Happy holidays, everyone! I hope you’ve enjoyed, and are continuing to enjoy, whatever you celebrate this time of year. Between Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve and Day, there are ample opportunities this time of year to celebrate good times (come on!). With that in mind, I want to turn the off-season retrospective series to another opportunity to celebrate good times in St. Louis- a celebration to last throughout the years. So bring your good times, and your laughter too, we’re gonna look at the Cardinals before 1982.
The Beginning of the Beginning
The story of the 1981-1982 Cardinals off-season begins a year before, in August 1980 when Whitey Herzog took over as General Manager of a stale franchise lacking an identity. There were plenty of decent players on the roster- a borderline Hall of Famer in his prime at first base (Keith Hernandez), a steady shortstop just beginning his career (Garry Templeton), another borderline Hall of Famer and face of the franchise behind the plate (Ted Simmons), and two reliable horses anchoring the rotation (Bob Forsch and Pete Vuckovich). Silent George Hendrick provided steady thump in right field. However, the team lacked the athleticism that Herzog craved, particularly playing in an astroturf cavern like Busch Stadium. They finished 74-88 despite an 84-78 pythagorean record, and Herzog had his mandate to rebuild.
Herzog wanted a more athletic team with the ability to swipe bases, smother the opposition with the glove, and limit the damage of opposing base stealers. He also wanted to get younger, and he needed bullpen help. That would be their identity.
In the 1980-81 off-season, a flurry of moves saw the departure of third baseman Ken Reitz, aging leftfielder Bobby Bonds, promising young catcher Terry Kennedy, and infield prospect Leon Durham. Herzog also jettisoned the popular Simmons, brand new acquisition Rollie Fingers, and Vuckovich in a deal with Milwaukee.
To replace Reitz, he moved second baseman Ken Oberkfell over to third, opening up playing time at second for youngster Tommy Herr. He replaced Simmons with free agent Darrell Porter. In the Simmons deal, he grabbed Sixto Lezcano as a potential leftfielder and 20-year-old prospect David Green. Lezcano had racked up 17 fWAR before the age of 27, and Green had posted an .823 OPS as a 19-year-old in AA. Vuckovich’s spot in the rotation was taken by another part of the Brewer bounty, Lary Sorensen. Bob Shirley had come along from San Diego with Fingers (in the literal four days that Fingers was a Cardinal), providing more rotation depth. For Durham and Reitz, Herzog had acquired high-leverage daredevil Bruce Sutter for the back of the bullpen.
At the end of it all, he had gotten more speed and athleticism at three positions- second base, third base, and left field. He had enhanced the bullpen with Sutter. He now had a weapon behind the plate to combat his speedy inner-division opponents, even if it meant sacrificing some offense by going from Simmons to Porter. Then, just before the trade deadline (in June at the time) in 1981, he shipped middling outfielder Tony Scott to Houston for a talented, mercurial starting pitcher named Joaquín Andújar. Finally, in September, he helped out his bullpen by taking a flyer on Cincinnati’s Doug Bair.
I told you that story to tell you this one.
The 1981 Season
All of the activity during the previous off-season had mostly worked. The Herr/Oberkfell infield combo proved more fruitful than the previous year’s Oberkfell/Reitz tandem. Neither had eye-popping skills, but both youngsters filled box scores up with their soft skills. Even in limited time, Lezcano was an upgrade over Bonds. Sorensen and half a season of Andujar were effective solutions in the rotation, and Sutter was a beast closing games out. Porter didn’t outperform the 1980 version of Ted Simmons, but he outperformed the 1981 version.
The 1980 Cardinals ranked 11th (of 26) in Fangraphs’ BsR (Base Running) and a solid 3rd in Fangraphs’ Def (Defensive Runs Above Average). By 1981, they improved to first overall in the defensive metric and 9th in base running. Strides were made.
In the strike-shortened season, the Cardinals had the best record in the National League East. Their collective record was 59-43, just a bit better than their 56-46 pythagorean record. Unfortunately, the strike had forced the season in to two halves. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided that the best record in each division before the strike and after the strike would merit a playoff berth. In the first half, pre-strike, they finished 3.5 games back of the eventual World Series champion Phillies. In the post-strike second half, the Expos had them beat by just a half game, a fact made all the more frustrating by a walkoff loss to the lowly Pirates in the third to last game of the season. In the aggregate, they had the best record in their division, but didn’t manage to reach the post-season.
Side note: this set-up was just as stupid in the NL West, where the Reds had collected a .611 winning percentage- a 99 win pace!- and also missed the playoffs because they didn’t finish first in either half. The two best records in the National League in 1981 belonged to the Reds and Cardinals, and neither made the playoffs.
The tumultuous previous off-season had seen the young backbone of the franchise take shape. Herr, Oberkfell, Sorenesen, and Templeton were just 25 in 1981. Lezcano was 27. Hernandez was also 27 and still in his prime. Green was about to turn 21 and offered depth. Silvio Martinez and John Martin had offered rotation depth at age 25, while Shirley did the same at age 27.
The three major contributors over the age of 30- Hendrick, Forsch, and the 42-year-old Jim Kaat- were all still varying degrees of productive. Sutter and Porter had stabilized their positions. And most importantly, Herzog’s desired identity for the team was becoming apparent. They were younger, more athletic, flashed more speed, and smothered opponents with an improving defense.
The infusion of athleticism in the infield had yet to take place in the outfield. Dane Iorg was fine as a fourth outfielder, but would have been stretched as a full-time player. Hendrick was a lock in right field, and the Lezcano/Green duo offered hope for at least one of the other positions, but the outfield was mostly unsettled. Beyond the outfield, the bullpen needed a little help after Sutter.
The biggest negative was that Herzog had to figure out how to handle the Templeton problem. For all of his productivity and talent at shortstop, Templeton had caused a stir on Ladies Day in late August 1981. He hadn’t run out a dropped third strike, causing the fans to lustily boo him. He responded by flipping them off. A few innings later, the home fans continued to boo him and he responded with another obscene gesture. It was enough to get him ejected. As he left the field, he flipped the fans off again, this time grabbing his junk for emphasis. Herzog erupted, yanking him down in to the dugout. The two had a brief scuffle. All of this was in addition to the mounting perception that Templeton was a malcontent unwilling to put in the work to capitalize on his talent.
In early November, Herzog began to address the outfield by taking a chance on a fleet-footed Yankee minor leaguer. The outfielder didn’t hit for much pop, but he could cover lots of ground and maximized his skills. The asking price for future MVP Willie McGee had been Bob Sykes, basically rotation and bullpen depth. Sykes never pitched in the majors again, while McGee became a beloved franchise icon. At the time, nobody knew what McGee would become but in the least, he gave Herzog a more athletic option in the outfield.
In November, Herzog continued to push for more speed and steady production in the outfield. In a three-team trade, he received Lonnie Smith from Philadelphia and yielded two of his 25-year-old pitchers, Lary Sorensen and Silvio Martinez, to Cleveland. Smith had been a highly productive platoon outfielder in Philadelphia, racking up 4.2 fWAR from 1980 to 1981 in just 533 plate appearances. He was also just 26. He was a productive hitter with good speed. His defense left a bit to be desired, as he had earned the nickname “Skates”, but it didn’t eliminate his overall value. The two 25-year-old pitchers had provided a lot of value, but they were contact-heavy for a team that could use just about anyone in front of their defense-first lineup. Forsch and Andújar were rocks in the rotation, and youngsters John Stuper, John Martin, and Dave LaPoint (acquired in the Simmons deal) offered depth.
With the outfield resolved by December, Herzog moved his attention to the Templeton problem. The Padres had their own shortstop issue with Ozzie Smith. He had quickly established himself as the best defender in the league upon his 1978 debut, performing feats the likes of which fans had never seen.
However, Smith’s contract demands irked ownership, particularly since he had been such a weak hitter. He slashed .231/.295/.278, good for a 66 OPS+, as a Padre. The teams swapped their problems, with the Padres sending pitcher Steve Mura along with Smith in exchange for Lezcano, Templeton, and minor league pitcher Luis DeLeon.
Templeton settled down and remained a fine shorstop for the Padres for nearly a decade, while Lezcano and DeLeon each provided value as well. Lezcano, of all people, was the most productive player in the trade in 1982, accumulating a 5.3 fWAR. It was also his last good season, whereas Smith went on to become a St. Louis legend and a Hall of Famer.
The final significant move of the off-season happened just before the 1982 season began. Herzog flipped Bob Shirley to Cincinnati for Jeff Lahti, an additional bullpen arm.
Herzog doubled down on his speed and defense plan, infusing his lineup with the two Smiths and a lottery ticket on Willie McGee. As productive as the 1980-81 off-season had been, the 1981-82 off-season had been even better. McGee and Ozzie Smith would become the faces of an entire decade of success, while Lonnie Smith would prove plenty productive in his own right before leaving town in 1985.
You know how this ends. If you’re over 45, you witnessed it. If you’re 38 to 44, it made you a Cardinal fan for life. If you’re younger, you’ve been fed stories about this team your whole life. All of us have seen it evoked time and again every time you see a baby blue jersey at a Cardinals game. There’s a reason it’s called “Victory Blue”, and it’s not because of the 1976-1981 or 1983-1984 seasons, the other years they wore that color.
They spent just 29 days out of first place all season long. Lonnie Smith posted a 132 wRC+ and a 5.4 fWAR. Ozzie had the most productive season at the plate since his 1978 debut. Combined with his wizardry at shortstop, it came out to a 4.1 fWAR. Mura, Stuper, and LaPoint were juuuust enough in the rotation. Bair and Lahti created a better bridge to Sutter, who was busy firming up what would become a Hall of Fame resumé.
McGee took over the everyday center field job in early May en route to a 97 wRC+ and 1.0 fWAR. Those numbers might sound unimpressive. Given what he did that October, it’s moot.
Their BsR was 7th, their DEF was 2nd, and their Speed score (Bill James’ pet metric) was the best in the league. What Herzog began in August of 1980 culminated in a tense post-season full of ups and downs, a seven game World Series, and eventually a Winner. A World Series Winner.