There are worse places to pass your 50s than baseball’s third base coaching box. You get to work outside; you get to travel the country; you can wear a super awesome helmet as your only protection from 110 MPH line drives. But the pay is barely in the top 1%, and any credit you deserve mostly goes to someone else. And as you pass through your 50s you must develop a self-image that contradicts everything you’ve ever said before. Maybe you don’t actually WANT to be a big league manager. Maybe, even though history is littered with far older managers, you’re too old for this stuff.
Two Springs ago José Oquendo, looking at another season as Mike Matheny’s 3B coach, called a buddy and said he was done. Manage was all Oquendo had ever wanted to do, and he had coached on despite the nightly migraines caused by watching his boss’s bullpen flops, lineup insanity, and nonsensical double switches. He had no real backup plan, he just knew that the glamour of being a MLB 3B coach wasn’t worth it anymore. That’s what he told his buddy, Tonya Harding. She told him she understood, and would help in any way she could. A few weeks later Oquendo surprised everyone by announcing he needed knee surgery and would be stepping away from the job.
Oquendo had chafed at being the 3B coach before. In 2012, after being leapfrogged by an inexperienced manager with brain trauma, Oquendo knew he needed to get out. Oquendo had tasted management when he led team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He’d also interviewed with the Mariners, Mets, and Padres in the past. All teams who turned him down. All teams who suffered without him. “After I lost out on the Cardinals job I said, ‘You know what, I’m the smartest mother------ you’ve interviewed, and you guys don’t even know it.’ They told me things happen. They said I’d get a chance to manage when Mike got tossed out of games, but you don’t often get tossed out of games when you argue with umpires by calmly quoting bible verses.”
Still, José’s window hadn’t necessarily closed. Mike Matheny’s contract wasn’t forever. But when Mike Matheny was extended – the day after the Cubs won the WS of course – that’s when José lost it. “I threw DVDs at John Mozeliak,” he said, “Each DVD contained a video of the Wacha San Francisco incident. Then there was the famous ‘Rosenthal hits for himself’ game as a special feature.”
Still, José hadn’t given up hope. Then, early in 2017, the big league team was 3-9. Matt Adams was playing LF, which makes as much sense as trying to ride a whale through the desert. Tommy Pham was rotting in AAA, and the fans were fed up. Still, the team supported Matheny. “They’re not gonna f------ promote me. F--- it,” said Oquendo, “I quit then. I zoned out in Florida. Every day I was just like, f--- this. I’m the damn secret weapon. Let this team sink, f--- it.”
Slowly, the Cardinals season rebounded. Because of injuries, Matheny was forced to play Tommy Pham. The Cardinals were able to reach the .500 mark. It might have saved Matheny’s job.
And then Oquendo saw the truth. It was over. He was done fighting. He would forever and always be a 3B coach. He returned to the big league staff in 2018, after 2 seasons in which the Cardinals dropped more balls than at a Cub Scout camping trip. He returned to his regular 3B coaching box after 2 years in which the Cardinals were thrown out more easily than a baseball fan at a Rob Manfred's appreciation party. The immediate improvement was noticeable. The Cardinals began winning again. Mike Matheny’s winning percentage was, for the first time in years, back on the rise.
One consequence of being so close to the job, and watching the team get better because of you, is that the pain is that his hurt is still fresh. “I should have been doing this s--- earlier,” he says sitting in a Qdoba in Jupiter, “I should be leading this team to wins instead of that idiot.”
On the table in front of him sits a book of Korean Grammar. “I ain’t gonna lie to you and be like, ‘I wanted to communicate with Seung Hwan Oh,’ I’m learning because I need a new language Mike doesn’t know so I can cuss him out in front of him.” and went on to say "I’m learning ’cause I like Korean women"
So just where is José Oquendo going? Few coaches are more stuck in 2018. A repeat of the Cardinals’ 2017 performance might spell the end of Mike, but it would also show that José isn’t making a difference. If José gets the base-running and fielding in line with that Cardinals’ historical reputation, it would further cement Mike’s grasp on the position. It’s no wonder José now tells people he has no interest in managing.
He is reminded of something he read a few days ago, a story about a former catcher, who had managed his life into bankruptcy, and was then hired to be a manager in spite of having no previous coaching experience. “F*** that s** of a b****. I’d like to f******rip his t**** t******* out by the p**** h**** and s**** all over that b**** of a c**** w-****s**** c**** g********c**** b****‘s shampoo bottle. M******** f******** b***** c****better not leave me alone with a h—p---- and his p--- a------ because he has stolen my dreams and given the chance to r—his a--- to shreds, I am ALL IN.
Photo by: Lauren Bundy