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'Irreplaceable' coach Mark DeJohn rides final bus with Cardinals after 49 seasons in baseball

St. Louis Post-Dispatch — By Derrick Goold St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Nov. 28-- Let him tell one last story before he goes.

It involves a bus, where Mark DeJohn spent so many years as a coach for the Cardinals and some of his last year in the Cardinals' system. It's the perfect yarn to spin for this group. And true. All true. Well, the best parts are true.

The minor-league field coordinator's last full day after 49 seasons in professional baseball ended at Busch Stadium, where the honors included a ceremonial first pitch. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt served as catcher, penning a brief message on the baseball that DeJohn didn't see before pocketing the keepsake. During a players' pregame meeting, hitting coach Jeff Albert presented DeJohn with his jersey from Players' Weekend, the one with a nickname above the numbers.

Like Shildt and bench coach Oliver Marmol, Albert's first manager in the minors was DeJohn, and the name he chose for his jersey: "DeJOHN." That reminded DeJohn of a story-what doesn't?-and as the players autographed the jersey he had a captive audience.

That's redundant. Any audience DeJohn has becomes captive because, as one executive said, "give him the floor and he controls the room."

DeJohn described Albert on a bus, peering up from a book to suggest, "We bunt too much." Albert quoted the book how bunting less would net a half run more. DeJohn asked Albert if he played youth baseball, high school baseball, college ball, and even a little independent ball. Albert nodded with each question.

"Have you seen a lot of scoreboards in your life?" DeJohn recalled asking, his voice rising toward the story's climax. "Have you ever seen a half run up there? You can take all those numbers-and one other thing."

He paused, stretching the silence like the best storytellers do before a kicker.

"We're not going to bunt anymore."

Appreciative grins filled the room.

"Got one last laugh from them," DeJohn said. "They just like listening to me talk because it's almost like a bedtime story. They don't know where I'm going with it. They listen. Might have been a few times I put them to sleep, too."

After 33 years with the Cardinals, DeJohn retired this fall to spend less time on buses and as much time as possible with his wife, Ruthie. More than the baseball from Shildt left with him. A tether to history did. DeJohn, 66, was one of the few remaining Cardinals coaches who worked directly with the late George Kissell, the player development icon who defined an organizational ethos for six decades, linking Branch Rickey's era to today's. DeJohn came to the Cardinals to learn from Kissell and sought to be a forever Cardinal because of Kissell. He's one of the last of the first generation Kissell coaches.

DeJohn also is something else that's quieting as the game modernizes and homogenizes-the great storyteller, the dugout bard. Stats and social media are drowning out stories. In corners of the clubhouse-and media coverage-big data has replaced tall tales. Who's got time to pause for dramatic effect? There's a hint of melancholy as DeJohn's stories leave and stories such as DeJohn do, too.

"He's one of the great communicators to ever put on the uniform," said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' president of baseball operations. "I always joked that he should have been on stage. He can tell a joke. He can tell a story. He could be a motivational speaker. At some level, it's sad because it does mean time is passing. DJ has been the teacher who taught teachers, and that will last. But it's somewhat irreplaceable what he did, how he did it, who he was. He interacted with Kissell. He worked with Tony (La Russa). To act like we're going to fill that void is impossible."

This offseason, the Cardinals are re-engineering some approaches, aiming to keep pace with advancements in tech and talent development. They're nearly doubling the size of the analytics department. Chris Swauger, a former player, has been groomed for a role similar to DeJohn's, but he'll have a new approach. New hires have been added to spread Albert's hitting instruction. While change arrives and institutional knowledge departs, the Cardinals want to preserve the past-the enduring influence of Kissell and the baseball lifers such as DeJohn, who carried the tune decade to decade without much fanfare, just results.

Such history is more than a story. It's a standard.

'Amazing' career

"They talk about numbers in the game and analytics, right?" DeJohn asked on his last day at Busch. "Well, I'll give you my analytics. I grew up in Connecticut a big Yankees fan. Back then you could name every guy on the team. Reserves, everybody. I was a big Roger Maris fan. I always wore No. 9. When I came into the Cardinals' organization, I knew that Roger Maris ended his career here. That's a big thing for me. When I coached (bullpen) in 1996 with Tony, guess what number I was given? No. 9. That's weird.

"George Kissell was 66 years old when I got here, and it was like geez he's getting ready to retire, and he didn't. But I'm retiring at 66. George's number was No. 3. Guess how many years I spent in the organization. Thirty-three!"

The jersey Albert presented him was No. 54.

"Adds up to nine. Amazing!" DeJong said.

Drafted in 1971 by the Mets, DeJohn spent more than a decade in the minors before debuting with Detroit in April 1982. He spent two months as Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell's backup.

DeJohn doubled in his first at-bat and, 20 at-bats later, grounded out, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. to Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, on his final big-league swing. After 1,323 games in the minors (adds up to nine!) he pivoted to coaching. A colleague with Kansas City said to be "a baseball man" said he should seek the best coach of coaches, Kissell. DeJohn joined the Cardinals in 1986, and with the exception of a brief departure remained with the Cardinals, serving in a role at every level. He managed and mentored players and collected and told stories.

Here's a good one. A few years ago, DeJohn was feeding baseballs into the pitching machine at spring training when he decided to seek the spiritual "peace" he saw with some players. He asked Marmol what it took to become a Christian. Marmol offered him some thoughts, and a prayer. He and Shildt later would attend DeJohn's baptism. As DeJohn dropped the next ball into the wheels of the machine, it spat back at him, clonking him in the forehead. "

The Lord's way of saying he got me," DeJohn grinned.

Here's another story. In 2004, the Cardinals' Class AA affiliate played a junior college, and an amateur scout sent DeJohn a hyper-detailed report on the opponent. After the win, DeJohn sent an email to the scout praising his accuracy, and added: "Don't get too cocky."

That scout, Mike Shildt, was one of DeJohn's hitting coaches the next summer.

The second question DeJohn asked Shildt was if he could coach third base. So Shildt did. DeJohn had Shildt manage several games, evaluating him each time. He had Shildt as hitting coach in 2006 and advocated Shildt's move from scout to full-time coach. A mentorship grew into a friendship, and Shildt advanced to big-league bench coach, the role DeJohn once had. When Shildt became manager, his first call was to his mother and his second to DJ.

"He didn't just get me in the door," Shildt said. "First of all, he showed me where the door was. And then he got me through it. There are few people who are irreplaceable, and he's one of them. He's good for morale. He grows people. I'm not managing the St. Louis Cardinals without this guy. Not even close. He was grooming me to do something that I didn't think was possible."

DeJohn spent this past summer retracing paths his career took. He made several bus trips with Class A teams. One of the last things he did was rent a car and drive from the Cardinals' Tennessee affiliate to Marion, Va., where he first played as a Mets' minor-leaguer. He saw Chris Carpenter at the Charlotte airport and riffed for 45 minutes before they had to catch their planes. Carpenter got up and asked for a hug. Every time DeJohn was at a game this year he didn't watch from the stands.

He stood in the dugout, in uniform.

"Because I knew, I knew," DeJohn said. "I knew that at the end of the year I was going to take it off and never wear one again."

'Perfect ending'

This last story he takes with him.

As DeJohn readied to throw the ceremonial first pitch on Sept. 16, Cardinals streamed out of the dugout. Along with coach Ron "Pop" Warner, two of the last direct links to Kissell, DeJohn was surrounded by so many of the people he helped shepherd to the majors. Nearby were Marmol and behind the plate, ready for the throw, was Shildt.

They called themselves first generation DeJohn coaches.

In the swirl of the moment, almost speechless in front of all these friends, these colleagues, he didn't glance at the baseball Shildt gave him, not until the next morning. DeJohn turned the ball over as he was packing and saw Shildt's message. DeJohn teared up reciting it a few hours later during an interview at Busch.

"Three words," DeJohn said. "'God did this.'"

DeJohn saw some of the same officials recently at the memorial for Shildt's mother, and DeJohn makes weekly visits to farm director Gary LaRocque's nonagenarian mother in Connecticut. These are forever friends.

That baseball now has a perch in his office. He rarely goes a day without seeing it. He had it tucked safely in his luggage as he left human resources at Busch in September, formally retired.

After nearly 50 years in baseball, DeJohn turned for home one final time.

"I'm heading into my last chapter," he said. "You guys just gave me the perfect ending."

___

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