In the 1990’s, few players surpassed Brian Jordan in a Cardinal uniform. As a right fielder from 1992-1998, he combined an elite level of athleticism and training with some of the game’s great minds to become one of the best outfielders in the National League.
After being drafted by the Cardinals in the 1988 MLB Draft, his main job of the time was football, where he played three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons as a safety, where he played to such a high level that he made the 1991 Pro Bowl after leading the team in tackles.
After the Cardinals paid him to a new deal that included a sizeable signing bonus to became exclusively a baseball player, he made it to St. Louis in 1992 and began a career that would carry over 15 years and see him become an All-Star in his second professional league as well. He was a central part of the Cardinal rebuilding effort in the mid and late 90’s, with his peak seasons coming in 1996, when he drove in 104 runs for the surprising resurgent Cardinals, who finished a game short of a World Series. In his final year in St. Louis, he hit a career-high 25 home runs and was protection behind Mark McGwire during his record-setting summer.
Despite leaving St. Louis in 1999 for the Atlanta Braves and later the Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers, the impression he left on St. Louis baseball has far from dissipated. He was an essential part the rebuilding effort for the organization that has carried over to the product that takes the field to this day.
On a more individual level, Jordan was a part of a picture that represented much more. As a local teenage fan of the game of the sport of the African-American race, he was a part of a particularly inspiring vision of the Cardinals for me—and I was far from alone. Joining Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Ray Lankford, Bernard Gilkey and more on a team that had an identity that inspired many young African-Americans to get behind the Cardinals, and by association, get into and follow the sport as well. While the team has continued to be as successful as ever since that era, that is an element that has all but evaporated from the organization’s image since.
Since his playing days came to an end in 2006, he has gone on to become a part of the Braves broadcasting team, and penned a children’s book on baseball, entitled I Told You I Can Play. However, he still makes the occasional return to St. Louis to remain a part of the Cardinal experience as well.
It was during one such visit during visit during the Cardinals Care Winter Up that Jordan made such a return. Originally I requested just two or three minutes of his time for a few questions on his days with the organization, but quickly the conversation expanded, and it changed from a stop at an elevator to us having a seat to cover a wide range of relevant topics to his experience both on and off the field—and the culture of the sport as a whole.
I-70: You were with the Cardinals during a time that the organization was undergoing a lot of changes. Do you have any memories from your time here that jump out in front of others?
Jordan: I always brag about the fans here. Any chance I get to come back to St. Louis is really an honor. I loved playing here and I wish I could have played my whole career here, but unfortunately business is business and I had to move on. But St. Louis is a great city and the environment within the organization is even better. There’s a family environment within the organization; they stick with their guys that come in and play hard and it is a great tradition to have.
I-70: What moment or stretch stands out the most to you as a Cardinal?
Jordan: ’96 was definitely a rewarding season, with the winning tradition returning to St. Louis. Being here when Mark McGwire broke all of the records and being a part of all of that was unbelievable too.
I-70: You speak about the winning tradition, how was it coming through the Cardinal organization and the all of the figures that you come across being a part of it?
Jordan: Being mentored by Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, those are the type of memories that are treasured away for life. They pretty much taught me the game, so to see an Ozzie sticking with the organization and Willie coming back the way he did was tremendous.
I-70: It’s good that you bring them up, because at the time you were coming around, there were a plethora of great black ballplayers in the fold, between Ozzie, Willie, Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton and all the way down to you. How do you feel about the state of having diversity in the game, specifically within the African-American community?
Jordan: Disappointed honestly. I’m doing what I can do to help change that, because that was a part of that too. Even after St. Louis, I played with a lot of great African-American ballplayers, but you’re right, its dwindling down. It’s about the expense of the game and the lack of opportunities for inner city kids, that where the parents don’t have the money to put them with the traveling league ball clubs that are going to showcase them to get them to that next level.
It’s a shame, and unless something is done with former athletes and Major League Baseball stepping in, we’ll continue to see it. Because if you look up, Major League Baseball is becoming global and not only are athletes coming from here, you’ve got the Latin and Japanese players too, and everybody is coming into the fold and opportunities are becoming slimmer and slimmer.
I-70: The African-American presence is also a part of the cultural history as well, and that presence can also be a gateway to the past as well, do you agree?
Jordan: Oh definitely. Being in Atlanta now, I always get a chance to talk with Hank Aaron, who fought for our rights to play the game about this. And it’s a shame because number 42 is probably rolling over in his grave right now. Jackie Robinson all that he fought for and withstood for us to see that we aren’t playing anymore. And also, the history is not being taught in schools anymore, so a lot of young kids don’t get to be see it anymore.
I-70: Going back into your career a bit further and the ’96 season, Tony (La Russa) said that season stood out the most to him when thinking about his tenure in St. Louis. What was it like after the years of struggle coming through the organization and nearly reaching the World Series?
Jordan: It was a huge turnaround, because you know coming up with Joe Torre, there were a lot of young players and not many veterans to you learn how to win ballgames. Also, there wasn’t the pitching staff in place to win a lot either.
When Tony got here, he changed the whole atmosphere and discipline of the team. Everybody knows that he is really disciplined and he’s in-tune, controls the game and is very strategic in what he does. He brought that to the whole organization and put players in positions to succeed. I think that was the difference and being a part of that for the fans here in St. Louis as well was a major thing.
I-70: Was it about buying into his philosophies and having a restart with the ownership turnover and Walt Jocketty joining up as well?
Jordan: A lot of winning attitudes all came in at once. The DeWitts saw it all through and were focused on restoring the tradition of St. Louis baseball and it made all of the difference.
I-70: I believe you are the only player that played for all of the managers that are being inducted into the Hall of Fame at one point or another in their career, as well as played with most of the inductees as well.
Jordan: This may be the first Hall of Fame ceremony that I actually attend too because of that. You’ve got the three managers, but you’ve also got Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine who I played behind, as well as Frank Thomas who I played against in college and into the majors. It’s a tremendous opportunity to see some greatness and all of those guys deserve it.
I-70: What was it like to play behind a staff like you had in Atlanta?
Jordan: Outside of playing in St. Louis, as I wanted to do my whole career, playing with the Braves and the best threesome in baseball in Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux….man, what an honor.
Maddux was the one of the greatest pitchers ever to play behind. Didn’t overpower you, but did his homework and his preparation was tremendous. I threw out my first runner at first base from the outfield because Maddux told me I was going to do it before the game (laughing). He picked the game before the game and told me when I was going to do it. Unbelievable, but that’s just how good Greg Maddux was.
I-70: Was it just his brain for the game and how he saw it? Being a step ahead of everybody else?
Jordan: He was a step ahead of it, and when you can have control of the ball and put it where you want it constantly, that made him a Hall of Famer.
I-70: And with Glavine, I would think the way he delivered the ball on the outside corner that he made sure you had plenty of work as well.
Jordan: He was relentless, because you knew what he was going to throw, but you still couldn’t do anything about it. He never gave in to hitters and he never changed. He stayed the same until the end when he had to change because he wasn’t getting that outside corner like five inches off the plate anymore, but he was incredible.
But he was a professional, that’s the thing to say about my man Glavine. And he went about his business the right way all the time.
I-70: It was recently the year anniversary of Stan Musial passing. Do you have special memories that you can recall with him?
Jordan: Another great thing about the Cardinals is that they keep close to the tradition. All the legends and all the great players always come back and share stories with the young kids coming up. For me, he used to come in the locker room and play his harmonica all the time and share his stories in the game of baseball. And those are things that you never forget, and not many people do that. Not many legends come back and share like that, and St. Louis has a rich history of doing that.
I-70: I imagine coming through the system you worked with George Kissell a lot as well.
Jordan: Oh man! Another guy that if you talk about greatness? George Kissell was relentless. He stayed on every young player and made us better. And I was raw; a young football player trying to learn this game, but he took me under his wing. I had great respect for him and the knowledge that he had for the game.
I-70: Obviously with your football background having the physical tools for the game was never a problem. But you said recently on the MLB Network that it wasn’t until your 13th season you felt like you understood the game. Do you think that foundation in this system cut that learning curve so you had the longevity that you did?
Jordan: Absolutely. I didn’t play a lot of minor league games and they were the reason why, because they corrected those weaknesses and fixed them early and I was able to work them and make adjustments.
When I have guys like George Kissell, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee mentoring me along the way, that eventually I would get it. And as the years went on I continued to learn and I turned my raw ability into learning the game. And I wish it all could have clicked 13 years ago (laughing), and there’s no telling what kind of career I could have had.
I-70: Well, it was a pretty impressive one all the same. Wrapping up, is there anything that you’d express to the Cardinal community that you started out with now, after all of these years from that start?
Jordan: St. Louis is the best. I’ve always been a Cardinal and that hasn’t changed and I’d really like to thank the fans for that.