The meaning of life? Don't ask Kissell; he is no guru (though he does adhere to the central revelation left him by the legendary Branch Rickey, who intoned: "George, don't ever sign an over-strider"). But don't for a minute imagine that this is a man who has not acquired wisdom with his years. On the one hand, Kissell is a disciplinarian. One Cardinals executive credits him with cleansing the whole organization of tantrum-throwers and clubhouse lawyers: "George jumps on that like a hobo on a ham sandwich," he says. On the other hand, Kissell is willing to accommodate change. "Too many of the old instructors are stuck back in the '40s and '50s, when you couldn't have long hair and mustaches," he says. "But it's different now. Today, if you can hit the ball and run, I don't care if your hair is to your navel."
Between coaching trips the old schoolteacher spends hours puttering in his garden in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he lives with his wife, Virginia, a retired home economics teacher. He especially loves red azaleas and can wax rhapsodic over the scarlet explosion of a healthy bush bearing 200 blossoms. "They don't talk back," he adds.
But back talk, pedagogically speaking, is what keeps Kissell in baseball. He lives for the spark of understanding in a rookie's eyes, the flash of savvy in a perfectly executed double play. "My son always wants me to quit," Kissell says, dressing for a game. "He's a doctor. He says, 'You've worked long enough; you should take it easy.' But my wife says, 'It keeps you young. You like it.' "
Kissell seems to weigh both sides of the argument, then nods and says, "It does keep me young. Besides, I'm curious." He waves, taking in the 20 or so youngsters at their lockers—sipping soda pop, changing socks, swapping lies—all with dreams of the big leagues. "One or two of these boys will make it to the majors." he says.
Behind his spectacles Kissell's eyes grow wide with the wonder of a child. "Who'll it be?"
Baseball 101: Orientation Lecture, Monday 5:30. Professor Dick Sisler
"This is not a pep talk, believe me," Sisler says, beginning his pep talk. "I just want to tell you about the great St. Louis Cardinals organization." Sisler, a man with Grecian Formula-gray hair, looks around the Johnson City clubhouse: Twenty-five fresh-faced prospects, seated at their lockers, gaze up at him expectantly. His stage is an uncarpeted patch of gray-painted concrete sloping to a drain.
"You know, I could have signed with the Browns for more money." (A few kids look confused; they think the Browns are a football team.) "But I went with the Cardinals because of the tradition. I'm talking about the Gashouse Gang, guys like Pepper Martin and Eddie Stanky and Dizzy Dean. And those guys had fun, yeah, those guys had fun. But when they were on the ball field, they were all business!" He slams a fist into an open palm. "That's how I want you guys to be.
"Always remember, you're a Cardinal!" He yells the name. "Be proud that you're a Cardinal and not a damn Brave or a damn Met. You play for the greatest organization in baseball. This is the best!
"Now, there's a lot of money up there in the big leagues, as you guys know." Sisler reaches up and makes a gathering motion with his arms. "Go up there and get it! We want the best for you, believe me. You've got the greatest instructors in baseball here to help you—the best pitching coaches, the best fielding coaches.... The only bad instructor you've got is your hitting instructor."