One of the youngsters volunteers: "To cut the winning run off at the plate."
The old man looks reflective. He poses another question: "Let's say you're the runner at third in the same situation. What does the third base coach tell you?" He looks at a youngster who is flexing his glove nervously.
"Uh...don't go unless the ball goes through the infield?"
Kissell smiles broadly. "Unless the ball goes through! So,"—he turns back to the shortstop—"where do you play with the winning run on third and none out?"
The youngster hesitates. "Three?"
The professor is pleased. "That's it. Three. The runner won't start for home until the ball gets past you, so you can stay back two or three steps to widen your range." Kissell assumes a defensive stance on the edge of the grass, then scampers backward onto the dirt. He straightens up and looks around.
"Three," he repeats.
George Kissell was once a youngster in the Cardinals system himself, a second baseman who averaged .322 in three minor league seasons before World War II broke out. He spent three years in the U.S. Navy, saw action at Guadalcanal and returned to enjoy seven seasons as a minor league player-manager. He eventually became the Mr. Fixit of the Cardinals organization, teaching fundamentals to players at various levels.
But for many years Kissell lived a double life. Two months a year, when he wasn't coaching baseball, he worked as a substitute schoolteacher near his home in Sackets Harbor, N.Y. It's the schoolmaster in Kissell that has shaped the College of Cardinals. Having earned bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education and history, respectively, from Ithaca College, Kissell teaches baseball the way a college professor might teach Thucydides. His method is Socratic: He asks questions and rarely provides answers. He guides and prods, counting on his students to infer solutions from what they already know. Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson once called Kissell "the greatest baseball fundamentalist I have ever known."
There is no text for his course, and his ultimate authority—the baseball equivalent of a state board of education—is the man in St. Louis. "You gotta play the way Whitey Herzog wants the game played," Kissell tells his pupils. "He says stand on your head? That's what we do."