ST. LOUIS -- Sure, there are some people who see Vin Scully's tenure as a big deal. He's been the Dodgers announcer since 1950, after all.
But Scully was still a college student at Fordham when Red Schoendienst played all seven games for the 1946 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. He'd already earned three All-Star selections at second base by the time Scully started calling games for the Dodgers.
And Schoendienst, like the relative neophyte Scully, is still an enormous part of the Cardinals' success here in 2013. Sure, he threw out the first pitch prior to Game 2 of the NLCS, honored the way many teams recognize their legends.
But Schoendienst isn't just around for the occasional honor. He's here. Always. He was here to talk baseball when I visited in August, for a random weeknight series. He was around in March, when the Cardinals were training in Jupiter. And there he was prior to Game 1, chatting with hitting coach John Mabry behind the batting cage, discussing strategy with manager Mike Matheny, and still found himself at Busch Stadium ten hours later, into the early-morning hours -- and back at it again early Saturday morning.
"The history of the Cardinals is they keep their players around - [Lou] Brock, [Bob] Gibson, they're all really helpful. But the difference with Red is, he's here for the first day of spring training," former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said of Schoendienst as the two sat together at a pregame press conference Saturday. "To the last -- I mean, he was here until two o'clock this morning. He watches every pitch. And it's amazing, his insights. And they can come from the hitting side, infield side, the pitching side."
Seventy-one years after Branch Rickey signed Schoendienst, he hasn't lost the evident pleasure he takes in the game of baseball. It's fascinating to consider that it almost didn't happen.
"I was pretty fortunate, I was lucky enough that they gave me the opportunity to play," Scheoendienst said, his humility ignoring the fact that getting roughly seven decades of Red Schoendienst is a pretty lucky break for the Cardinals, too. "Branch Rickey, who was here at the time, and Mr. Sam Breadon owned the club, when I hitchhiked in from a little town about 50 miles from here, and I had a tryout."
After a second tryout in Peoria, Ill., Schoendienst allowed that the two scouts "wanted to know what happened to that skinny kid.
"And they called me back, and signed me to a contract at the time. And I know Mr. Rickey said, 'We're going to give you the opportunity to play,'" Schoendienst recalled. "And I said, 'That's all I want to know. I'm just gonna try for three years. If I can't get up to the big leagues in three years, I'll find something else to do. I'll go back to school, and learn a trade of some kind.' And he said," -- and here, Schoendienst mimicked the deep cadence of Rickey-- "'I like that attitude.' And that was it. I kept on going from there."
That's putting it mildly. He debuted in 1945, leading the National League in stolen bases while starting regularly at second base. A year later, he was in the World Series, though Schoendienst told me it was different from the postseason experience today. He's not one to glamorize the past, perhaps because even at 90, he's just as much a part of today's baseball, and thus equally invested in it.
"Well, there's a lot of changes," Schoendienst had told me when we chatted on Friday by the Cardinals dugout, prior to Game 1. "More people, better ballparks. More people coming out to see them. Everything. You had no television way back there in 1946. All that media, you can see here," he gestured toward the crowd gathered along the baselines.
But then, that's no call for a return to the way things were.
"It's good. Everything gets better every year... At that time, 1946, everything was first-class, the best of what they had in those years. And it gets better every year."
Schoendienst did too, by the way. A stellar defender at second, he put up an OPS+ of 83 from 1945-1951, earning five All Star appearances largely on the strength of his glove. But from 1952-57, his OPS+ jumped to 110, while Schoendienst managed a top-ten league finish in offensive WAR two times. His 1953 batting line is just lovely to behold: .342/.405/.502, with 15 home runs, 55 extra-base hits, and just 23 strikeouts all season.
The Cardinals dealt him to the Giants, who sent him to the Braves, where he played an instrumental part in a pair of World Series teams, even finishing third in MVP voting in 1957. But he returned to the Cardinals, and managed them to a 1967 World Series victory. Naturally, Schoendienst put the credit for this elsewhere.
"Well, I had a leadoff man who was a pretty good guy," Schoendienst said, smiling, about Brock. "And I had a pitcher who was pretty damn good out there, too," referring to Gibson, and drawing laughs from reporters. "But when you've got guys like that..." He went on to praise Mike Shannon and Roger Maris. It was left to others to emphasize how effectively Schoendienst worked with them, and so many other Cardinals, through his decades managing and coaching in St. Louis.
He's earned the right to say whatever he pleases, but he doesn't, according to his current manager, Mike Matheny.
"Red Schoendienst is one of the treasures of this game," Matheny said about his coach on Saturday afternoon, prior to Game 2 of the NLCS. "And the people in St. Louis know that. What an honor to be able to spend time around this guy, with the experiences he's had, the wisdom he has, but also, with his wisdom, his delivery. He's a guy that's probably forgotten more baseball than most of us know, and still he's so sharp. He's always paying attention. He never comes around, forcing the issue, but [he's] always there to listen. You have to do a lot of asking with Red, because he's so humble, and he doesn't want to be a guy who comes and forces his opinions down anybody's throat. But he's got one, and it's amazing, what he sees."
It really comes down to two things: the Cardinals are smart enough to recognize what they have in Red Schoendienst, and Schoendienst continues to provide a combination of continuity and intelligence that can't be found anywhere else.
"I don't know any other organization, as good as their guys are, who give their attention like Red," La Russa said. "And it's a smart attention."
Matheny noted, "Our Hall of Famers have helped define what this organization is all about, but they're not just hood ornaments. They stay involved. And they want to help, and they want to pass on what the expectations are, what they culture is here. And we're fortunate that Red can be around just about every day. This guy's amazing. He walks in there, and you can see the respect everyone has."
Nor is he getting tired of it all, even now.
"I love it," Schoendienst said, looking around Busch Stadium on Friday afternoon as it filled for Game 1. "I just love to come here. This is what you think about when you come to spring training."
And then he was off, heading back to the clubhouse. He had work to do.