Jake Lemmerman takes part in a drill during Tuesday's minor-league practice at the Cardinals' complex. (Scott Rovak, USA Today Sports)
By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – A student of history, Jake Lemmerman knew Tuesday was not just another ordinary day at the Cardinals’ spring training complex.
Back on field 2 at Roger Dean Stadium, Lemmerman was one of a select group of minor-leaguers receiving special instruction – from Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith. A shortstop himself, Lemmerman could appreciate the significance of the event.
“When I saw it on the schedule, I was excited,” Lemmerman said. “He was one of the best shortstops ever, if not the best. Your attention span just centers right on him. He was working with us just as any coach would do.”
Getting that instruction from Smith as part of the Cardinals early minor-league camp was the most recent history lesson Lemmerman has received in the past three months, on and off the baseball field.
The hectic pace began in December for Lemmerman, a three-time academic All-America history major while a student at Duke, when he was at his sister’s apartment in New York waiting for a flight to Israel. He got a phone call from a buddy informing him that there were reports on Twitter that he had been traded from the Dodgers to the Cardinals.
Having grown up in southern California as a Dodger fan, both because of location and the strong relationship between the team and its Jewish players, the news shocked Lemmerman. At first he thought his buddy was playing a joke on him.
He soon found out the reports were true, that he was the player involved in the deal sending Skip Schumaker from the Cardinals to the Dodgers, although the trade could not become official until Schumaker passed a physical.
“I got on Twitter and immediately had like 500 new followers, all saying welcome to Cardinal nation,” Lemmerman said. “The problem was I was going to be out of cell phone range in Israel, leaving in eight hours, and I was not going to have any way to find out for sure what was going on.”
So Lemmerman sat on a plane for 12 hours, after a stop in Toronto, before spending 10 days in Israel, wondering how his baseball future had just changed.
He used that time to soak up as many history lessons as he could while visiting all of the famous Biblical sites in that country.
“The most inspiring part was going to Jerusalem, because of all of the things you hear about it,” he said. “The coolest part was definitely floating in the Dead Sea. It’s so salty that you literally are held up in the water. You try to go down and it pulls you back up. You don’t want to go underwater because your eyes will burn because there is so much salt in the water.”
While experiencing that sensation, Lemmerman got another lesson in the ongoing hostilities that never seem to go away in the Middle East.
“We were right on the border of Israel and Jordan, a really beautiful place, and these fighter planes were literally flying 100 feet above our heads,” he said. “It was so loud, but it was also the coolest thing. I could see the pilot in the cockpit as they flew over. It was awesome.”
Lemmerman thought his entire trip to Israel was an incredible experience, a trip arranged and funded through a program called Birthright designed to educate young people of the Jewish faith with the history of their religion.
It was his first trip to Israel and was a byproduct of his playing for the Israeli team that was trying to qualify for the World Baseball Classic. There actually were only three Israeli players on the team, the rest were American Jews such as Lemmerman.
The team played its qualifying round in November, at Roger Dean Stadium, where the Israel team was eliminated by Spain.
“Stayed in the same hotel and everything,” Lemmerman said.
Inspired by the relationships he established during his time with that team, Lemmerman knew the visit to Israel would be memorable, and he was correct.
“When I went there I definitely had the connection, something I hadn’t felt before,” he said. “It was a good feeling being in a place where there are mostly Jews instead of just meeting one every once in a while. It was special to me, and gave me a bigger interest in learning the history.”
The same is true of improving his knowledge of baseball history. One lesson he has already learned is that the Cardinals do not trade an established major leaguer for a minor leaguer very often.
It happened in 2007 when they traded Jim Edmonds for David Freese. It happened again in 2010 when they traded Brendan Ryan to Seattle for Maikel Cleto.
“That was the surprising part of it,” Lemmerman said. “It was bittersweet. I knew it was going to be a good opportunity for me, and that the Cardinals were a good organization. I knew they liked to bring minor leaguers up and promote from within.”
The 23-year-old Lemmerman, a fifth-round pick by the Dodgers after his junior year at Duke in 2010, began his professional career being named the MVP in the short-season Pioneer League, but saw his career hit a speed bump last year at Double A Chattanooga, when he hit just .233.
Consider it another history lesson, one Lemmerman hopes he can use to his advantage this season. He likely will begin the regular season as the shortstop at Double A Springfield.
“It was a big learning year for me,” he said. “In the second half I was playing three days and sitting three, and I had not done that before. I learned a lot about myself hitting, and mentally how to prepare myself. It just comes with having years under your belt.
“I really focused this offseason on my routine. I had a great plan, working out in Santa Barbara, Calif., and believe I am bigger, faster and stronger, and I’ve got a better head on my shoulders.
“The trade was a good refresher for me. I’m ready to go out and show this organization why it made a good trade. … I think I found a swing that really works for me, it’s simple and consistent. I want to stick to that, and keep working hard on defense.”
That was the area of his game that Smith was working on with Lemmerman Tuesday, a lesson Lemmerman wants to remember forever.
“He was really talking about the importance of creating angles for a shortstop,” Lemmerman said. “He talked about how important it was to be in a position where your momentum was going toward the base you are throwing to. That was the main point he was making with me.”
Lemmerman will be back on the practice field on Wednesday, not knowing where his next history lesson will come from.
“I’m learning as I go,” he said.