It’s been 28 years since Vince Coleman last played for the St. Louis Cardinals, but as part of the team’s 2018 Hall of Fame nominees he’s hoping to put the uniform on once again.
“I’m like a kid in the candy store,” said Coleman. “You get that phone call and it’s like the first phone call I ever received to say that I was coming up to St. Louis. I am humbled. I am honored to be in that class and hoping that I’m one of the fan’s favorites and I get voted into the Hall of Fame.”
Coleman is joined on the ballot by Keith Hernandez, Jason Isringhausen, Ray Lankford, Scott Rolen, Lee Smith, and John Tudor.
The nominees were selected by a committee put together by the Cardinals, but fans–and committee member Whitey Herzog, have been vocal in wanting Vince’s addition to the ballot.
“It meant the world to me,” said Coleman. “Being a Cardinal and knowing the history of all the St. Louis players that had come there before me–of Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, and Red Schoendienst. It’s such an inspiration to walk into that locker room and put on that uniform. It’s a special thing of having that birds across the chest. You know, coming up through the minor leagues in 1982, I remember the privilege of being blessed with George Kissell.”
Besides the mechanical instruction Kissell was so well-known for, the Cardinals Hall of Famer would often remind players such as Vince that “there’s something about that bird that flies up into heaven and takes you there”. That still sticks with Coleman, as does his arrival at Busch Stadium.
“My first days of being in St. Louis, the fans greeted me with such a wonderful cheer because of all the things I did in the minor leagues,” he recalled. “Knowing that the expectations were high, but it was just a confidence that was instilled on me once I was there. Once you’re amongst all the bright lights in the beautiful ballpark and the electricity through the fans that you feel when you walk in the ballpark, it was just amazing. That’s what I experienced everyday. In my life, wherever I go, I’m known as a Cardinal. I bleed Cardinal red everyday. Receiving the phone call last night, it was just an honor. A humbling experience and to know that I could possibly be back with that red jacket on and be amongst all my peers of Ozzie, Willie, and Whitey and being there on that podium one day.”
In his career, Coleman stole 752 bases–549 of them came while playing for St. Louis. He stole over 100 bases in each of his first three seasons and is the last player to eclipse the 100-steal mark in MLB. Obviously, speed was a factor. But what was the trigger? What did Vince key in on to be so successful stealing bases?
“It was a mentality,” Coleman began after a chuckle. “In baseball, it’s the only sport you’re on offense and you don’t have the ball. All the confidence you have going through high school, or Little League, then you get to college–you have that confidence as a hitter. As a great hitter. But as soon as you get on base, the first thing they tell you is ‘don’t get picked off, don’t make the first out at third base, don’t get doubled up on line drives’ now you’re like what do I do? How do I do?
“I was a mischievous kid. I always took chances. I always watched–my hero was Willie Mays. Willie Mays could do everything, so everything he did on the field I went out and tried to duplicate it. So stealing bases in college was one of the things that kind of became a niche for me of how I could command a lead, that I had to rely on my athleticism and my instincts about separating and my first step. A lot of hard work was going into that aspect of it, trusting your instincts and trusting your lead and trusting how I could get out on the first step…
“One of the biggest compliments Lou Brock ever gave me was my rookie year. I had about 70 stolen bases and he said “Vince, how do you steal third base so well? I’ve never seen anyone do it as well as you did.’ So the key to that was I could sit in the dugout and I could watch the catcher–how he calls the game and how he moves and sets down the middle of the plate for off-speed pitches versus how he moves to the corners for fastballs. The catcher has all the CliffsNotes. The pitcher–he’s protecting against his ERA.
“If you put the combination of all the notes that he’s given relaying back to the pitcher. They go with the pump system the first time after two or the first sign after the outs or the third time. When you’re at second base, you have to be a student of the game to know exactly. Because if you watch all the middle infielders and they give the signs and you just see the shortstop cover his mouth, that’s because they know. He’s letting the second baseman know whether its an off-speed or fastball.”
Being able to read those clues didn’t come watching Wille Mays or a different Hall of Famer. In fact, it was Don Blasingame, a middle infielder who played the first five years of his big league career in St. Louis during the ’50s and later became a minor league coach in the organization.
“I learned all this from Don Blasingame,” credited Coleman. “Very, very smart guy. We would dissect pitchers. All their moves from starting the four parts of the body–from their head to the hands to the knees to the feet.
“When I went into a ballgame and I can name off Frank Viola, Sid Fernandez, Bruce Hurst, (Rick) Honeycutt, Tom Glavine, Bobby Ojeda, Fernando Valenzuela, Tom Browning–these are all left-handers that were in the game, they were pre-determined once they became set. So just imagine if I told you, that when this guy comes set watch the glove, watch his hands, watch his knees. You would already have a step or two before he even delivered the ball, knowing that he was going home or if he was going to first base.
“So with that being said, you had three steps already but it was something that you had to study. You had to take pride in doing it. So when I woke up in the morning, I knew who was pitching because I read the paper and that’s when base stealing really started for me. When I got to the ballpark, I knew I could hit this guy. It was just a matter of when I got on base.
“Then you go over the film and sit with your teammates. ‘Oh my God, look at Tom Glavine. Look at Drabek, how he holds his feet. Look at Bruce Hurst. Look at Honeycutt. Look at Fernando Valenzuela–there he was, when he broke that 34 he was going to the plate. If he stayed below the 34. Frank Viola, be in his glove. Doc Gooden, he looked in his glove when he was throwing breaking balls. He didn’t look in the glove when he was throwing a fastball.
“There were so many different variable that were calculated to the pitcher’s flaw in his delivery that you already knew in advance. That was my trade secret. I could share that with my teammates, but I couldn’t share that with the media or in public being in the game. I like to say that I was an idiot, but I was an idiot with a plan.
“Most guys today, they don’t allow for you to steal third base. And the reason they don’t allow for them to steal third base is because they don’t have a plan of attack. If I’m your coach, you come to the Vince Coleman Base Stealing School, you will always have a step or two and plan of attack.”
Coleman credits teammates such as Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Tommy Herr and the coaching staff with helping in that plan as he again emphasized that “to play baseball in St. Louis was heaven”.
And while no actual school is open, Coleman has been doing some teaching–after stints working with prospects for the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros, he’s currently the Minor League Roving Base Running and Outfield Instructor for the San Francisco Giants.
But with this Hall of Fame opportunity and the chance to don a red jacket, Coleman is against the idea of once again helping base stealers in St. Louis.
“It would be a start,” said Coleman. “I look forward to it. That would definitely be a dream come true. To think that George Kissell started with me at that stage when I was in A-ball. He was a very inspirational coach. From his wisdom, the words that motivated me, that taught me–I know that I can be that inspiration for a lot of other kids to look up to me. I did wear that uniform–and I wore it very proud. It took a lot of hard work and determination, but yes, that’s something I would love to do while I’m still young and vibrant.”
Voting for the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame class will open on March 1st and run through April 12th.