Before Hilo’s Kolten Wong became a Gold Glove second baseman for the Cardinals, only one other St. Louis second baseman had been so honored. Twice. Fernando Vina was golden in 2001-02.
Only two second basemen have enjoyed back-to-back .300 seasons for the Cardinals since Red Schoendienst in the early 1950s. One was Ken Oberkfell (1979-80). The other? Fernando Vina in 2000-01.
“I never realized that,” Vina said.
These days, Vina, now 51, is living in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, but has spent considerable time in the Sacramento, California, area in the past few years to help care for his family. His father, Andres, recently died at age 82 and Vina is concerned now about his 81-year-old mother after her husband of more than 50 years passed.
“She’s having a tough time,” said Vina by telephone last week.
“It’s a gut punch. It’s horrible. We’re losing everybody. Gibby (Bob Gibson). Lou (Brock). Joe Morgan on Sunday.
“It’s been a rough year for everybody.
“My dad was struggling for a while. And when it actually happens, you worry about your mom. You keep plugging and keep the faith, right?”
The elder Vinas got the family out of Cuba on a boat in 1968 when Olga was pregnant with Fernando. “You look at everything my dad went through — the Castro regime. Dad tried to leave a few times but they caught him,” said Vina.
“He had to work in the sugar cane fields for free and they put you away from your family for a while once you try to get out of the country.”
Like many others, Vina’s occupation was affected by the coronavirus this year. “I was doing a bunch of baseball clinics for the underprivileged kids through the Baseball Alumni Association,” he said.
Those included one in Hilo.
Vina and Wong have plenty in common. Both were/are speedy lefthanded batters who lead off. Both are undersized, Vina at 5-foot-9 (maybe) and Wong at 5-7. Both were/are slick fielders.
“I was pushing for him before he actually won the Gold Glove last year,” Vina said. “I like his energy. He’s got good fire, which you’ve got to have in this game. I’ve been very impressed with his makeup and his passion — how he goes about being ready every pitch. You’ve got to be ready every pitch if you want to make a great play and become a Gold Glove-type second baseman.
“He’s got a good swing and he can run. As he matures, he’ll get a little better offensively and learn to spray that ball around from line to line and he’ll get that average up and become even more of that complete player. You don’t try to pull everything or even think about hitting home runs at all. You just let that happen.
“And he can add to his game by seeing a few more pitches at the plate. If he can add the walks and hit the balls the other way, they can’t defend you.”
But Wong might not be a Cardinal anymore at all if the club doesn’t pick up his $12.5 million option for 2021 or roll it into another multi-year deal.
“That would be too bad,” if the Cardinals lost Wong, Vina said.
“They’ve given some guys some big money who haven’t really showed up,” said Vina, who keeps track of his former team. “They didn’t have to re-sign (Matt) Carpenter so soon.”
Vina, who played 12-plus seasons in the majors with Seattle, the New York Mets, Milwaukee, the Cardinals and Detroit, spent 2000-03 with the Cardinals, appearing and starring in the playoffs in the first three of those seasons.
“You know who I miss? George Kissell,” said Vina, referring to the Cardinals’ longtime field coordinator.
“He had the ability to hit me nine or 10 different types of ground balls. If it wasn’t for him and ‘Cheo’ (coach Jose Oquendo), I wouldn’t have won Gold Gloves. We’d practice bunting all the time, too.
“And I learned so much from Tony La Russa. I was a five- or six-year player when I got there but I continued to learn from him. You had to keep your ears open because you couldn’t afford to miss anything that came out of Tony’s mouth or George Kissell’s or Oquendo’s. That’s what makes that organization so special. There’s so much knowledge.
“There’s one common denominator there — and that’s to be better.”
Vina said he carries with him memories of late teammate Darryl Kile and late Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, who always treated him well.
“And I remember just being able to win. Being in Busch Stadium — with the excitement and the passion that the fans brought — when you’re able to win in that atmosphere, it takes it to another level.
“We had Jimmy Edmonds. And the great (Albert) Pujols coming up. Edgar Renteria. So many guys with that mentality and I’ll never forget that.”
Vina didn’t shy away from the spotlight of postseason play. If there had been a division series Most Valuable Player award, which he had presumed there was, he would have won it in 2002. Vina went nine for 15 in a three-game sweep of Arizona.
“Do they have one now?” asked Vina.
Vina batted .404 for his three divisional series against the Mets and Arizona (twice), having a good portion of those at-bats against the likes of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
“I loved playing in the playoffs,” Vina said. “It made the hair stand up on your arms. It was crazy pressure. I couldn’t sleep the night before but it was awesome to play against the best and be able to produce during those times because I know how hard it is to do it.
“During the season, as you know, it’s nuts in St. Louis. Put the playoffs in there, it’s triple or even quadruple nuts.”
Besides Wong, Vina has ties with at least one other current player. He played on the same California Little League team with Jeff Carlson, father of young Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson. That team was managed by Jeff Carlson’s father, Jim Carlson.
Vina batted .300 in 2000 and .303 in 2001 for the Cardinals, his on-base percentage accentuated by the fact he was hit by pitches 50 times in those two years. He blames his junior college coach, Jerry Weinstein, in California.
“He would have me line up at the plate and he would have a guy throw wiffle balls at me and I learned never to move or jump. There’s a little art to it, rolling into balls that are coming into you,” Vina said.
He took that philosophy into the major leagues where the balls are a little harder and Vina admitted, “It hurt. I still have some knots on my body. But I knew it was just another way to get on base.”
Knee and hamstring injuries hastened the end of Vina’s career, which wrapped up in 2004 with the Tigers. “The way I played was a little rougher,” he said. “Always diving and getting dirty. Sometimes I played a little crazy and it takes its toll on you (Vina had a hip replacement last year). But that’s what made me a player. That’s what makes Kolten Wong a player.
“I never even thought I’d get a year. That was my dream, to just be in the major leagues. I prayed for it as a little kid. And to end up with almost 13 years was a blessing.”
Hummel writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch