Conversations with Jose Cardenal
By David Krival
(This article appeared in the Fall 1992 issue of HardBall Magazine)
Fall 1992 -- It is not always easy to catch up with Jose Cardenal. A few days after I'd left a message for him, he called from West Virginia, where he was working with the Reds' Rookie League team. He is a full-time instructor in the Cincinnati system. It was August. He was very busy.
Jose Cardenal and Bart Zeller confer with umpire at 1991 MSBL World Series.
Photo by Greg Williamson.
"What do you want to talk about?” he asked.
"I don't remember all of it, I made some notes about the questions I wanted to ask, but I can't find them,” I said.
He was patient.
"Well maybe you can remember some of it,” Jose suggested.
"Hitting,” I said. "And some stuff about your career. And the MSBL.”
Cardenal on Hitting
When Cardenal talks about hitting, he speaks in measured, judicious phrases. There is no question that he worked long and hard to learn his trade, and that he has thought long and hard about teaching it.
Cardenal: Sometimes we make hitting too complicated. It's simple; it's just not easy.
DK: Who was the greatest hitter you ever saw?
Cardenal: Willie Mays. He was the greatest ballplayer I ever saw. He had natural ability, but he worked hard to be great. To be good you have to work hard. You have to use your mind. That's what I tell my kids. When they're young and still hungry, they listen. Once they get to the big leagues, they get too much money. They stop learning. Mays never stopped learning, thinking, working to be better.
DK: Talk about hitting.
Cardenal: Hitting is concentration, discipline and practice. A player may get by on raw ability in school or the low minors, but he must work hard on learning to hit if he wants to make it big.
You must discipline yourself to be very selective. Don't guess. Focus on your best hitting zone. If the ball comes into that zone, it's your pitch. If it doesn't, let it go, no matter how fat. You won't hit it good anyway. With less than two strikes, let it go.
Work the count. You can't be selective if you don't work the count. Make the pitcher throw strikes. Learn to pick up the rotation of the ball early. Don't swing at fastballs up; these are pitcher's pitches. Make him throw your pitch.
DK: Sounds easy. What if the pitcher is getting his hard-breaking stuff in for strikes?
Cardenal: Almost never happens. Hard-breaking pitches break out of the strike zone. Soft stuff is to get you off balance. You have to see a lot of live pitching, all kinds of stuff, not just batting practice fastballs.
DK: I remember a coach who told me too much BP would hurt me.
Cardenal: No way. You can't take too much BP. Your eyes and your hands and your feet have got to learn to do things right.
DK: What do the feet need to learn, Jose?
Cardenal: Your feet have to lead you to the ball. You have to see the ball right out of the pitcher's hand. Ignore his arms and legs. Focus on the release point. Follow the ball from his release point to your zone. That way you don't waste time trying to find the ball. Then your feet go right to it. See the ball. Go to the ball! Hit the ball.
DK: What else?
Cardenal: Keep your hands back and your lead shoulder in. Don't begin your swing too soon. If you swing early, you open up early. You pull off the ball. The front foot takes the shoulder with it. You can only hit inside fastballs. Stay back, don't rush. Keep your lead should in and your hands back; your swing will be much much faster, because your hands are already cocked. You can pull the trigger quick. Also, when you wait on the ball and let your feet take you to it, you can hit the ball where it is pitched, with power. You must be able to use the whole field to be a good hitter.
DK: What else?
Cardenal: Don't swing too hard. Use about 75 percent of your power in your swing. That's plenty if you make solid contact. Get the last 25 percent on contact when you crank your hips. (When you) swing too hard, you drop your hands and pop up balls you should hit hard. Don't over-commit or over-swing. Then you can adjust to the off-speed pitch. A hitter who swings too hard is easy to fool. (When you) swing too hard you close your eyes. See the ball. Step to the ball. Hands back, shoulder in. Wait, pull the trigger fast but not too hard. Turn the hips, roll the wrists. Bang. Home run.
Cardenal: You know I was signed by the Giants organization in Matanzas, Cuba in 1960. I was just a kid. I went to El Paso in the Texas League in 1961, just before the Bay of Pigs. A few weeks later, I would never have gotten out. Most of my family is still in Cuba. They signed me as a second baseman.
DK: That makes sense. You're small for an outfielder.
Cardenal: Right, but the Giants made me an outfielder because I had a good arm and I could run. But how was I going to break in with the Giants? They had Mays, and McCovey and the Alou brothers. And Harvey Kuenn, who was a great hitter. I would have had a better shot in the infield, but the Giants decided I was an outfielder, so I was.
DK: But you didn't play much for them.
Cardenal: No, I was up for a cup of coffee in '63 and '64 at the end of season, when they were playing the Dodgers. Man, I was glad I didn't have to hit Koufax. He was the greatest pitcher I ever saw.
DK: Well, you've seen a lot of great pitchers: Seaver, Palmer, Ryan….
Cardenal: Yeah, but Koufax was unhittable for about six years there. He threw so hard, with great control, and he had that hard overhand curve. He threw his curve harder than a lot of guys' fastballs. He was impossible.
DK: SO the Giants traded you to the Angels.
Cardenal: I played centerfield for Bill Rigney for three years. He knew me from the Giants organization. It was an expansion team and he needed young players with speed.
DK: You never played on a team that ran a lot, did you?
Cardenal: No, if I did, I would have stolen 60, 70 bases a year for awhile, easy. With the Angels, I played with a lot of guys at the end of their careers. Little Albie Pearson, he was smaller than me. Big Joe Adcock from the great Milwaukee Braves teams of the fifties. Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance were on that team. They were wild! When Bo pitched you never knew what was gonna happen. I hear he's doing okay now.
DK: You had Rick Reichardt, the All-American football player from the University of Wisconsin. When he left school to play baseball, everyone said he sold out.
Cardenal: He was a good ballplayer, a nice kid. But people expected too much of him. Nothing he did was good enough. With me, it was the other way. I was the little guy. The fans identified with me. They loved me, especially in Chicago, later on. The Angels were overachievers, too. Rigney always got more out of us than people expected. He was a good man to play for. Knew his baseball.
DK: After the Angels, then what?
Cardenal: I got traded around for a few years. Cleveland, St. Louis, Milwaukee. At the end of '71 Milwaukee traded me to the Cubs.
DK: Tell the story about the ball you hid in the ivy.
Cardenal: Everybody wants to hear that story. Makes me sound like I was cheating or something. I didn't hide no ball in the ivy; I just left some there. In batting practice the guys were hitting balls over my head into the fence and I had to go digging around in the ivy to find the balls. After a while I got sick of this. There were rats in there. They hit a few more into the vines but I just let them stay there. Then during the game someone hit one into the same area. It flies into the ivy and two batting practice balls drop out. If I try to find the game ball it's a triple at least, so I just hold up the other two balls, one in each hand, and the umpire calls a ground rule double because he doesn't know which ball is live. Neither one of them was. The game ball stayed in the ivy. Part of my collection.
DK: Has the game changed much since you retired?
Cardenal: Oh yes. Too much money. Nobody learns the game like they should. The players don't love the game. Too much money.
(This part of our interview was conducted in November 1991, after the 1991 MSBL World Series.)
DK: Do you like playing in the MSBL?
Cardenal: Hell yes, If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't play. These guys love the game so much, it's a pleasure to play with them. But it's getting tougher all the time. The league is getting better and better. It's a challenge. I stay in shape to play. Why shouldn't I play a little ball?
DK: How about the Series?
Cardenal: I love Arizona. It reminds me of spring training. I get to see guys I haven't seen in awhile. Get to compete a little. It means a lot to the players. They work all year to get ready for Arizona. You get excited right along with them. This year we won the 40+ American. That felt good. I played shortstop, you know.
DK: I heard you turned some pretty slick double plays.
Cardenal: Yeah, I did alright with the glove, but I didn't hit like I should.
DK: Good field, no hit.
Cardenal: Not me, man. No Way, that's not my style.
About Jose Cardenal
Best remembered as the Cubs' right fielder of the 70s, Jose Cardenal played in the big leagues from 1963 through 1980. A fine outfielder and an excellent base runner, Cardenal stole 40 bases in one season and 329 over his career. At only 150 pounds, Jose was a good hitter with surprising power. His lifetime totals of 138 home runs and 1900 base hits are impressive. In his best year, Cardenal hit .317. Jose's reputation as a dedicated professional led the Reds to retain him as a minor league instructor. Baseball insiders credit Cardenal for the rapid development of many talents in the Cincinnati organization, most recently Reggie Sanders.