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The Cardinals Are Playing With Zeile

April 1, 1990

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) _ More than anything else, Todd Zeile needed time. Time to learn. Time to work on his throwing. Time to get comfortable as the St. Louis Cardinals’ starting catcher.

Instead, the rookie catcher is taking an accelerated course in training camp. And there’s no Tony Pena to bail him out.

″I’m under the microscope, no doubt about it,″ Zeile said. ″I hope they don’t try and pump a whole lot of information in my head.″

There’s no argument in the Cardinals’ front office that Zeile, the organization’s first big homegrown catching prospect since Ted Simmons, should be the starter, indeed a star, for years to come. Manager Whitey Herzog is most impressed with Zeile’s bat, figuring him to fit in nicely somewhere in the middle of the lineup.

″He’s got a good batting stroke and he’s always been successful hitting,″ said Herzog, anticipating a hefty increase in production from Pena’s 37 RBIs in 1989.

In his last three years in the minor leagues, Zeile hit 25, 19 and 19 home runs. He drove in 106 runs in Class A, 75 in AA and 85 in Triple A.

Baseball fans mindful of his impressive minor-league numbers have already turned his rookie baseball card into a hot investment. With all of 28 major- league games under his belt, Zeile made thousands of dollars during the winter selling his autograph at card shows.

He’s also got matinee-idol good looks and an Olympic gymnast - Julianne McNamara - for a wife. What’s not to like?

Nagging questions remain regarding Zeile’s defensive abilities, however. Footwork, arm mechanics and throwing accuracy are all concerns of Herzog, who has assigned two coaches to help Zeile through the abbreviated camp.

In other words, until Zeile comes around they’ll miss Pena behind the plate.

″I think we have to maybe work with his footwork a little bit,″ Herzog said of Zeile. ″I think the arm strength is there, but there are some mechanical things that we have to work out.″

Most of Herzog’s concerns stem from Zeile’s somewhat disappointing defensive debut last fall with the Cardinals. Zeile hit .256 with one home run and eight RBIs in 82 at-bats with St. Louis, on the heels of a 19-home run, 85-RBI year with Triple A Louisville.

But behind the plate he seemed shaky. He had trouble blocking balls and he threw poorly, rushing his deliveries at times.

At Louisville, Zeile gunned down a very respectable 36 percent of runners attempting to steal and was the American Association’s All-Star catcher. But with the big club he threw out only 2 of 18.

Most of the plays weren’t close and sometimes his throws were way off the mark.

″I’m talking about 10 feet high over second base or 10 feet to the shortstop side or vice versa,″ Herzog said. ″I can’t have a catcher in our park who can’t throw out runners.

″I’m not talking about the burners. But he has to be able to throw out the average runner.″

All Zeile asks is he not be judged too harshly on his first 28 games. Phenom or not he was, and still is, a rookie.

″I never had any trouble throwing in the minors,″ Zeile said. ″At the end of the year I struggled a little bit, but I think it was more of a mental thing than anything else.

″I think I pressed a little much. I tried to do too much too soon and ended up losing a little confidence in the process.″

To Zeile’s way of thinking, that is most of what he has to work with this spring. He says another priority is learning the strengths and weaknesses of Cardinals pitchers.

He definitely doesn’t want to have to prove himself again. And, basically, he’s glad Pena left for Boston.

″I’ve done my time in the minors and I’ve been successful at every level,″ Zeile said. ″I don’t expect to struggle for a year, just because I’m a rookie.

″I’m ready to play here.″

At least one of the men assigned to tutor him in camp won’t disagree.

″I didn’t see that many areas of need last year,″ said pitching coach Mike Roarke, a catcher for the Detroit Tigers for four seasons in the 1960s. ″He rushed a lot of throws, but that’s not uncommon for a rookie.

″It’s just a matter of doing it and doing it.″

And not all of Herzog’s defensive assessment is bad. It’s just that he’s anxious to see Zeile do his billing justice.

″He’s an intelligent young man,″ Herzog said. ″He blocks the ball good and has good soft hands, calls a very good game.

″I’ve seen him make some great throws, too. And if you can make one good throw you can make 10 good ones.″

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