By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
ST. LOUIS — The tension felt by a major league pitcher at the end of the game is one of the most singularly intense instances of athletic competition that’s available on a baseball field. As the St. Louis Cardinals’ all-time franchise leader in both saves and games finished, Jason Isringhausen has had a more intimate relationship with than tension than most.
He’s found a different pressure that, he says, outstrips those feelings.
“I get more nervous when they’re pitching in the big leagues now than I ever did,” said Isringhausen at Busch Stadium on Friday.
The “they” to which he’s referring is a select group of Cardinal pitchers who have been through a developmental program that Isringhausen has been at the center of. Once a part of the Cardinals’ core, Isringhausen now commits his involvement to the team to Cardinals Core, a program designed to help transform raw athletes into the professionals they need to be, both on and off the field.
“When we were looking at how to make a positive impact on our young players as they were developing, there’s more to that than just baseball,” explained John Mozeliak, Cardinals President of Baseball Operations. “We partnered with a gentleman by the name of John Hartwig, and he helped develop a curriculum to work with young players, which was something that I signed off on and thought was a very good strategy.”
Hartwig is the president of Pro/spur (pronounced “prosper”), a St. Louis firm that works in athletic development. So important are the tenets of his program that a display listing some of its attributes is now visible in manager Mike Shildt’s redesigned office, placed in a spot of honor next to a football helmet autographed by Clemson’s Dabo Swinney.
The problem, Mozeliak said, was in the messaging. However well intentioned, it was a challenge to get young professional athletes to understand the importance of the curriculum and have it translated into a language they could appreciate.
Enter, among others, ex-Cardinals Braden Looper, Ryan Ludwick, and Orlando Palmeiro. And, of course, Isringhausen.
“I think he really took me, Dakota [Hudson], Jack [Flaherty], Hicksy [Jordan Hicks], you know that whole crew that came up together – Ponce [Daniel Ponce de Leon] – he kind of took us all under his wing and he was kind of there for us at every level,” said Cardinals lefty Austin Gomber. “Kind of our guy that we could just air out to, talk to, come in town a couple times a year.”
“It’s not always just about baseball,” Gomber explained. “That was the cool part about it.”
Hicks concurred, and said his talks with Isringhausen were about, “just being a good man in general, a man’s man in a way, you know? Being a good teammate, and all of the little things that make you a good person in general.”
Ponce de Leon was even more effusive in his praise, saying Isringhausen was, “perfect. Perfect guy for that program. He leads us.”
“He has a great feel for the players because he was one. He’s been through everything that we could probably ever go through, so he had great advice and wisdom for us.”
“I was a troublemaker back in the day a little bit,” Isringhausen admitted. “It’s mainly about trusting the process. We always talk about, ‘trusting the process is more important than the product,’ and we hear it and we talk about it every day.”
“We talk about what got us here is not necessarily what’s going to get us to the next level on and off the field, so we’ve got to just keep adapting.”
This year will be the first year that the Cardinals Core program continues to the big league level. Mozeliak said that when the club was vetting potential internal improvements after last season, he discovered a desire for continuing education.
“I asked a very simple question,” Mozeliak said. “Would you have interest in continuing to do this when you’re at this level? And the answer was a resounding yes.”
Not every Cardinal prospect is invited to go through the Core program; Mozeliak referred to the selections as “intentional” and said it was a compliment to each individual player who’s chosen.
Isringhausen, who’s scheduled to throw out the first pitch for Friday’s Opening Day, said that the club hasn’t yet fully sketched out what that expansion will look like. “Kind of just chilling out” was how he described his opening day plans, though he did say he plans to have a discussion with Mozeliak about charting the path forward.
Isringhausen is also a candidate for induction in the Cardinals Hall of Fame this year. His success as a player is evident from his place on the franchise leaderboards, but a compelling argument could be made that his continued role in the team’s success is a fitting coda that helps wrap up a baseball life that will be largely defined by his place in St. Louis.
“I told him I’d vote for him,” Mozeliak cracked, before expounding on Isringhausen’s Cardinals Hall of Fame case.
“When you’re getting into the Hall of Fame it should be a recognition of your contribution as a player, but undoubtedly as you’re looking at your entire legacy on an organization, this is certainly going to be part of that,” he said.
Mozeliak can see how much Isringhausen values the opportunity and has embraced his role, and in doing so, can see a growth that surprised him.
“I think he’s a guy that I would, if you had said, ‘hey what’s he going to do after his playing career,’ I would’ve said I don’t know, right?,” Mozeliak mused. “But as our friendship and relationship has grown, he is just someone that has really grabbed this. He gets to do this but also learn the coaching side of the business which is something that he values.”
For his part, Isringhausen is focused on the success on the field. He downplayed his role in driving the program – “When the boss [Mozeliak] kinda picks you to do something, you kinda do it.” – but acknowledged the satisfaction in watching his star pupils succeed.
“It’s like that proud father moment when your guys get called up to the big leagues,” Isringhausen said. “Anybody who’s coached in the minor leagues knows that feeling and it’s pretty special.”