JUPITER, Fla. – Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith laughed when asked who would have a higher batting average if they still played, he or former Cardinals outfielder Willie McGee.
“Willie probably would,” Smith said. “He was that guy that hit .290 on the road and .290 at home, so he’d probably come out and still hit about .260. I’d hit about .250.”
While unlikely, it’s that type of confidence and skill that the Cardinals hope to draw from with the two former greats back in uniform and around the team for a few weeks during Spring Training.
McGee and Smith are joined by Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst and fomer Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds in camp this week. Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Bruce Sutter and Whitey Herzog are expected down in the near future.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny allows the former players to roam around camp without a specific duty, giving them time to stop and talk with whoever they see fit.
Edmonds has spent time talking with the outfielders, both as a group and individually. He spoke with them about base-running Monday morning, telling them it’s “unacceptable” to ever get picked off first base by a catcher.
“I really loved when the older guys came in and the retired guys came in and you could sit and talk to them on the bench and learn things from them,” Edmonds said. “I never thought I would be back here right now. I’m actually enjoying it.
“I’ve been doing everything, just trying to pick up on some things and talk to the outfielders. I’m watching and listening to Willie and Ozzie about base-running and talking to Mike about managing and (pitching coach Derek Lilliquist) about pitching. It doesn’t stop. It’s just a learning process for me and I do whatever they ask and just go day to day.”
While most teams bring former players back into camp as coaches, few have the credentials and talent that the Cardinals can put in the coaches office on a daily basis. The 90-year-old Schoendienst is approaching his 70th spring training with the Cardinals while Smith made 15 All-Star Games and won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves.
McGee hit .295 during his 18-year big league career with the Cardinals and won two batting titles and the 1985 National League MVP Award. He also won three Gold Gloves and made four All-Star appearances, retiring from the Cardinals in 1999.
Edmonds won six of his eight Gold Gloves with the Cardinals and made three All-Star appearances. He hit .284 with 393 home runs and 1,199 RBI during his 17 years in the Major Leagues.
The Cardinals do as good of a job as any organization in sports keeping former players in the mix. Their living Hall of Famers are a fixture around the ballpark, often wearing their traditional red sport coats on Opening Day and the playoffs.
And that continues at Spring Training, when the current players get to interact with Cardinals greats from the past to learn about playing what is known around the organization as the Cardinal Way.
“We’d like to think that it makes them proud to be wearing the birds on the bat and look at the pride that we took in going out there and performing every day,” Smith said. “If they can follow our lead which they have, I think it’s the reason these guys are knocking on the door every year.
“It’s very, very important when you have the history that the cardinals have. They have a history of success and still are very fortunate to have people like Whitey and Lou and Bob (Gibson) and myself and Jimmy Edmonds is here. These guys played the game at a very high level so anytime you can have that type of experience around, guys can only gain from that.”
One player who has gained from the experience of having McGee and Edmonds in camp the past few years has been Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay. The talented young outfielder did not commit an error last season and found himself in the mix for a Gold Glove Award.
Jay talks daily with Edmonds during practice on everything from how to quickly get the ball out of his glove to reading which way the catcher is setting up and which way that means the batter might hit the ball.
“I think Jimmy helped him significantly last year,” Matheny said. “Just the mentality of the position and Jon obviously knows what he’s doing but anytime you have a guy who has the experience Jimmy has and the success, you have some little tricks of the trade here and there, those are things I know they had very interesting conversations about and Jimmy keeps challenging him to improve in different areas in his game where he might be able to improve.
“That’s the value of having Ozzie and Willie and Jimmy and Red around. These guys just have ideas that have been passed around. They are filters through many people that invested into them. They are just passing it along.”
Smith had some differences with former manager Tony La Russa and didn’t return to uniform as a spring training instructor until Matheny took over last season. But now back in the mix, he’s hoping to pass along his wisdom whenever possible.
And the Cardinals are grateful for it.
“It’s incredible to not only be a Cardinal but to have these Hall of Famers and many other former Cardinals come down here and take time out of their own schedules to help us out,” said third baseman and St. Louis native David Freese. “Not only to just hang out and have a good time but to put their work in and give us their knowledge and that’s how you get better, to learn from the greatest ballplayers that St. Louis has ever had.”
After finishing just one win short a return trip to the World Series, the Cardinals are looking to improve anyway they can. And listening to the former players in camp is a good start.