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Whiteyball goes dim for the St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals ran once. But there's not much running to do in front of Mark McGwire.

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Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

[Editor's note: SB Nation United continues apace. One new feature I hope you'll enjoy-roaming the network now you'll notice SB Nation "Designated Columnists" writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. Our first piece comes from Steven Goldman, MLB League Editor for SBN, manager of the Pinstriped Bible, and author of Forging Genius. He saw the Cardinals on Monday, and things were not quite as powder blue as he remembered them.]

Like most of you, on Monday afternoon I watched the Cardinals thrash the Washington Nationals 12-4, bombing four home runs in the process.

It all seemed so wrong.

Don't misunderstand me-I'm not rooting against the Cardinals. It's just that to my mind, this is not the way the Cardinals do things.

When I came of age as a baseball fan, the Cardinals were the most exciting, different, and, from the point of view of any opponent or that opponent's fans, frightening and frustrating team in baseball. In an era noted for speed and power, "Whiteyball," the style of play created by manager Whitey Herzog to take advantage of the pitcher-friendly, turf-covered previous iteration of Busch Stadium, eschewed the latter, relying almost solely on speed. The way the Cardinals stole bases, any single had the potential to turn into a de facto double or triple a few pitches later.

It's only a slight exaggeration to say that Herzog's three pennant winners relied entirely on a lineup of eight switch-hitters, great defense, and a staff of control pitchers. It was a Deadball Era style in a lively ball age, but it was far more dedicated to speed and precision than anything envisioned by John McGraw and the architects of the bunt-and-run "Inside Baseball" of the early 20th century.

From 1982 to 1989, Herzog's eight full seasons with the team, the Cardinals hit 608 home runs, the fewest in the major leagues. They hit over 400 fewer home runs than the average team and almost 800 less than the Detroit Tigers, who led the majors. Simultaneously, they stole 1840 bases, the most in the majors, 500 more than the second-place team (the Expos), and almost two times the number stolen by the average team. In 1985, the Cardinals became one of just five teams, and only the second since 1912, to steal over 300 bases. As a contrasting example I offer the Boston Red Sox: they stole only 415 bases during the entire eight-year period.

I don't have to tell you the names of the Cardinals' stars during this period, but it's still fun to remember them bulleting around the bases and making great plays in the field: Ozzie Smith, the greatest defensive shortstop of all time, and, as his career went on, an underrated hitter-I still think he should have been the National League MVP in 1987. Willie McGee, stolen from the Yankees or just acquired, depending on who you ask, who did win the MVP award in 1985. Lonnie Smith-well, Lonnie didn't make great plays in the field as much as he made great bad plays. Vince Coleman was never a favorite of mine-I couldn't think of him as a worthy leadoff man when Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines were still in their primes, even if he did steal 100 bases a year-but I can now concede that he was a valuable player for the Cardinals.

I could keep going: second baseman Tommy Herr, who in 1985 became the first hitter since 1950 to drive in 100 or more runs with fewer than 10 home runs (there has been only one other since, Paul Molitor in 1996). Terry Pendleton wasn't much of a hitter with the Cardinals-it would take a move to the Braves to unlock his inner MVP-but he won two deserved Gold Gloves. Andy Van Slyke, who gave Herzog power, speed, and versatility. More traditional run production was supplied by (in different years) Keith Hernandez, George Hendrick, Jack Clark, and Pedro Guerrero.

Because the Cardinals had such fast defenders, they could afford to employ pitch-to-contact types in their rotation. Although Jose DeLeon struck out 200 batters a year for Herzog in 1988 and 1989, he was an outlier; Joe Magrane, who struck out a grand total of 227 in those two years combined was more typical. In all, Cardinals pitchers struck out the second-fewest batters in the majors from 1982-1989 (only the Orioles had fewer). They also walked fewer batters than all but three teams.

The era came to a sudden end in 1990. Herzog, who had been his own general manager in his early years with the club, increasingly clashed with the front office both before and after owner Gussie Busch died in 1989, with the result that one of the smartest teams in baseball started making dumb decisions, for example losing the essential Clark to the Yankees as a free agent after the 1987 season, then, without consulting Herzog, replacing him with the overweight, injury-prone Bob Horner, as non-Whiteyball a player as there ever was. Herzog saw that the team was entering a period of transition, but knew he would be unable to resolve the resultant problems in his own way. Fed up, he quit halfway through the 1990 season. Though only 58 years old, he would never manage another game.

In the ensuing years, the Whiteyball style died away. The last Cardinal to steal more than 50 bases was Delino DeShields in 1997. No Cardinal has stolen even 30 bases in a season since Edgar Renteria in 2003. The 1991 and 1992 Cardinals, still feeling Herzog's influence, stole 200 bases a year. The team dropped off to 153 in 1993 and into the 130s by the end of the decade. Just one Cardinals team of this century has stolen even 100 bases (2004) . The 2012 team stole 91, or fewer than Coleman himself had in any of his first three seasons.

Simultaneously, as the Cardinals evolved to match Tony LaRussa's more power-oriented approach and the times themselves changed to make home runs themselves a more prevalent part of the game, the Cardinals became a more typical power-hitting team. The Cardinals had not hit 100 home runs in a season under Herzog - even in 1987, then somewhat naively referred to as "The Year of the Homer," they topped out at 94 - but with Mark McGwire on board they launched 223 in 1998. They led the league, something that would have been unthinkable less than 10 years before. They broke their own team record in 2000 when they hit 235 in 2000. Albert Pujols came along shortly thereafter, and for over a decade it became commonplace to see a Cardinals hitter pop 40 home runs a year.

I realize that times change and teams must change with them. I know that all things must pass. Yet, glorious first impressions die hard. I relished the idea that baseball was diverse enough to allow for the existence of the Cardinals, and that a determined manager could shape his club into a winner despite, indeed because of, his defiance of the prevailing norms. Now baseball is homogenous, and there are no adventurous thinkers: teams such as the Tigers, Mets, Padres, and Mariners, confronted with difficult home parks, don't try to shape their teams to their environs, they just shrug their shoulders and pull in the fences.

The Cardinals have been very successful doing things their way in the years since Whiteyball. Herzog had three pennants in eight seasons, but only one championship. LaRussa's window-breakers had three pennants and two championships in the eight seasons that concluded his career. They may even win it all again this year. Yet, as I watch them jog around the bases along the way, I will be unable to resist thinking of the days when Cardinals didn't jog but ran.