Cardinals: Where are they Now? – Ken Oberkfell

“Once a Cardinal, always a Cardinal”, is the way I have always seen things.

To wit, I read with interest this news item: The Mets’ new Triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons, will formally name Ken Oberkfell as their 2009 manager this coming Tuesday, December 16.

Being old enough to have remembered the great era of the 1960’s when the St. Louis Cardinals played in three World Series, winning two, then suffering through the 1970’s positioned me as one of millions of Cardinals fans excited when Whitey Herzog’s 1982 Cardinals finally made the playoffs after a 14-year drought.

Along with Keith Hernandez, my favorite Cardinal at the time, another of the most prominent of the players that bridged the gap from the awful 1970’s to the fantastic 1980’s was their second/third baseman Oberkfell.

Who can ever forget Ernie Hayes cranking out the “Star Wars” theme on the Busch Stadium organ every time “Obie” came to bat?

Oberkfell as a Cardinal

Oberkfell was a free agent signing by the Cards in 1975 and remained in the organization for almost the next ten years. He made his major league debut via a brief cup of coffee at the age of 21 in 1977. In two more seasons, the Highland, IL native had taken over at second base before moving over to third in 1981 when Tommy Herr came onto the scene.

Probably my favorite Obie moment was in Game Two of the 1982 National League Championship Series. (In those days, there was no Divisional Series, as there were still just two divisions. In an alignment that only MLB is capable of devising, the Cards were the Eastern Division Champions, while the Braves represented the West.)

Always difficult to strike out, the Cards third sacker came up in a crucial situation with one out in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game. Obie promptly singled to center off Braves closer Gene Garber. That scored David Green, who had singled and was sacrificed to second, with the winning run as the Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Braves, 4-3.

What could be more exciting than a home walk-off win in the playoffs?

That put St. Louis on the way to a sweet three-game sweep of “America’s Team” and silenced annoying Skip Caray for yet another winter. (Realize this was in the early days of cable television, when the Braves, Cubs and Mets were pretty much the only teams on.)

More importantly, it helped get the thirsty Cardinals to the World Series, where they topped the then-American League champion Milwaukee Brewers.

Obie, who never hit more than three home runs nor drove in as many as 50 in a single season during his time with the Cardinals, was known most for his solid fundamental play and especially, his glove. He led the NL in fielding percentage as a second baseman in 1979 and at third both in 1982 and 1983.

Post-St. Louis playing days

In June, 1984, Herzog/GM Joe McDonald traded Oberkfell to the hated Braves. The return was lefty reliever Ken Dayley (I wonder if he is available today?), who would become a key contributor to Whitey’s 1985 and 1987 champs, along with first baseman Mike Jorgensen.

“Jorgy” was near the end of the line as a player but stayed around. He later managed in the Cardinals farm system, reaching Triple-A, then becoming the director of player development. He temporarily added the role of major league skipper for part of the 1995 season. Jorgensen remains with the Cardinals organization to this day with the current title of Special Assistant to the General Manager.

In addition to the Cardinals and Braves, Oberkfell played for the Pirates, Giants, Astros and Angels. Oberkfell was a member of the 1989 NL champions from San Francisco that fell to Tony La Russa’s Oakland A’s in the infamous “Earthquake Series”. He ended his playing days with the then-California Angels at the conclusion of the 1992 season.

Always in charge

In 2009, the 52-year old will be entering his 13th season as a minor league manager in affiliated ball and his fifth at leading the Mets’ Triple-A team, first in Norfolk, most recently in New Orleans and now settling in Buffalo.

Coming into the season, Oberkfell is 812-803 (.503) as a manager.

He began his managing career in the independent Northern League in 1995 and 1996 before joining the Philadelphia Phillies the next season. Obie skippered Phils farmhands in the Sally and Florida State Leagues from 1997 through 2000.

Obie the Met

Though Obie never donned the New York Mets uniform as a player, he has been a most loyal employee since 2001.

Oberkfell moved over to the Mets organization that season, where he first led the Capitol City Bombers of the Sally League. In the second of his two seasons with St. Lucie club of the FSL, his 2003 team was the league champion. An assignment up the ladder to Double-A Binghamton for the 2004 season ensued.

Oberkfell was recognized as Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year in 2005 when he was leading the Norfolk Tides, but he has never received the call to manage in the big leagues.

He was most recently the Mets’ first base coach under Jerry Manuel, who became the team’s interim manager upon the firing of Willie Randolph in June. Oberkfell received a promotion to the bigs from the New Orleans’ managerial role that would last only half a season as he was reassigned following the 2008 campaign. Coincidentally, in moving to New York, Oberkfell had replaced another ex-Cardinal, Tom Nieto.

Obie interviewed for the top job with the Mets several times, including when Randolph was hired prior to the 2005 season. Previously, he had also been passed over for at least two other coaching spots on the big league club in Flushing.

Future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson was brought in to be first base coach in the summer of 2007 instead of him and the prior off-season, Obie interviewed for, but did not win a spot on the Major League staff when Manny Acta moved to become the Nationals’ skipper. Howard Johnson got that job.

Interestingly, Oberkfell’s reputation with the tough New York press seems to be that of a low-key, nice guy who prefers to remain in the background. As such, he does not seem to be considered to be the next in line to manage the Mets.

On a personal note, Obie was sidelined for a considerable time in 2006 with serious leg circulatory problems and complications from surgery. Hopefully, those health issues are totally behind him now.

Yet, through all the twists and turns, ups and downs, Oberkfell clearly remains loyal to the Mets organization.

Despite that, Cardinals fans from the 1980’s surely still hold a soft spot in their hearts for the former second/third baseman.

Best of luck to Obie with his 2009 Buffalo Bisons!