to being home,” DeJohn said. “I will not be that person saying, ‘I wish I didn’t retire.’ Turco tells me he doesn’t miss it a bit, and I’m going to be just like him.
“I’ve got so many things I want to do. The biggest thing is spending time with my wife. My dad passed away when I was in spring training. My mom passed away when I was managing Double A. My grandmother passed away. I don’t want to be in some hotel room or come to the ballpark and get a phone call that something happened.
“I’ve had a lot of fun, but it’s time. It’s just time.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Main photo by Allison Rhoades/Peoria Chiefs
Other photos by Mark Harrell/Springfield Cardinals