In 1997, during a 20-game hitting streak for the Cardinals in which he batted .418, John Mabry applied lessons taught to him by St. Louis hitting coach George Hendrick.
In 2013, Mabry became hitting coach of the Cardinals, replacing Mark McGwire, who departed after three seasons to join the staff of Dodgers manager Don Mattingly.
Mabry’s experiences as a hitter, especially while as an everyday player for the Cardinals in 1996 and ’97 when Hendrick was hitting coach under manager Tony La Russa, may provide insights into what Mabry emphasizes as hitting coach on the staff of manager Mike Matheny.
Mabry improved his batting average from .240 to .309 during the 20-game streak from May 19 through June 9 in 1997. The left-handed batter had 10 multi-hit games during that stretch. It was the longest hitting streak by a Cardinal since Willie McGee hit safely in 22 consecutive games in 1990.
Hendrick, the starting right fielder and cleanup batter for the 1982 World Series champion Cardinals, had urged Mabry to be aggressive with first-pitch fastballs.
“I’ve tried to do that all the time,” Mabry said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in explaining the streak. “That’s the whole deal, to hit that fastball when they try to get ahead of you. That’s usually the best fastball to hit.”
Told of Mabry’s praise by St. Louis reporter Rick Hummel, Hendrick responded: “Credit his success to his understanding of work ethic. It’s got nothing to do with me.”
Mabry had several outstanding games during the hitting streak. The best was on June 3, 1997, when he had three hits and six RBI in the Cardinals’ 15-4 victory over the Rockies at St. Louis. Mabry cracked a three-run home run off 6-foot-7 right-hander Jeff McCurry in the fifth inning. Boxscore
After the game, La Russa told Hummel that Mabry is “seeing that ball like it’s huge.” Said Mabry: “It doesn’t look huge. It still looks like a mouse running across the floor at times.”
Mabry spent three stints as a Cardinals player: 1994-98, 2001 and 2004-05. He and Matheny were teammates in 2001 and 2004. Mabry was an instructor, with the title of assistant hitting coach, for the Cardinals in Matheny’s first season as manager in 2012.
Mabry hit .281 overall with the Cardinals. That’s 18 points better than his career average in 14 big-league seasons with eight clubs.
As the everyday first baseman for the 1996 Cardinals who won the National League Central Division title, Mabry hit .297 with 161 hits in 151 games. He had 30 doubles, 13 homers, 74 RBI and a .342 on-base percentage.
A line-drive hitter who lacked speed and possessed average power, Mabry surprised many when he hit for the cycle on May 18, 1996, against the Rockies at Denver. Mabry singled to center in the second, doubled to right in the fourth, tripled off the center-field wall in the fifth and homered 400 feet to right on a 2-and-0 pitch from left-hander Mike Munoz in the seventh.
Mabry became the first Cardinal to hit for the cycle since Ray Lankford in 1991.
Lankford, who witnessed Mabry’s cycle as the Cardinals’ center fielder that night, told Hummel that Mabry “really didn’t know he was hitting for the cycle” before Mabry hit the home run off Munoz.
Mabry, agreeing, replied: “I thought they were just congratulating me for the home run.”
Some of the joy from the accomplishment was diminshed by the game’s outcome. Handed an 8-4 lead to protect in the bottom of the ninth, Cardinals closer Dennis Eckerlsey surrendered five runs and Colorado won, 9-8. Boxscore
“This is a really strange feeling,” Mabry said to the Post-Dispatch. “You’ve got to win the game. That’s all I know.”
Two months later, July 6, 1996, Mabry was 5-for-5 in a 9-5 Cardinals victory over the Pirates at Pittsburgh. Boxscore
Asked by Hummel to compare Mabry with other batters, La Russa said, “Guys who hit well into the threes (.300) take every at-bat like it’s their last. (Paul) Molitor, (Wade) Boggs, (Frank) Thomas. They use the whole field, they handle a bunch of different pitches and, most importantly, they don’t throw at-bats away. I don’t think I’ve seen (Mabry) throw one away since spring training.”
The 5-for-5 performace at Pittsburgh was one of 11 times Mabry had four hits in a game for St. Louis during his career.
Mabry hit one grand slam and it occurred for the Cardinals against the Royals’ Zack Greinke on May 20, 2005, at Kansas City. The first-inning shot helped carry St. Louis to a 7-6 victory. Boxscore
Said Mabry to the Post-Dispatch: “It’s one of those things you want to say you did.”