The presence of Cardinal greats at camp a constant reminder of R - KMOV.com

The presence of Cardinal greats at camp a constant reminder of Redbird tradition

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(AP Photo/James A. Finley) (AP Photo/James A. Finley)
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  • Carson Kelly’s black book keeps him focused as he grinds through minor system.

    Carson Kelly’s black book keeps him focused as he grinds through minor system.

    Wednesday, March 16 2016 10:20 AM EDT2016-03-16 14:20:38 GMT
    Wednesday, March 16 2016 12:41 PM EDT2016-03-16 16:41:29 GMT
    St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, left, talks with fellow catcher Carson Kelly during spring training baseball practice Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, left, talks with fellow catcher Carson Kelly during spring training baseball practice Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

    JUPITER, Fla. – Everywhere he goes, Carson Kelly carries with him a small black book. In it are sayings, quotes and notes to himself. Some quotes come from coaches, fellow Cardinals, or are just observations that he finds pertinent to his career as what many believe is the catcher-in-waiting for the St. Louis Cardinals. The contents are shared with no one.

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    Everywhere he goes, Carson Kelly carries with him a small black book. In it are sayings, quotes and notes to himself. Some quotes come from coaches, fellow Cardinals, or are just observations that he finds pertinent to his career as what many believe is the catcher-in-waiting for the St. Louis Cardinals. The contents are shared with no one.

    More >

JUPITER, Fla. – The pitiless sun sears the St. Louis Cardinals minor league complex while across the manicured fields and behind a meshed screen, the Miami Marlins prepare for their afternoon spring training game.

About 150 young men clad in red are sprinkled across four different diamonds in the vast complex - referred to as the quad - while still more on a distant fifth field move purposefully, their intentions unclear from this distance.

On one diamond, players work on bunt coverage, their faces devoid of emotion, executing the drills they have done their whole lives and will do until baseball abandons them. For most, that will come sooner rather than later. But they cannot think of that now, cannot contemplate a time when their lives and the game of baseball will forever diverge.

On the other fields, stone-faced, almost animatronic young men chase fly balls, turn double plays or practice tags. Others slap tightly wound baseballs into the heavy air, scattering small knots of players gathered in the outfield. 

In a far corner of left field, a solitary figure in full uniform stands quietly, watching as a group of players practice sliding, their frenzied gait halted with a mid-air lunge onto the safety of sliding bags laid out by watching coaches. He has slid many times in his life. In 1985, he led the league with 56 stolen bases. He perfected the art of sliding and knows what a good slide looks like, and what it doesn’t.

The figure drifts over to speak with a group of young players, their conversation immediately stops on his approach. He nods, speaks gently and they break up and head for the clubhouse, the day’s work completed. “Hey,” one yells to another, “what you doing?”

“Waiting for you and talking to Willie.”

Willie is the solitary figure who watched young men who have dreams of playing in the majors as he once did. He is Willie McGee, one of the greatest St. Louis Cardinals in history and here, in this element, he is at home. It is a cliché to say that he looks like he could still play, even now, at 57 years old. But it’s true. He is still compact, lithe and the quick, darting glances dispel any notion of reflex erosion. 

He doesn’t like to talk to the media, preferring to keep the focus off of himself. Yes, this is a typical big league spring training camp, little changed from his first one 34 years ago, he says. Does he miss it, he was asked, probably for the hundredth time. 

“Nope,” he quickly replies. “I miss the camaraderie, the game of baseball, but not this.”

Like many major league teams, the Cardinals bring back some of the players that epitomize their heritage, like McGee, Jim Edmonds and of course, the venerable Red Schoendienst. 

McGee adds gravitas to camp. His presence and insight give weight to the recursive nature of practice and preparation. In his 18 years, McGee was the consummate professional and one of the most reliably consistent players in the game. Playing from age 23 through his 40th year, McGee hit .295, was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and appeared in four All-Star games.

A Cardinal from 1982-90 and again from 1996-99, McGee helped the Cards to a World Series championship in 1982 and appearances in the fall classic in 1985 and 1987. So consistent was he as a hitter that even at age 38, he hit .300.

Does being around the game and the youngsters in the Cardinal camp give him energy? “No,” he says. “I give energy, that’s who I am, whether it’s with my family, with the junior college team (that he coaches), or here. I wake up every morning and give thanks for another day on this Earth.”

As a small group of bone-tired players made its way off the field through the scorching heat, one of them passed McGee who stopped him momentarily to apologize for not getting over to help him during the workout, telling him he would be there tomorrow. 

For these young men, there is always a tomorrow. For now.

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