(Busch Stadium) Inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame earlier today, outfielders Vince Coleman and Ray Lankford sat down for a media session following the ceremonies to answer a few questions about the honor and their careers.
Both of them had an immediate impact on their teams when they came up with the Cardinals and as Harrison Bader, Paul DeJong, and the young arms on today’s St. Louis team are charging back into the playoff race, Coleman and Lankford shared what kind of advice they’d offer the group.
“The team was kind of going through a transitional period,” recalled Lankford, who was called up in August of 1990. “Whitey had just resigned, so they were still trying to figure out who was going to be the manager. But I was still around a lot of veterans, veteran pitchers–Ken Dayley, Scott Terry, Bob Tewksbury. When those guys were still there, even though I’m playing centerfield, they’re telling me and positioning me how they want to play certain hitters.
“Even though it might say in the video or whatever, the scouting report you play a guy this way, they’d say ‘I’m not feeling that good today, so play them a little bit to pull’ so there’s always a line of communication. And when you communicate, you’ve got to understand how the pitcher is trying to face the hitter. It just makes it a lot easier. I think today, I don’t know if guys communicate as much as they should with their pitcher and outfielders.”
Vince Coleman joined a lineup of switch-hitters with Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Tommy Herr, and Terry Pendleton. He just had to follow the plan.
“Hunt or strike, play pepper with the shortstop. If you were on the right side of the plate, hunt or strike, play pepper with the second baseman so you kept it simple,” shared Coleman. “We all helped each other on a daily basis. I think with that, we coached each other. We looked out for one another. If you popped the ball up then Ozzie or Willie or Terry would come back–we could take constructive criticism. Which I don’t know if in today’s game a guy making $10 million and you try to tell him, try to help him. Because you’re aren’t going to tell him nothing wrong, but I don’t know if they accept as the way we did back in the day.”
As previously shared, Coleman remains extremely close with both Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee. All three were on the Cardinals when Lankford made his debut–which ultimately led to McGee moving from center to right and then being traded. Awkward as that might sound, the trio embraced Lankford into the fold.
“No it wasn’t at all, you might think so right,” laughed Lankford. “No. It wasn’t anything like that. Actually, when I was called up and in the clubhouse, Willie came over to me and said congratulations, welcome to the big leagues. Actually, what he said was ‘it’s all yours, cuz’ speaking about centerfield, because he ran it for a long time.”
“That’s Willie,” chimed in Coleman.
“Just by doing that, it helped settle me as a young kid in the big leagues,” continued Lankford. “Like wow, this is Willie McGee. He’s from California, I’m from California so I knew all about him–even in grade school. To be able to be there with him and he’s accepting me and allowing me to take over centerfield, that meant the world to me.”
Veteran Milt Thompson was also on that team and was relegated to a bench role, but he took Lankford in as a roommate.
“That just shows the sort of character of the guys on the team,” said Lankford.
“I wasn’t upset with Ray, I was upset they weren’t going to keep our team together,” said Coleman. “It was hard for me as a young player when they didn’t sign Jack (Clark) back. That was the core of our team–we only had one home run hitter and that was Jack. And Whitey announced his retirement in July.
“Then when Whitey called myself, and Ozzie, and Willie–privately, and told us that they weren’t going to sign Ken Dayley, Terry Pendleton, Willie. They’re thinking about keeping you, maybe. So, here are four guys you’re thinking about how can that even be a possibility? They didn’t sign me, they didn’t offer me a contract I should say, until like November some time. But now, Whitey’s gone. Jack’s gone. Tommy Herr’s gone. Willie’s not going to be here. The only reason for me leaving was because once you taste winning, which I did in ’85/’87, you want to win everyday.”
Coleman thought that by taking his talents to the New York Mets–loaded with the likes of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Frank Viola, Howard Johnson, and Hubie Brooks would put him back in the championship mix.
“Ozzie came to me and told me ‘Son, let me tell you something. What we have here, you will never find in life again. The chemistry that we had’–and I was young and I didn’t understand,” said Coleman. “I’m going to go play hard everyday, I’m going to motivate them. But it was a difference when you walked in that clubhouse, because they didn’t have the same goals. They didn’t have the same motivations, they were more worried about what was happening off the field than on the field. And the chemistry wasn’t there.
“That’s the part in my speech that I said I struggle with,” concluded Coleman. “If I had stayed here in St. Louis, for the next six more years, my life as a baseball player would have been totally different.”
Here’s PART ONE of the conversation with Coleman and Lankford.
photo credit: Brian Stull/STLBaseballWeekly.com; Bill Greenblatt/UPI