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THE PROFESSOR

He is the Game. He is bending your knees to bunt the low pitch. He is knowing what to do when you're leading off second and the ball is hit to shortstop or third with less than two out.

The ballplayers stretching in the green velvet outfield this morning at Al Lang Stadium are not the Game. They are the Show, which is different. The Show _ since this is spring and we are talking about the St. Louis Cardinals _ is Ol' Diz and Stan the Man. It is Lefty and McCarver, Gibson and Brock. It is the White Rat and the Wizard of Oz. Now it is Jordan and Gant and someone called the Eck.

The Show changes. The Game is eternal, a long, arcing toss across time.

The Game is a big-eared, bowlegged man in red shoes and bifocals. He believes it is a blessing to be in this cathedral of leather and clay, and so should you.

John Mabry is the Cardinals' first baseman. This was what he thought when he met George Kissell: That man is baseball.

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George Kissell's 57-year Cardinals career spans most of the modern era, from tiny mitts to big rawhide handbaskets, from clackety trains to roaring jets, from subsistence pay to multimillion-dollar contracts _ though not, alas, for him. Kissell has never been paid more than $55,000 in a year.

You might say that Kissell has forgotten more baseball than a lot of people ever knew, except he hasn't forgotten anything. Joe Torre, manager of the 1996 World Champion New York Yankees, was a student of Kissell's in St. Louis. Torre _ who roomed with Steve Carlton, caught the fastballs of Bob Gibson and Warren Spahn, and batted in a lineup with Hank Aaron _ says of his former teacher, "I learned more baseball from George Kissell than from anyone else in my life."

Like a lot of baseball people, Kissell has no real hometown; he is at home only within the widening embrace of the foul lines. But if one place has been a constant in his life, it is St. Petersburg.

He first attended spring training here in 1946 and has returned every year since. He has run the Cardinals' winter instructional camp in St. Petersburg since 1958. In 1969, he and his wife, Ginny, bought a place in a St. Petersburg mobile home park called Mobel Americana.

The Cardinals, who first trained here in 1938, are holding their last spring camp in the city. Next year, the club will move to a new baseball complex across the state in Jupiter, and the expansion Devil Rays will take their place.

When you ask Kissell if he's going to tag along with the Cardinals, he says such things as, "At my age . . . " and "Sometimes I wonder," and "Maybe they're tired of looking at me." He sounds like a man who is going to hang 'em up.

Maybe he will. But the beauty and mystery of the Game, one of the reasons we love it, is that you never know how things will turn out.

Besides, Ginny Kissell says, George has been threatening to retire every year since he was 63. He'll be 77 in September.

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Kissell (rhymes with "whistle") never played in the majors, but he has held just about every on-the-field job in baseball. The word that describes him best is teacher. Just this morning at Al Lang, Kissell told one of the young Cardinals, "Today we're going to play Albert baseball."

"Albert?"

"Einstein," Kissell says, pointing at his head. "Smart baseball."

Now he is in an indoor batting cage at the Cardinal Complex in St. Petersburg. He wears his cap so far back that the bill points toward the ceiling.

Next to Kissell is a sunflower-seed bucket full of baseballs. One by one he feeds the balls into a pitching machine. Andy Van Slyke, the veteran outfielder, lays down bunt after perfect bunt.

Van Slyke doesn't need bunting lessons anymore. He got all the instruction he needed 15 years ago, when he studied under Kissell at the Cardinals' winter camp.

"If there were a Constitution written for the game of baseball, this man would write it," he says, nodding toward Kissell.

Another player sees a reporter talking to the coach and yells, "Listen to what that man says." The players call Kissell "the professor."

They learn all sorts of lessons from him. Mabry, the first baseman whom Kissell calls "one of my sons," was a know-nothing 21-year-old kid when he arrived at winter instructional camp in 1991.

One day, Kissell initiated him into professional baseball by sneaking into his locker and putting crackers in his shoes.

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George Kissell and his father were working on the family farm in Evans Mills, N.Y., in the summer of 1940 when the letter from the Cardinals arrived.

Could George come to Rochester for a tryout camp? It was raining, and the Kissells couldn't hay the field until it dried out. So they got into the 1936 Ford and went for a ride that lasted the rest of George's life.

The tryout was a cattle call: Kissell wore the number 385 on a piece of paper clipped to the back of his shirt. The coaches put him at shortstop and hit five balls in the hole, all of which he backhanded and boomeranged to first.

The next day, the scout asked him how much money he had spent to come to the tryout. Kissell added up the cost of gas, a hotel room for the night, a couple of meals, and came up with a figure: $19.80.

"Here's $20," the scout said, handing over an Andrew Jackson. "You got a 20-cent bonus."

The next summer, Kissell played shortstop for the Cardinals' minor-league team in Hamilton, Ontario, and hit .351. He earned $75 a week.

After the season, Branch Rickey, the club's general manager, mailed him a contract for $125 a month. Kissell called Rickey.

"I want $150 a month," he said.

Rickey said, "You like milking cows?"

"No."

"Then you'd better sign for a hundred and a quarter."

Kissell signed. He went to Mobile, Ala., that summer and hit .310.

He might have made it to the majors if Uncle Sam had not come along.

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Kissell spent almost four years in the Navy, most of it in Guadalcanal. He was among the Allied forces preparing to invade Japan when Harry Truman dropped the bomb.

In February of '46, Kissell rode the train to St. Petersburg for his first big-league spring training. The Cardinals stayed in the Bainbridge Hotel at the corner of Third Street and First Avenue S. For their six weeks of labor, the players were paid exactly nothing.

They didn't even get meal money. They signed for breakfast and dinner each day at the hotel. Once in a while they spent their own money on hamburgers at the Chatterbox. "It was about the only place there was to eat," Cardinals coach Red Schoendienst says.

For the first few years after the war, Kissell bounced around the Cardinals organization as a minor-league player and manager. It was a good life, but not a sheltered one. In 1950, when he managed a minor-league team in Winston-Salem, N.C., Kissell often made dinner for one of his pitchers _ a black man _ because he could not get a meal anywhere else in town.

Along the way, he even managed to finish his education, receiving bachelor's and master's degrees from Ithaca College. The professor.

Summers, Kissell saw North America through the window of a bus. Lawrence, Mass. Hamilton, Ontario. Omaha. Columbus, Ga. In 1955, he reluctantly quit playing to become a full-time manager. The trip continued: Lynchburg, Va. Peoria. Brunswick, Ga. In the late '60s and early '70s, he coached third-base for the big-league team.

For the past "million years," Kissell says, he has been a traveling minor-league instructor. When spring training breaks up and the Cardinals head north, Kissell rents a car (usually a Ford Taurus, because of the trunk space) and drives from state to state, ballpark to ballpark, teaching young men to bunt and hit and field. His wife goes with him.

General manager Branch Rickey once wrote a scouting report on Kissell. It was included in Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book: Wit and Strategy from Baseball's Last Wise Man:

"This fellow, George Kissell, is doubtless a good manager and all that. But he is also a darn good employee. He looks after details. He is a "cleaner-upper.' First man out, last man in," Rickey wrote. "Impresses me as having a sense of responsibility for anything and everything. . . . I would hire him in any camp."

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George and Ginny Kissell will celebrate their 53rd wedding anniversary this Saturday. The Kissells still behave like newlyweds. That is because of their affection for each other, and because, if you add up all the road trips, George was out of town for about 45 years of their marriage.

In 1958, the first year George ran the Cardinals' instructional camp in St. Petersburg, he stayed at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, long since razed. The team gave him $5 a week to call home to New York. Says Ginny, "He'd start to hang up, and I'd say, "I'm not finished yet!'

" Yes, she was.

The separations were hard. But when you ask Kissell's daughter, Kay Kidwell, about her childhood, she doesn't talk about the times he was gone. She talks about the times he was there. "When we had our time, it was our time," she says.

Kidwell remembers going to ballgames that her father managed. "If my daddy got thrown out of a ballgame, I cried," she says, "and I told the umpire to leave him alone."

Kidwell has two sons. Tommy plays second base at Yale. Mike plays third base for St. Petersburg High. Thanks to the man they call Gramp, the Kidwell boys have met just about every big league player from Stan Musial to Reggie Jackson. When they were little, they played basketball in their driveway with Terry Pendleton and Ozzie Smith.

The other day, Tommy got two hits in Yale's 6-5 victory over Davidson College of North Carolina. When the game was over, he placed a call to St. Petersburg. Not to his mother.

To Gramp.

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George Kissell, a Roman Catholic, prays with a priest every morning, then drives to the ballpark to commune with Cardinals. He does this even when he's on the road. Kissell, whose home parish is Holy Family in St. Petersburg, knows the morning Mass schedule at every Catholic church from here to Johnson City, Tenn.

In 1964, Kissell made a promise: If God answered a certain prayer, he would go to Mass every day.

Hmm, 1964. Didn't the Cardinals win the World Series that year?

"Yep," Kissell says. "Boyer hit a grand salami."

Translation: Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer won the critical fourth game with a grand slam.

But no, Kissell did not become a daily communicant in exchange for a grand salami. His prayer was that his son, Dick, would be admitted to medical school.

Dr. Richard Kissell lives and works in Springfield, Mo.

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Joe Torre, a catcher early in his career, moved to third base in 1971. George Kissell, then a coach with the big-league club, taught him the position that spring.

Kissell walked Torre into the outfield at Al Lang Field and told him to stand 8 feet from the outfield wall, facing it. Then Kissell stood behind him and threw baseballs at the wall. Torre had to react as the balls ricocheted back at him, just as a third-baseman must do when one is whacked his way.

Then Kissell escorted Torre into the infield and showed him how to field a slow-rolling ball. You just pick it up, right? You do not. You place your left foot next to the ball and grab the ball with your right hand. If you put your right foot forward, it's a longer reach.

"A lot of people can play the game, but not as many people can teach the game," Torre says. "And George, to me, was the ultimate. Is the ultimate."

Torre just published his autobiography, Chasing the Dream. It is in the book that he calls Kissell the best teacher he ever had.

Torre tells a story about something that Kissell often says to him. "Who wrote the book, Joe?" Kissell will say. Torre knows the answer: "Nobody, George. Nobody wrote the book."

"That was George's way of reminding me that I could make any move I wanted as manager as long as I had the right reasons for it _ whether it was unpopular or unorthodox," Torre wrote. The Yankee manager notes that he made a lot of unconventional moves in the 1996 World Series _ and won it.

Kissell, it would seem, wrote the book on not writing the book.

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St. Louis has just beaten the Cleveland Indians, 4-1. Outside Al Lang Stadium, red-clad fans wait for the Cardinals to come out of the clubhouse. Nobody on the team can get to the parking lot without crossing this red Rubicon.

An old man emerges from the cool hollow of the stadium. The crowd inspects him as he strides past, trailing the history of the game behind him. No one says a word to him. Soon he is gone, and the fans turn back toward the stadium, clutching their baseballs and hoping that someone important will come along.

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.

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