So it’s to be a theme week, is it?
We here at VEB Industries are collaborating (well, very loosely), on a project this week, as part of a larger theme week approach. Said theme is the best team, or teams, to never win a championship for one’s franchise. Being a Cardinal fan, we have choices galore, the admittedly less attractive younger sister of that lady from Goldfinger.
The official consensus seems to be the 2004 squad was the one, the club which most should have brought home the trophy and didn’t. This is an appropriate stance to take, really; there are not that many 105 win behemoths just laying around most franchise’s histories, and the fact we have one that sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the also-rans makes it a fairly obvious choice.
The next year’s club, the 2005 team which featured Chris Carpenter’s historic Cy Young season, the last great year of Jim Edmonds’s career, probably the best year of Jason Isringhausen’s, an up-the-middle combo that seamlessly replaced the previous year’s incarnation, and a supporting cast of seemingly thousands, has an intriguing argument to make as well, I think, but the loss of Scott Rolen makes it a weaker team pretty much without question. It may have been a more impressive team effort, considering what that club accomplished without one of the MV3 on the field for most of the year and an infield which was almost completely retooled from ‘04, but it’s very hard to argue it was actually a better team.
The 1949 team (98-56), almost has to go down in history as the best Cardinal team to not even make the playoffs; the ‘43 club was a 105-win juggernaut (in a 154 game schedule, mind you), which fell to the Yankees in the middle season of a three-year run of World Series appearances. The 1968 team was a little less stacked, perhaps, but deserves mention if only to once again bring up Bob Gibson’s miracle season of seasons.
In the end, though, much of what you’ll read this week will be about that incredible summer of 2004. Which is why, of course, I’m going to write about something completely different. Two teams, nearly twenty years before that ‘04 run. It wasn’t the end of the Whitey Herzog era, exactly, but by 1988 the Whiteyball train had left town. These were the first great teams of my life. So let me tell you about them.
I suppose that 1982 was the actual first great team of my life, but being two years old I was wholly unaware of that club’s heroics. That club will stand, in many ways, as the high point of the Whitey Herzog era, largely because there was a high fastball to Gorman Thomas and a trophy waiting at the end of it. It’s easier to romanticise a team when there’s a trophy.
Whitey Herzog came to the Cardinals in 1980, following a very successful stint as the manager of the Kansas City Royals. He led the Royals to three straight division crowns from 1976-’78, part of a five-year tenure during which the club went more than 100 games over .500. He already had a bit of a reputation as a genius, but it would be in St. Louis where he would achieve his highest highs.
I think we all know the story of Whiteyball by now. Or, at least, the broad strokes, and maybe only the surface narrative. The story of Whiteyball that everybody knows is the story of speed, and defense, and big stadiums with artificial turf. And that, in general, is a true story. The other story, though, the one that isn’t as well understood or represented, is the story of high on-base percentages, dominant bullpens, and a run-producing Presence or two in the middle of the lineup to keep things moving.
I know I’ve mentioned it somewhere around here at one point or another, but my first real baseball memory is of the ‘85 World Series. I was five years and about three months old when Don Denkinger blew a call at first base, and I understood baseball already, at least to a certain extent. I knew enough to be watching, I knew enough to follow the game and root for our team, I knew enough to know Ozzie Smith was awesome, and I knew enough to hate the bad guys. I wasn’t completely new to the game already, I know, but at the same time everything before October of 1985 is a misty haze. I know that we went to my Grandma’s for Christmas every year, but the first year I can actually recall is 1984, when I got a He-Man bike with training wheels that was hidden in her bedroom, with just a written card in a package telling me where to look. I know I got stuff before that — I already had stuff by then, and it had to come from somewhere — but that’s the first Christmas I can really remember being there. The Denkinger Call is my He-Man bike Christmas.
I don’t remember the play, actually. What I remember was my father and uncle screaming at the television. We were at my uncle’s house watching the game, because he had a nice big console television, while we had a nice, big console television that was on the fritz at the time and thus had that white trash classic, the small bedroom TV on top of the big good TV that wasn’t working. And a World Series winner demands a proper viewing experience. We watched Game Seven on the small television on top of the big one; funeral processions fit just fine on the small screen. But when we thought we were winning? We made the fifteen minute trek to Uncle Ernie’s to watch that shit proper.
It was, I think, the most upset I had ever seen my father up to that point. He and my mom got into a screaming match one night so bad that he ripped the roll-down shade off the front door instead of hitting her; she never replaced the shade, taking a vaguely venomous pleasure in the memory and occasional retelling of his half-drunk rage. (I did not grow up in the healthiest home, in case anyone was wondering. It could have been far worse, but it had its days, all the same.) I think he might have been more upset watching the game. Maybe I’ll quote Tony LaRussa here: “Tied for first.”
What I remember about the night was the impotent rage, the knowledge that, even on a 25 inch screen with a slightly fuzzy picture from the antenna being buffeted by a breeze, we had been screwed. Or, more properly, Screwed. No lowercase esses here; what had been done to us required proper-noun status. And I remember being so angry, so upset, so furious with the world. I only half understood what had happened, but I was outrage on behalf of my bloodline, knowing instinctively that this affront would leave a scar, that this was an unforgivable breach of decency by the universe at large.
You know what else I remember? Meeting Jack Clark.
Clark was the centerpiece of the mid-80s offenses, having been acquired from the Giants over the 1984-’85 offseason. Keith Hernandez had been dealt away from the ‘82 squad, Lonnie Smith was being slowly phased out by Herzog, and the secret thing about that 1982 club is that the offense really kind of sucked anyway. That club was built on a couple of really good pitchers, just enough offense to stay afloat, and an all-time great defense. Sort of like the 2019 Cardinals, actually, who also went 92-70 based on unbelievable defense pulling the club up. The 1983 club had a better offense, but the pitching collapsed and the defense took a hit with the transition from Keith Hernandez to George Hendrick and Tommy Herr hitting the first injury slide of his career. The 1984 season saw the offense go back in the tank, and the pitching no longer had enough firepower to sustain it, although Bruce Sutter had arguably the best season of his career that year. Actually, let me amend that: second best. I always forget just how insane Sutter’s 1977 season was.
So heading into 1985, Whitey and the guy who called himself GM (but who really just served as Herzog’s assistant), decided to make a play for a Big Bat. (The parallels with the modern day Cardinals are occasionally eerie.) They settled on Jack Clark, a notably patient slugger with issues staying healthy who had been playing for the Giants since 1975. He became a more or less full time player at age 21 in ‘77, then took off the next season, posting a .306/.358/.537 line that was 52% better than league average. The plate approach was not yet what it would become, but the ability to hit screaming line drives all over the park was already fully developed.
His production waxed and waned a bit over the next few years, but he was always good for an .800+ OPS even in the down years, and that was always substantially better than an average line at the time. What was more troubling with Clark were persistent injury issues. He didn’t miss huge chunks of time, but he missed 30ish games per season most years. One year he played in just 99 games. In 1984, he appeared in only 57 games for the Giants. That was his age 28 season, what should have been one of the most productive of his career, and instead he failed to make 60 games and, while he did post a .971 OPS in those games, knocked only eleven dingers on the year. The Giants decided it was time to move on, the Cardinals decided it was time to inject some thump into their offense, and thus, a deal was born.
I met Jack Clark outside the bathroom at Union Station. I don’t think it was the very first day Union Station reopened (this was late summer of 1985, Labor Day weekend, and again, the parallels between then and now, with Union Station reopening with a new identity, are striking), but it was the first weekend. I was there with my parents. We watched the guy make fudge. There was a store that only sold model trains, which my dad wanted me to be interested in and I was not. (My family is mostly railroad men, on both sides.) And then, there was Jack Clark. He was instantly recognisable by the unibrow he sported in those days, and the fact he was a Cardinal.
He was standing outside the ladies’ bathroom, waiting. It was so banal. My dad pointed him out first, and once I saw him and recognised him I wanted to go over. Dad didn’t want to bother him, but my mother took me by my hand and led me over. I don’t remember what Clark said, but he was nice. It helps to be a little kid, especially when you’re bothering a famous person waiting for their significant other outside a bathroom. I was awed by his hands. They were enormous, the size of trashcan lids, it seemed. His wife or girlfriend came out after a couple minutes, and she was wearing something very low cut and she was very jiggly. I was only five, but was already able to recognise that there was something about this woman which had an effect on me. Clark called me slugger, put his arm around the waist of his companion, and away they went. I understood at that moment that baseball players are special.
Those are the things I remember about that 1985 team. I remember being awed by Jack Clark, excited by his female companion in a way I didn’t quite understand yet, and I remember screaming at the television when the season slipped away. I remember that John Tudor was my favourite pitcher in the world, but I remember him more a couple years later. I remember the tarp eating Vince Coleman, or at least the jokes about the tarp eating Vince Coleman.
I can tell you things I know now about the 1985 Cardinals. I can tell you John Tudor had an all-time great pitching season, and it’s really a shame Doc Gooden did what Doc Gooden did in ‘85, because Tudor deserved the Cy Young. Doc just deserved it a little more. I can tell you that Vince Coleman managed to be a very valuable player, despite being kind of a terrible hitter and a not-as-good-as-you-would-expect outfielder, because he really was a freak on the basepaths. He wasn’t quite as good as Ricky, mind you, because no one has ever been as good as Ricky — just ask Ricky; Ricky will tell you — but he was close. In 1985, Coleman stole 110 bases, and was caught only 25 times. That’s an 81.4% success rate, and the break-even point for stolen bases is right around 70%, maybe a little lower based on the offensive environment. Coleman was well above that point, and did it in such a volume that he was adding large amounts of value.
I can tell you that Willie McGee was a monster in ‘85, hitting .353/.384/.503, playing Willie McGee defense in center, and bringing home the National League Most Valuable Player award. I cried the day McGee was traded, despite feeling like I was too old to be so affected. I remember when he was dueling Lenny Dykstra for the batting title. Dykstra won, and I have hated Lenny Dykstra ever since, in a way that probably isn’t healthy.
I can tell you that the Cardinals had one of the best closers in baseball that year, and it was neither Bruce Sutter, the man who had been on the mound at the end of the ‘82 World Series, nor Todd Worrell, the man who would be on the mound when Don Denkinger blinked and missed it. It was Jeff Lahti, whose entire major league career covered but five seasons, from 1982-’86. He came up with the Cards in ‘82, was a middling reliever that year, and the next, and the next, then turned in a 1.84 ERA (194 ERA+), campaign in 1985, taking over as closer for the departed Sutter. He pitched two innings in 1986, and then he was gone. This was not uncommon in the old days. Tommy John surgery existed, yes, but it was still relatively new, and you heard the words ‘rotator cuff’ plenty often with pitchers back then. And when you heard those words, it was basically over.
I can tell you that even at the time I thought Todd Worrell was an incredible badass. He was one of those guys who, even on television, in low resolution, you could tell how hard he threw. Rob Dibble was the ultimate example, but Worrell was one of those guys too. You could tell that the ball was moving much, much faster when he threw it than when nearly every other pitcher did so.
I can tell you that the 1985 Cardinals won 101 games, basically deserved that record according to their underlying numbers, and they broke my heart. The first team to break my heart, in fact. What I remember of that year is mostly a few anecdotes, and then a complete meltdown at the end, when things went so awry the world seemed to have come off its axis. It was the team that taught me what it looks like to love baseball, what it feels like to have it in your blood. I played Khoury League ball, I knew my grandpa was special because once upon a time he had been a real-life minor league baseball player, I saw Jack Clark in public and had to meet him. And then, at the end, I had my heart ripped out. And so did everyone else.
This column has become long. Thus, I am breaking it into two parts. I will write tomorrow about the 1987 Cardinals, and the end of Whiteyball. See you then.