If you are like me, you have watched the progression of Jose Oquendo‘s career with the St. Louis Cardinals over the past three decades.
After being acquired from the New York Mets while still just 21 years of age in 1985, the “Secret Weapon” became a fixture over ten seasons of play with St. Louis, including two pennant-winning campaigns. Upon retiring from his middle infield duties at the tender age of 32, Oquendo remained with the organization. He seamlessly moved into coaching in the minor leagues, culminating with one year as a manager. That was in 1998 in the New York-Penn League.
1999 marked Oquendo’s first coaching job in St. Louis as he became the bench coach under manager Tony La Russa. The bench coach job is often thought of as the unofficial assistant manager and a logical launching pad into consideration for the top uniformed job with one of the 30 MLB clubs. At the time, Oquendo was only 35 years of age and his star seemed on the rise.
Instead, after just one season in the role, Oquendo moved into the third base coaching box, where he remains today, 13 years later. He was replaced as bench coach by Mark DeJohn. I had always wondered why. Not that third base is a bad job, but it seemed a sideways move at best.
As relayed through a recent article penned by Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch, Oquendo answered my long-standing question.
Oquendo admitted that being La Russa’s bench coach was too stressful for him.
“That’s why I moved,” to third base, Oquendo told Hummel. “When I first got here and he had me as his bench coach, he started screaming and yelling and I said, ‘I can’t take this. I’m going to pop a (blood) vessel. I’ve got to move away so I can relax.”’
Oquendo’s candor is refreshing as well as a bit surprising. Granted, 1999 was a long time ago. He has had time to grow since. In fact, before being among those interviewed to replace La Russa last fall, he had been in the running for the top job with San Diego, Seattle and the Mets in recent years as well as managing Team Puerto Rico in several international competitions.
Still, Oquendo acknowledging that he was once uncomfortable with the pressures of being a bench coach does not feel like a positive in terms of evaluating his competitiveness as a potential manager.
The man who had been Cardinals bench coach over the last decade, Joe Pettini, was recently quoted about his time in the role in an article from Houston’s MLB.com beatwriter Brian McTaggart. For Pettini, being La Russa’s deputy often felt like traveling down a one-way street.
“Tony is a Hall of Fame manager and he was great to work for, but as the bench coach for Tony, sometimes you’re limited in what you have to do,” Pettini said. “It’s not like you can ask questions or ask for his input throughout the game…”
Just as he did for 10 years as St. Louis’ bench coach, Pettini is managing the Astros spring training camp.
“I’m going to be in charge of outlining the schedule,” Pettini said recently. “It’s still Brad’s program (Houston manager Brad Mills) and his way he wants things to be done, and my job will be to help outline it and make sure the schedules go up and the meetings run smoothly and everybody knows what’s going on and everybody is on the same page.”
Though Oquendo was one of the six finalists interviewed to replace La Russa, Mike Matheny received the assignment instead. Former assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete was elevated to replace Pettini and serve as Matheny’s bench coach.
Oquendo made it clear to Hummel that he is very happy remaining in his familiar role at third base with St. Louis, providing a low-stress, on-field bridge from the Whitey Herzog era, through La Russa’s days and now into the Matheny years.
All things considered, it seems the best option for both the coach and his team.