If you happen to run into New Orleans Zephyr manager Ken Oberkfell this year, be sure and wish him a happy anniversary. Now in his third season calling the shots for the New York Mets' Triple-A affiliate (the franchise moved from Norfolk after the 2006 campaign), Oberkfell played third base -- right next to one Ozzie Smith -- for the 1982 world champion St. Louis Cardinals. As the Cards celebrate that team's silver anniversary, Oberkfell -- Baseball America's 2005 Minor League Manager of the Year -- finds himself adapting to a new home, all the while eyeing a managerial gig in the major leagues.
I had a chance to visit with "Obie" during the Zephyrs' stay in Memphis last week (New Orleans split four games with the Redbirds):
MEMPHIS FLYER: What has suprised you about life as a manager?
KEN OBERKFELL: There really haven't been many surprises. Near the end of my playing career, when I was a utility player, I'd sit in the dugout and try and manage along with the manager. I knew then it was something I wanted to do. I learned a lot from men like Whitey Herzog and Jim Leyland. I learned a lot about the way they communicated with players.
MF: Tell me about Whitey's influence.
KO: It was the way he communicated with his utility players. He made it a point every day to talk to them. The guys that were playing every day, he didn't need to come up and motivate us. He utilized his bench. He wanted to keep them sharp. Whitey would put his utility guys into situations where they could succeed. He knew I couldn't hit Steve Carlton, so I knew when Carlton was pitching, I wasn't playing. Whitey knew who could handle Carlton.
In the minor leagues, it's not all about winning. You're trying to develop players. You're trying to keep your veteran players sharp in case the big-league club needs them. You need to play everyone, and I try to keep them sharp.
MF: Do you have a timetable for when you'd like to be managing in the big leagues.
KO: Yeah, about 11 years ago! People are kidding themselves if they say they don't want to get to the major leagues. That's everyone's ambition, as a player, a coach, a manager, a trainer. I've been there as a player. Now I'd like to get there as a coach or manager. Sometimes it's not what kind of success you have, but who you know. Almost like you need a sponsor to get there. All I can do is do my job, and hopefully be seen.
MF: Tell me about the move to New Orleans.
KO: I'm looking forward to it. I played there 30 years ago. In 1977, the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate was in New Orleans.
We took a tour of the city when we got there and they showed us the hard-hit areas. It's amazing what you see. Some places are ghost areas. It really puts things in perspective. Who cares if you win or lose sometimes? If you go 0 for 4? These people lost everything.
MF: Any reflections on the 1982 championship team?
KO: We had a gathering at the St. Louis sportswriters' dinner in January. It's always neat to see the guys
MF: That was a unique team. No one hit 20 homers. No one won 20 games.
KO: Whitey built that team around our ballpark. Busch Stadium was big. We had great team speed. We had the best defensive infield in baseball. Solid pitching. We'd get to Bruce Sutter in the eighth inning, and it was almost automatic.
What stands out to me is that we didn't have many losing streaks. Pitching and defense prevent losing streaks. And our speed put pressure on the other defense.
MF: What was it like playing 30 feet from Ozzie Smith?
KO: He sure made my job easy! I liked playing off the line; I had pretty good range back then. But I'd look at Ozzie and he'd say, "Move over." If I moved over any more I'd be in foul territory! "I've got everything in the hole," he'd say. He'd make a great play every night.
Ozzie's work ethic was second to none. Taking ground balls, working on different game scenarios. He helped me prepare, the way you take groundballs. You see a lot of infielders wait back, but Ozzie was always going to the ball.
MF: Tell me about the nature of defending a championship, as the Cardinals are now. Your 1983 team had its struggles.
KO: There may have been a letdown. I don't think we realized that every team was shooting for us, now that we were world champions. We got off to a tough start, then Keith Hernandez was traded. We just never got going. It's always tough to repeat.
MF: Hall of Famers aside, is there a teammate who influences you to this day?
KO: Dale Murphy in Atlanta. A two-time MVP. He was the man with those Braves. He's nice to everybody. I don't think there's a mean spot in his body. Just the way he played the game: he never complained about anything. He was the epitome of baseball to me. Probably the best teammate I ever played with.
NOTE: New Orleans will visit Memphis again June 23-26.