By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – The photo, from many years ago, hangs on a wall in Joe McEwing’s house in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
McEwing doesn’t need to see the photo, however, to think about all of the memories that it represents. He doesn’t need to see the photo to remember all the days that he spent with George Kissell. He doesn’t need to see the photo of him with Kissell to break into a smile.
McEwing is wearing a Cardinals’ uniform again for the first time in 23 years, returning to the organization that drafted him in 1992, brought him to the major leagues six years later, then traded him to the Mets in spring training of 2000. He was hired as the bench coach in January, after Matt Holliday resigned the position.
The first person McEwing thought of when that happened was Kissell, the legendary Cardinals instructor. It’s the same person he has thought of every day this spring, the same person he has thought about almost every day during the 31 years that McEwing has worked as a player, coach or manager in professional baseball.
McEwing says he owes his career to Kissell, and he firmly believes that Kissell is still watching out for him, long after Kissell died in 2008. He is convinced that Kissell played a role in bringing him back to the Cardinals.
“I feel like he is here every day,” McEwing said. “I feel like that’s why I’m back. Everything happens for a reason. We might not understand at the moment, but it puts you in a better place for a reason. I’m extremely grateful and fortunate to be here.
“There’s not one day, what we do out here with the infielders, or a conversation in the clubhouse, where I don’t feel like he’s on my shoulder, speaking for me.
“After 23 years to come back home, it’s truly refreshing … Every day I am like a kid in the candy store.”
A friendship is born
It was about two weeks into his pro career in 1992 when McEwing first met the man that would change his life. Kissell arrived in Chandler, Ariz., to begin working with the players in rookie ball, the lowest affiliate in the Cardinals’ minor-league system, filled with players like McEwing, a 28th round draft pick out of a junior college in New Jersey.
McEwing was 19. Kissell was 71, but really there was no age difference as soon as the two met. The bond was formed almost immediately.
“George took to certain players better than others,” said Mark DeJohn, the longtime Cardinals’ minor league field coordinator and another Kissell disciple. “That was all depending on their interest and their love for the game and listening to George. You listen to George and you bond with him, there’s no question … George used to always say that guys were either a sponge or a rock. Joe was a sponge. He soaked up everything.
“George and Joe were alike in many ways. They had the love for the game and they paid attention to detail. Each one of them was trying to get better … He did all the things that George preached. George loved him.”
A story that has been passed along for years is that Kissell could talk for 30 minutes – at least – about bunt plays or any other aspect of baseball fundamentals.
McEwing was glued to every word.
“In that moment you understood, from the beginning, what this organization was all about,” McEwing said. “The attention to detail from top to bottom. The fact that you are starting at the bottom of rookie ball, that’s where the foundation of the game and this organization is built – the fundamentals, the attention to details. That’s why success has been able to be sustained for a long time.
“I was extremely fortunate to be in his presence, to be mentored, to be taught, to be led by such an amazing individual.”
Somebody who understood that the age difference between McEwing and Kissell didn’t matter to their relationship was Tommy Kidwell, who was Kissell’s grandson. There was a 56-year difference in their ages.
“My grandfather always rooted for the less-heralded guys, especially when they were good people,” Kidwell said. “Joe Mac embodied everything – the whole Cardinal Way, the whole culture of the organization – through my grandfather’s eyes. Joe Mac embodied the way of playing, hustling and how he did things.
“Joe wasn’t ever the most talented guy on the team. He got by with thinking through the game, by doing the fundamentals. He just played the game the right way, the way my grandfather taught it.”
McEwing played that way for one simple reason. It was the way he was taught.
“He was like that father figure that you didn’t want to disappoint,” McEwing said. “You always wanted to do things right. We’re human, and we’re not going to get it right all the time but it was engraved in our head.
“He always talked about it; the value of a run and what it takes to win at the big league level; the attention to detail to be prepared so you don’t give up outs; how to be in the right spot on cutoffs and relays. The attention to detail prepares you for everything you are going to do on the field, off the field, in the clubhouse.”
DeJohn saw the bond form quickly between Kissell and McEwing.
“The good Lord told him (McEwing) I know you don’t have the most talent in the world but I’m going to put you with the best instructor in the world,” DeJohn said. “That’s what happened to him. They belong together.”
A father figure
Brian Rupp met McEwing in the summer in 1992, a St. Louis native selected by the Cardinals in the 43rd round of that draft class out of Missouri-St. Louis. A year later, in Savannah, Ga., they became roommates and they spent at least part of each of the next six years together.
That provided Rupp an opportunity to observe the interactions between McEwing and Kissell, a bond that he thinks grew when McEwing made the switch from playing the outfield to becoming an infielder.
“From basically the time that Joe signed I think George saw that Joe was a baseball player,” Rupp said. “He was the dirtbag, he was the guy that was going to do it until he did it right and would never quit. Whatever George asked him to do he was willing to try to do it.
“When Joe changed positions was when it (their relationship) really took off. George’s specialty was definitely infield play, and once Joe got his spikes on the dirt the relationship hit a different level.”
Rupp has his own memories, and stories about Kissell. A former coach and manager in the Cardinals’ farm system after his playing career ended, Rupp this year will be the bench coach for the Angels’ affiliate in the Class A California League. He will be teaching those young players the same lessons he learned from Kissell.
“Everybody says the game has changed,” Rupp said. “It’s not really the game that’s changed, it’s the people that have changed. What George taught 30-40 years ago, or longer, still applies today. You still turn a double play the same way, although you don’t have to worry about getting killed by a baserunner anymore.
“The fundamentals of catching a groundball are the same, all that type of stuff. You can still teach what he taught 40 or 50 years ago.”
It wasn’t only what Kissell taught that has stuck with McEwing, Rupp and countless others all these years later. It was the way he delivered the lessons.
“George had a reverence about him,” Rupp said. “He wasn’t a guy who got up in your face and yelled at you when you were doing it wrong. George just had a way of getting his point across.
“You never wanted to disappoint him. You stayed out there and did it until you did it right. George just brought that out in you. Then he would pat you on the butt when you were done and make you feel like you were his favorite son.”
What does McEwing consider the greatest lesson he learned from Kissell?
“Love,” he said. “He gave because he cared about the player. It was like he was fielding that groundball with you. He was taking that at-bat with you. He shared that with everyone, not just myself. He cared deeply about this organization and about the individual.
“As I got on this side of the ball (coaching) I never lost that. You care so much about the players and you want their dreams to come true. You had yours, and it’s your time to give back, all the great life lessons and teaching from that individual.”
McEwing also still remembers other long-time Cardinals’ instructors he learned from over the years.
“Dave Ricketts, Hub Kittle, Johnny Lewis – they all had that attention to detail from the beginning,” McEwing said. “It didn’t stop there. It was there in the instructional league, through every second I was in this organization.”
Rupp will never forget one day he was with Kissell in 2002. He was the manager in Johnson City that season, and Kissell just happened to be with the team the day Darryl Kile died.
“He delivered the news to the team with a tear in his eye,” Rupp said. “That was just how much he cared about each and every player.”
When McEwing got the call to the majors in 1998, Kissell was waiting for him, serving as a coach on Tony LaRussa’s staff at the time.
“Joe always recognized and kind of loved my grandfather for being in his corner and having his back,” Kidwell said. “My grandfather was his advocate and I think that was an extremely proud day for him.
“Joe was kind of the poster child for what it takes – if you work hard and really just keep at it and never give up – and there he was in the big leagues. Because my grandfather was there, it was like calling up one of his kids.”
McEwing could not believe his good luck that Kissell was on LaRussa’s staff.
“I was fortunate and truly grateful that he was in St. Louis with us,” McEwing said. “I sat next to him every day, continuing to learn. Working with him was a blessing.”
McEwing played seven years in majors before beginning his coaching career – and getting a chance to pass along the knowledge that he gained from Kissell to a new generation of players.
One day this spring manager Oli Marmol asked McEwing to speak to the Cardinal players before a workout.
“I talked about when you are 4, 5 or 6 years old playing with a ball in the backyard, you set three goals,” McEwing said, “to get signed, to play in the big leagues and to win a World Series. Two of those three came true for me.”
McEwing, who lost the 2000 World Series to the Yankees while with the Mets, had another goal, one more dream, once he became a coach.
“It was always to come back home, what I felt like home,” he said. “To come back here.”
The stars align
John Mozeliak, the president of baseball operations for the Cardinals, was headed to dinner to celebrate his son’s 18th birthday in January when Marmol called to tell him about Holliday’s decision.
“It was very awkward timing to say the least,”Mozeliak said. “It was not good news. My only message to Oli was ‘don’t panic; give me 24 hours or so to think about this.’ I was definitely distracted during dinner, going through my rolodex in my head of who was possibly available.”
Mozeliak got up early on Sunday morning and went into his office, something unusual for that time of the year. As he thought about possible candidates for the job, one thing he didn’t want to do was call another team and ask permission to talk to one of their coaches. He knew how disruptive that would be to a team at that time of the year, a month before spring training.
As he brainstormed about it, and checked names of potential candidates who were not employed by another team, McEwing’s name stood out.
“I got to thinking that Joe McEwing might be a good fit,” said Mozeliak, knowing McEwing was not returning to the White Sox, where he had worked in a variety of roles since 2008.
Mozeliak called McEwing, and arranged for McEwing and Marmol to talk. Within days, McEwing was hired as the bench coach.
“For the stars to align the way they did is fortuitous for all of us,” Mozeliak said. “From our standpoint we are not missing a beat and that’s not usually how these things work.”
Soon after getting to Jupiter, Mozeliak was in his office thinking about what he had seen from McEwing in the early workouts.
“I got to watch how he was interacting, the energy that he was bringing to this job, and it just sort of struck me that this was going to end up being a really great move,” Mozeliak said. “We’re very lucky to have that happen. I had a little smile on my face.”
Mozeliak decided to tell McEwing how he felt, so he picked up a pen and wrote him a letter, then left it in McEwing’s locker one day after practice. McEwing would say later it was the first hand-written letter he had received in his 31 years in baseball.
The letter was “to thank him for doing what he was doing and blending in so seamlessly as if he’d never left, and to just let him know how grateful I was and happy I was that this was working,” Mozeliak said.
“I do write notes to people, so it’s not uncommon, I’m still old school. I suppose I could have put it in the form of an email or something. I’m glad it meant something to him. If you take the time to write something you hope someone appreciates that.”
The letter might one day be like the photo with Kissell on his wall at home, but like the photo, McEwing won’t need to see it or re-read it to remember what it meant to him.
He knows, just like how he felt about Kissell, that Kissell felt the same way about him. It’s one of the reasons he pauses each day to touch the plaque honoring Kissell on the wall outside the Cardinals’ clubhouse. When that clubhouse is torn down and rebuilt next year, the plaque will be saved and remounted. On one of his first days in Jupiter, he sent a photo of the plaque to Kidwell, who he has stayed in touch with over the years.
“If George had a baseball son it would be Joe,” DeJohn said. “George was close to a lot of guys over the years but when I was there Joe was one of his favorites.
“I’m glad he’s back. He came home. He was born to be a Cardinal.”
When Kissell died from injuries suffered in a car accident, the family asked McEwing to be one of the speakers at his funeral.
“It was difficult,” McEwing said, “but it also was a celebration of an amazing life. You think about all of the individuals he touched and it’s remarkable.”
Many of the photos and other items that Kissell had collected over his long career ended up with Kidwell.
“My grandfather didn’t have stuff from everybody,” Kidwell said. “Joe Mac had two or three autographed pictures; ‘Thank you for believing in me; thank you for everything you’ve done for me,’ that kind of thing.
“My grandfather cherished them. He and Joe had a very special bond early on. Some guys kind of move on and don’t remember their roots, but he just does.”
And always will, McEwing said.
“There should be a place in the Hall of Fame for him,” McEwing said. “He’s the greatest teacher I’ve ever had, on and off the field. He gave you not just baseball lessons but life lessons. You never forget that.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Tommy Kidwell and by Taka Yanagimoto and the Cardinals
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