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Birds of a Different Game

The White Rat was the mastermind behind the Cardinals’ success in the 1980s, a decade in St. Louis remembered for speed, defense, and pitching.

Whitey Herzog St. Louis Cardinals Photo by St. Louis Cardinals, LLC/Getty Images

This evening, at 7:00 PM Central time, MLB Network will release the newest episode of its ‘MLB Network Presents’ series. Many baseball fans, myself included, enjoy this series and the rich history it covers. Players, coaches, and managers from past and present are often featured to share their experiences or thoughts on that episode’s topics. Tonight’s episode is one you will not want to miss. Trust me.

“Birds of a Different Game: The 80s Cardinals” highlights how the Cardinals used outstanding speed, star-worthy defense, and gritty pitching to rejuvenate a team that had been more or less quiet for over a decade, since 1968. Longing to again see the Budweiser Clydesdales trek around the stadium in the fall, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch called the recently-fired Whitey Herzog in May of 1980, hopeful the former Rangers, Angels, and Royals skipper could bring a winning way to St. Louis. And boy, did Whitey do just that.

After managing the club for a few months of the 1980 season, Herzog had a vision for the Cardinals. He wanted speed; he wanted defense; he wanted pitching. Busch could see Herzog was on to something, so Herzog shifted to the role of general manager for the 1980-81 offseason. During the winter meetings that year, Herzog famously acquired Rollie Fingers in an 11-player trade with the Padres. The next day, Herzog got Bruce Sutter from the Cubs, and he followed by signing Darrell Porter — his trusted catcher from when he managed the Royals. These moves created two jams on the roster; both Fingers and Sutter wanted to close games, and St. Louis already had a quality backstop in Ted Simmons. So, Herzog flipped Fingers (who had been on the team for four days) and Simmons to the Milwaukee Brewers to bring some clarity to his roster. Trading them to the Brewers got them out of the National League; that way, his Cardinals couldn’t be hurt by the likely successes of these players. (Fingers went on to win the AL Cy Young and MVP awards in 1981 and Simmons was an All-Star, FWIW.)

The strike in the middle of the 1981 season that spanned nearly two months (from June 12 to August 9) led to the cancellation of 713 games league-wide. Because of this, the team owners decided to split the season into two halves. This meant that the winners of each division for each half met in best-of-five playoff series. (This was a one-time deal back in 1981, but in 1995, this idea became known as the LDS — the same as what we see every October.) The Cardinals finished 1981 with a 59-43 record, the best in the National League East. Nonetheless, the scenario caused by the strike actually led to St. Louis missing the playoffs. This stung, but the Cardinals used it as fuel in their fire for success the following year. Content with their club overall, St. Louis’ made just one notable move of the offseason, and it eventually became known as one of the best in their history. The Cardinals flipped shortstop Garry Templeton to the Padres for shortstop Ozzie Smith in a deal Whitey loved from the from the start.

To look back on the 1982 Cardinals, you will not find any glaring weaknesses. Five of the team’s daily eight had an OPS+ above 100 — Porter, Keith Hernandez, Ken Oberkfell, Lonnie Smith, and George Hendrick. Joaquin Andujar was at the forefront of a strong rotation, leading the staff with a 2.87 FIP in 265 23 innings in 37 starts. Bob Forsch, Steve Mura, and John Stuper started 34, 30, and 21 games, respectively. Rookie Willie McGee prowled center field, was a mean threat on the bases, and enticed many with the thought of what he could become, while Ozzie Smith began an 11-year streak of representing the Cardinals in the All-Star Game. To look back on the 1982 Cardinals, it’s no surprise that they won the World Series, their first title in 15 years. And though it turned out to be the team’s only championship of the ‘80s, the entire decade is worth reminiscing.

The Cardinals won the pennant three times in the ‘80s, topping the league in ‘82, ‘85, and ‘87. The 1982 season was the first of seven consecutive years that St. Louis led the National League in stolen bases. In fact, for the decade, the Cardinals also finished first in team fielding percentage seven times and with the best team ERA five times. Herzog was the Manager of the Year in ‘85, and McGee was the MVP the same year. The Cardinals had back-to-back Rookie of the Year Award winners with Vince Coleman in ‘85 and Todd Worrell in ‘86. Jack Clark spent his prime in St. Louis; in the 1985-’87 seasons in the Gateway City, Clark slashed .274/.413/.522 with 66 home runs in 322 games.

MLB Network will air “Birds of a Different Game: The ‘80s Cardinals” for the first time on Tuesday, 1/28, at 7:00 PM Central time and frequently in the days that follow. Both videos are credited to the official MLB Network YouTube channel and feature clips from the episode.