Maryville native and Collinsville High graduate Ken Oberkfell learned from the best during his 16 seasons in the major leagues, most of them spent with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Red Schoendienst. Dave Ricketts. George Kissell. Whitey Herzog. Ken Boyer. Joe Torre. Jim Leyland. All passed on their knowledge to the left-handed-hitting infielder.
Now Oberkfell, 60, is eager to impart the skills he mastered to the Frontier League’s Gateway Grizzlies, who this week hired him as their hitting instructor for the upcoming season.
“I’m excited about it. I really am,” Oberkfell said Thursday from his home in metropolitan Houston, where he has lived for 19 years. “I took a year off last year and was getting the itch to kind of get back into (baseball) a little bit. The key is I didn’t want to be too far from home. Gateway is perfect. It’s right there. This is a great opportunity, and I jumped at it.”
Home for Oberkfell will again be Maryville, where he will help care for his elderly mother. Oberkfell also has two brothers and two sisters in the metro-east. His house in Houston is on the market and Oberkfell is ready to return to his roots.
The key is I didn’t want to be too far from home. Gateway is perfect. It’s right there. This is a great opportunity, and I jumped at it.
Oberkfell spent 14 years with the New York Mets, primarily as a minor-league manager. He was called to the big leagues as the Mets’ first-base coach in June 2008 before being interviewed for their manager’s job in November 2010. Terry Collins was eventually hired, and Oberkfell was Collins’ bench coach in 2011. He and other coaches did not return in 2012.
“Most of (my time) was spent in the minor leagues, working with young players and teaching them the game,” Oberkfell said. “Seeing them progress along the way was very gratifying. I consider myself a teacher of the game.”
Oberkfell expects to have hungry students at Gateway, whose roster will be comprised of players who covet a return to affiliated baseball or desire a chance to perform at that level.
“They should be. If they’re not, they’re in the wrong sport,” Oberkfell said. “I know in independent baseball, the goal is to move guys into affiliated ball, give them an opportunity. They’re going to be willing to work; they’re going to be willing to listen. I feel as though my experience is definitely going to help. I think it’s going to be a great fit.”
The glory years
Oberkfell played for the Cardinals from 1977 until June 1984, when he was traded to the Atlanta Braves for pitcher Ken Dayley and first baseman Mike Jorgensen.
Oberkfell remained with the Braves until August 1988, when he was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Tommy Gregg. The Pirates traded him to the San Francisco Giants in May 1989, and Oberkfell closed his career with the Houston Astros (1990-91) and the then-California Angels (1992).
The best part of Oberkfell’s career was with the Cardinals, the team he followed growing up in the metro-east. Herzog, a New Athens native, took over for Ken Boyer as manager during the 1980 season, ushering in the “Whiteyball” era that helped produce a World Series championship in 1982 when Oberkfell was the team’s starter at third base.
I know in independent baseball, the goal is to move guys into affiliated ball, give them an opportunity. They’re going to be willing to work; they’re going to be willing to listen. I feel as though my experience is definitely going to help.
“I was very fortunate. I played for some good managers,” Oberkfell said. “I played for Joe Torre in Atlanta, I played for Jim Leyland in Pittsburgh. By far, the best of all of them was Whitey. He was the best manager I played for. God blessed me in a lot of ways to be able to play for those guys and learn from those guys.”
Oberkfell said he will lean heavily on his experiences in working with Grizzlies hitters.
“I try to work with a hitter’s strengths more than his weaknesses,” Oberkfell said. “Make him stronger with his strengths, getting him in a routine where his weaknesses will become stronger. ... You’ve got to have a loading point. A lot of young hitters get in funks and forget to go back to the basics of hitting, and that’s see the ball, hit the ball.
“I was the same way as a young hitter. I would get frustrated (and say), ‘Oh, my God. I’ll never get another hit the rest of my life.’ Then I would always remember what Dave and Red would say: ‘Go back to what got you here to this point.’ Then it would click.”
It clicked to the tune of a .278 average and 1,354 hits in 1,602 career games.
There were many magical moments, including Game 2 of the 1982 National League Championship Series when Oberkfell’s ninth-inning single off Gene Garber eluded the outstretched glove of Brett Butler, scoring David Green and giving the Cardinals a 4-3 victory at Busch Stadium.
“What did Jack Buck say? ‘He missed that by an eyelash.’ That was definitely one of the bigger hits in my career,” said Oberkfell, who was mobbed by teammates after the play. “It was fun. That was 30-some years ago and it seems like yesterday.”
The Cardinals won the best-of-five series 3-0, then defeated the Milwaukee Brewers 4-3 for their first World Series title since 1967. Oberkfell batted .292 in the series.
Return to health
Before he was able to consider a return to baseball, Oberkfell had to overcome a genetic condition called Factor V Leiden that can cause potentially dangerous blood-clotting in the legs.
“I’ve had some blood clots that have been removed and bypassed,” Oberkfell said. “I don’t know what it’s from; it’s not from playing ball or anything. It’s just a hereditary thing that someone in my family down the road had. I take medication for it and it’s doing pretty good.”
Oberkfell said the problem was exacerbated on long bus rides in the minor leagues, most recently from 2013-15 when he was the manager of the Lincoln (Neb.) Saltdogs, an unaffiliated team that plays in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
“I haven’t had a problem with it in the last year,” Oberkfell said. “You can call (leaving the Saltdogs) retirement, but I’m only going to be 61, so I wasn’t quite ready to retire.”
I didn’t take this job just to do it half there and half at home ... I’ll get on that bus, ride with them and talk baseball with the kids on the bus.
There will be more bus rides with the Grizzlies, but Oberkfell isn’t concerned.
“I didn’t take this job just to do it half there and half at home,” he said. “There might be some times when I have other commitments. But most of the time, I’ll get on that bus, ride with them and talk baseball with the kids on the bus.”
A manager no more
Oberkfell no longer has major-league managing aspirations. He said interviewing for the Mets’ top job six-plus years ago was a learning experience.
“At the time, it was like, ‘This is good. I’ve interviewed. Now, next time, if I get another opportunity, I’ll be more prepared with the interview process,’” Oberkfell said. “But that time never came, and that’s the way baseball goes. I’m happy to do what I’m doing.”
Even if he was interested in managing, Oberkfell can’t foresee another chance.
“I think I would rather do scouting in affiliated ball,” Oberkfell said. “In independent ball, I would just want to coach. I don’t want to manage.”
Gateway and the Grizzlies fit the bill. Oberkfell already knew Gateway owner Rich Sauget and Frontier League Commissioner Bill Lee, and he’s looking forward to working with Grizzlies manager Phil Warren and pitching coach Randy Wells, who was hired recently.
“They have a great setup,” Oberkfell said. “I’ve been to several games down there in the past. It’s fun, it’s entertaining and the prices are reasonable. It’s a good place to take the family for the evening.
“A big thing for me is when the game’s over, I get to drive home and sleep in my own bed. That’s kind of nice. There’s nothing like home, and this is the perfect setup.”