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The Whiteyball Runners-Up Club Pt. 2: Burn Down the Metrodome, and Everything That Came After

A very long journey through the second part of 80s era runner-ups, and how the Herzog era slowly fell apart.

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins, Game 3 Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

In a strange way, I think 1986 had just as much to do with my becoming a diehard baseball fan as had 1985. The ‘85 club, with its incredible talent and exciting storylines and Glen Frey songs, was the perfect introduction to the joy baseball could offer. Well, right up until the end, when it offered up an object lesson in how it feels to have that football yanked away just before you kick it. Aaugh, indeed.

But 1986? That season was, by most measures, a slog. The exhilaration of a World Series run, and the heartbreak of a World Series loss, gave way to the baffling ‘86 season, when the Cardinals sucked, and the Pond Scum Mets were awesome, and then won it all, just a year after our boys in red were so cruelly denied. I hated the Cubs when I was a kid, but public enemy number one was the New York Mets. Sure, I may have learned to imitate Daryl Strawberry’s leg kick, the way I would later convert to switch-hitting so I could better imitate the nearly-as-hated Will Clark’s swing, but still, the Mets were the worst.

I tend to think that sustained periods of bad baseball kill off fandom. Yes, there are and always will be diehards for virtually every club, but if there are no good days I think it’s awfully hard to fall in love. On the other hand, if it’s nothing but good days, do you ever really appreciate them? My comment signature, quoted from the great Bob Ross, sums up my feelings on the subject: “You have to have the dark to show the light.”

There was lots of dark in 1986.

What’s interesting to look back on now, from the distance of almost 35 years, is how different a season it was from what we expect these days. The Cardinals of recent vintage have become almost legendary for their ability to never, ever have a really bad year. The Redbirds have run out some mediocre-feeling teams at times, of course, including the recent 2016-’18 run when it seemed they were chasing their tails building 86 win clubs, but how many meaningless games did the Cardinals actually play in the 2010s? If the number requires two digits it would surprise me, honestly. Cardinal teams do not collapse. They may not be good enough, but they are never really bad. This century has seen only one losing season for the Cardinals, when absolutely everything went wrong, including one player’s death and a career-ending freak accident involving another. And that 2007 club followed a team that only won 83 games in 2006, as the MV3 era really faded away. For as much as we all loved that 2006 championship, the fact is that team was well down from the highs of the previous several years.

But the 1986 club followed up a 101 win season by returning nearly the same roster, including seven of the eight starting position players (catcher was the lone change, going from Tom Nieto to Mike Lavalliere, neither of whom were very good, though admittedly the club did lose some offensive quality when Darrell Porter left his time-sharing catcher spot for free agency), and three-fifths of the starting rotation. (And actually, the starting rotation was arguably better in ‘86 as a whole, though without the incredible ‘85 version of John Tudor taking the mound every fifth day for four months straight.) Somehow, despite the team on the field looking nearly the same as in 1985, the ‘86 Cardinals collapsed, falling from a 101-win season (and 100-win Pythagorean record), to a 79-82 record, both real and Pythagorean.

The culprit was the offense, which utterly imploded. There was only one hitter on the entire club with an OPS over .800, and that was Mike Laga, whose .808 mark came in just 52 plate appearances. Every other hitter, including guys who had been monsters in ‘85, posted a sub-.800 OPS for the 1986 season. Willie McGee went from NL MVP to an 86 OPS+ hitter. Jack Clark saw his OPS fall by over 100 points, from .895 to .794, as he struggled to get on the field, playing in just 65 games. (Jim Edmonds’s concussion issues in 2006 and after would provide a decent mirror to this situation.) Terry Pendleton’s OPS in over 600 plate appearances was .585. That number looks like a typo, but it’s not.

And somehow, that 1986 team helped me fall in love with the game even more. Part of it was being six years old, of course; there are few things in the world less discerning than a six year old child, particularly one who received a super cool styrofoam boater hat giveaway at the ballpark. But 1986 was also the club that taught me things don’t always go your way, and sometimes your team sucks. That doesn’t mean they’ve always sucked, and it doesn’t mean they will always suck. You have to have the darkness to show the light.

Didn’t mean for that preamble to end up as long as it did.

Now let’s talk about 1987.

Do you remember “Shakedown”?

Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. It was a huge hit for Bob Seger in ‘87; the song was originally featured on the soundtrack to the second Beverly Hills Cop movie. It hit number one, the movie was a huge hit on the strength of Eddie Murphy’s crazy early- to mid-80s run, and that summer the song Shakedown was ubiquitous. I mean, it was everywhere.

It also, well, it also sucked. And here’s the thing: I like Seger. I do. Well, like half of Seger. Bob Seger the balladeer is tough to beat. When Bob Seger tries to really rock, Bob Seger mostly sucks. Against the Wind is a great song, as is Still the Same. Night Moves is probably my favourite, both because it has so much of being nineteen years old in it and because of a personal connection I have to the song. (Yes, it’s about a girl, and no, I won’t be telling that story here. Ever.) We’ve Got Tonight is right up there with Sammi Smith’s version of Help Me Make it Through the Night as all-time great songs about worrying about the morning in the morning. I guess Hollywood Nights is the one Seger rocker that really defies the dichotomy; it rocks, but it does not suck.

Shakedown, though? Woof. I remember thinking even in 1987, as a six- or seven-year old, that it seemed pretty clear the Cardinals were just trying to recreate that Heat is On thing from a couple years earlier. We had Celebration in ‘82, The Heat is On in ‘85; it was obvious that the ‘87 pennant race had to have a song. And what better song, really, than the most generic, soundtrack-specific cheesefest one could think of? It was the sort of thing Kenny Loggins seemingly monopolised for a few years right around 1980, the sound of White America going to the movies. I suppose we still have some of this even these days; Justin Timberlake had a big hit from the Trolls soundtrack a couple years ago, if I remember correctly. But the soundtrack rock anthem as a chart driver seems a relatively antiquated thing these days.

So here we are, in the summer of ‘87, memories of both the glory of 1985 and its ultimate, brutal end fresh in our minds. Even fresher is the collapse of ‘86, when Jack Clark got hurt and nobody hit and the NL East was all Pond Scum, all the time. If 1985 was the season that showed me how much the Cardinals meant to the people around me, and 1986 was the year that taught me the bad times are always just around the corner, so the good times must be held tight at every chance, then 1987 was the season that taught me what it was really like to fall in love with a thing you know, a thing you understand, and a thing you only fall deeper into the more you learn about it.

The Whitey Herzog era Cardinals were, in fact, sort of all over the place. We don’t think of those teams that way from the distance of 30+ years of history, because the successes and playoff runs and enormously entertaining style of baseball sort of swallows up the bad times, but in reality, Whiteyball was not a consistent, year over year force of competitiveness.

Herzog joined the organisation during the 1980 season, and that year was, well, a mess. The Cards had been good in ‘79 under Ken Boyer, but the 1980 club opened 19-33 and Boyer was out. Herzog took over as manager in June, managed for about half a season, then moved into the GM role in late August, handing the field reins over to Red Schoendist, who already just couldn’t seem to quit managing the Cardinals every time there was an emergency. Keith Hernandez had won the NL MVP in 1979 and was nearly as good again in ‘80, but a strong offense just couldn’t carry what was a very weak pitching corps. Interestingly, the 1980 club is an all-time underachiever, ending with 74-88 record but a Pythagorean record a full ten wins better. There are obviously more snakebitten teams in baseball history, but some sequencing weirdness probably concealed a decently strong underlying talent base, making the Boyer to Herzog transition look much more dramatic than it actually should have.

The 1981 season was a weird one. Labour strife cut the season into two chunks, and while the Cardinals had the best overall record in the NL East that year, they finished second in both the first and second halves, managing to miss the playoffs due to the rules brought on by that season’s oddity. Still, the fact is the Cardinals of 1981 were an outstanding club. We all know about the ‘82 team, and at that point it looked like Whitey Herzog was a certifiable genius, turning around a foundering 1980 club into two straight seasons of fantastic baseball.

Then came the 1983 season, and the gravy train at least temporarily derailed. Joaquin Andujar had been one of Herzog’s signature acquisitions, coming in during the ‘81 season, and he put together an incredible 1982 campaign essentially out of nowhere. Andujar had been roughly an average pitcher in Houston since coming up in 1976, posting ERA numbers right around league average. In ‘82, he put together a 2.47 ERA (148 ERA+), season that was a primary reason for the Cards’ success that year. It didn’t hurt he was pitching in front of one of the great defenses of all time, of course.

In 1983, Andujar fell off a cliff, going 6-16 with a 4.16 ERA (88 ERA+), and dropping from 5.8 WAR in ‘82 to just 1.5. That’s how things went for most of the team, too. The whole starting rotation posted worse than league average ERAs, with the exception of rookie Danny Cox, who threw about 80 really good innings. Herzog traded Keith Hernandez midseason, in what might have been a necessary move given Hernandez’s drug issues at the time, but is very hard to square with quality baseball managing in the longer term. Hernandez remained a star-level player through 1987 with the Mets, only slowing down once injuries really started to hit him in ‘88. Herzog gets a lot of credit for moving Ted Simmons right before he started to decline, but Keith Hernandez remained great for quite a while after getting to New York, and essentially would have made the Jack Clark trade unnecessary had Herzog not created a hole. The off-field stuff? I don’t have a great perspective on that. Maybe the deal really was necessary. I just don’t know.

The 1984 club rebounded from a 79-83 record to go 84-78, which was fine, but not particularly good. Andujar rebounded as well, throwing a bunch of just above-average innings en route to a very solid season. The rest of the pitching, though, was terrible, aside from Bruce Sutter. The offense was only marginally better, with Terry Pendleton making his debut midseason and providing a jolt in the lineup.

I’ve talked already about 1985, but suffice it to say that the ‘84-’85 offseason was probably Herzog’s masterpiece. Yes, the Garry Templeton for Ozzie Smith trade is the deal that really set the stage for much of the ‘80s run, but what Whitey accomplished prior to the 1985 season cannot be overstated. He brought in John Tudor, who proceeded to throw 275 innings of sub-2.00 ERA ball. Herzog believed the cavernous expanse of Busch Stadium would fit Tudor’s flyball tendencies beautifully, and it turned out he was exactly right. Jack Clark filled the club’s hole at first base with aplomb, posting a 149 OPS+ and bringing an element of threat to the middle of the lineup the Cardinals simply hadn’t had before. There were a couple small moves as well, but Herzog added an ace and a middle of the order thumper in one offseason, and both contributed hugely to the ‘85 club’s success.

Then came 1986, which I’ve already talked about here. The fall off from ‘85 is still hard to understand even this many years later, other than to say the ‘86 Cardinals barely scored 600 runs one year after scoring nearly 750.

So as much as Whiteyball is held up as a golden era for the team, the fact is that through Herzog’s first seven seasons with the club, the Cardinals had made the playoffs only twice. Now, to be fair, the ‘81 club was really good and should have made it, but the midseason lockout threw things into chaos and the Cards managed to fall on the wrong side of the playoff rules that year. Obviously, making the playoffs in the two-division era was much tougher, so it’s fair to point that out as well. But in between the playoff appearances there were some really bad performances, and some fairly implausible failures.

Which brings us, finally, to 1987, the last hurrah for Whiteyball. And here is where we are faced with that dichotomy of the two versions of Whiteyball again. The version we mostly have in our heads is of the Runnin’ Redbirds, of Wille McGee rounding second on his way to a triple, of Lonnie Smith swiping bags left and right, of Vince Coleman swiping bags left and right and any other direction he could think of as well. The airtight defense is always brought up as well, but it’s the stolen bases that really seem to stick in people’s minds for some reason. I guess it’s simply the excitement.

What we actually see in 1987, though, is not a speed-and-defense dynamo, nimbly running circles around opponents. Rather, this is the other side of the Whiteyball approach. The 1987 Cardinals beat teams by outscoring them, putting up nearly 800 runs one year after that 601-run performance of 1986. And while there was certainly still some speed in the lineup, with Vince Coleman pacing the club with 109 steals and Ozzie Smith adding 43, no other Cardinal stole even 20 bases that year. What the ‘87 Cardinals did to win 95 games was flood the bases with baserunners and let the middle to bottom part of the lineup drive them in.

Jack Clark paced the offense, putting together that incredible .286/.459/.597 that convinced the Yankees to give him a big free agent contract in the offseason. Clark appeared in just 131 games, but drove in 106 runs and walked at a superhuman 24.4% clip. The rest of the team largely followed suit. Ozzie Smith had arguably the best offensive season of his career, getting on base at a .392 pace and walking 89 times against just 36 strikeouts. Coleman posted the best OBP of his career at .363. A young utility infielder named Jose Oquendo, acquired from the Mets a couple years earlier, played about half a season, appeared at every position sans catcher, and got on base to the tune of a .408 OBP and a 17% walk rate. Terry Pendleton got on base. Tommy Herr, already well past his prime at age 31, still managed to get on base nearly 35% of the time.

The 1987 version of Vince Coleman was probably the Platonic ideal of what we wanted him to be. He was almost exactly a league average hitter (99 wRC+), he posted a 10% walk rate, and he stole 109 bases in 131 attempts. The strikeouts were a little high at almost 18%; a version of Vince Coleman who could have pushed his contact rate to Ozzie Smith levels might have broken the game. Still, if you want to see what the best version of Vince Coleman looks like, 1987 is probably it.

The 1987 club’s pitching was strong, if not particularly flashy about it. Four of the five starting pitchers posted ERAs better than league average, with Bob Forsch at 37 years old the only laggard. John Tudor struggled a bit with injuries, making only 16 starts, but he was solid when he was on the mound, and Herzog cobbled together the rest of a fifth starter’s spot with a committee of a few guys, of whom Ricky Horton is only name you’ll probably recognise. The bullpen had a devastating one-two punch at the back in Ken Dayley and Todd Worrell, both of whom posted identical 2.66 ERAs. Horton was good as well, while the rest of the ‘pen just sort of held things together just enough when they had to.

And then came September. September 9th, to be exact. Jack Clark, the engine of the Cardinals’ offense in 1987, suffered an ankle injury and was, more or less, done for the year. He made a couple appearances in the NLCS against the Giants, but was left off the World Series roster. There was no Kirk Gibson Moment for Clark. He was the most important player on that team in many ways, and when it came down to crunch time, he wasn’t on the field. When Chris Carpenter got hurt down the stretch in 2004, it brought back uncomfortable memories of Clark’s ankle in ‘87. Carpenter in ‘04 was not nearly so vital a player as Clark was to that earlier squad, but you were still talking about the team’s best starting pitcher gone for the season, just as an historically good club was trying to ramp up for postseason play.

Those of you who were alive in 1987 may remember the Metrodome series. There were accusations, or at least rumours, of shenanigans involving the air conditioning in the dome. The basic outline of the conspiracy was that the Twins were turning on the AC when the Cardinals were batting, then turning it off when Minnesota was up. The vents in the Metrodome blew in such a way that the Cards would have been hitting into the wind, essentially. Was this true? I have no idea. When I was seven, it was 100% true, and I wanted to burn the Metrodome and the Minnesota Twins in general to the ground. Never mind that Kirby Puckett was certifiably awesome; burn it down. When I was 27, the idea of a baseball stadium-based conspiracy was ludicrous. Now, after seeing what the Astros pulled, and how blatant they were about it, well...

There’s no Metrodome left to burn down. So, you know. I guess I should let it go.

It’s funny, really, that the ‘87 series had such a contentious feel to it. In 1985 we were legitimately screwed out of a title, but in ‘87 there’s a more subtle argument to be made. The loss of Clark is, of course, the big blow, but John Tudor’s diminished health plays into it as well. The ‘87 Cardinals with ‘85 Tudor win the series, I think. The ‘87 Cardinals with ‘85 Willie McGee probably win the series too. The ‘87 Cardinals with ‘87 Jack Clark? Well, I think they probably win the series as well. A Cardinal club at full strength that October probably means I’m not writing this column right now, and 1985 is the one great could-have-been of the Whiteyball era, sandwiched by a pair of trophies. Whatever might or might not have happened with the air conditioning in the dome just added another layer of paranoia fuel to my seven year old brain, already convinced someone was trying to screw my team.

What I remember most about the 1987 Cardinals, though, honestly, has very little to do with the team. That summer was the summer I discovered the baseball stats section of the Post-Dispatch. Right in the middle of the sports section, you see, the Post-Dispatch used to print up not just box scores, but the complete statistical record for every team in baseball. I have no idea if other papers did this, but the P-D did up until the mid-90s, I believe, and it was incredible. I knew who was good on the Texas Rangers, despite knowing nothing about the Rangers themselves, never really seeing them play, and having very little idea what any of their players looked like beyond occasional baseball card photos. The summer of 1987 was the first year I can recall sitting in the basement of my grandparents’ house, poring over the stats page and asking my grandpa question after question while he smoked one Pall-Mall after another, or sometimes Marlboros if they were on sale. The ‘87 Cardinals were, in a lot of ways, my first baseball team as a real fan, not just a kid whose fandom had been passed on by his family. I learned to love the minutiae that year, and while a 95-67 club with slightly weak underlying stats maybe doesn’t compare to the ‘85 or 2004 behemoths, it was my first true love, and the last ride for the legend that was Whiteyball.

The end began in January of 1988. It began like this:

(via k9buzby)

I remember how angry everyone was at Jack Clark. At least when Albert left it was clear he took the better contract, and the Cardinals simply weren’t willing to go as far as they would need to to keep their legend in St. Louis. (And justifiably so, as it turns out.) When Clark left, it was much harder to understand why. It seemed at the time he either just didn’t like the city, or just wanted to go where the lights were brighter. I was a little too young to really understand properly how contract negotiations work and all that, but I wasn’t too young to decide Jack Clark was a traitor, and should be placed in the Metrodome before the fires were set.

In retrospect, Clark leaving was not the only thing pushing against Whitey Herzog continuing to be successful. The number one issue was ownership, as Gussie Busch was nearing the end of his life, and his son had very different ideas about how to spend Anheuser-Busch’s millions. Busch the third would spin off or close down nearly all ancillary businesses in the 90s, including Eagle Snacks and the railroad division, putting my father out of work for a period in 1992. He had little interest in baseball, and the Cardinals withered on the vine in the 90s prior to Bill DeWitt coming in to purchase the club. Even as early as 1988, the baseball operations of the Cardinals were beginning to feel some pinch from an ownership group no longer so cavalier as in the heyday of Gussie. (Even though Busch himself also had his own occasional bizarre forays into cheapness, usually ending up in Steve Carlton type situations.)

Lots of things went wrong in 1988, and overall the club experienced another of those huge drops from one year to the next, same as they had in 1985 and ‘86. Ozzie Smith was amazing again, John Tudor rebounded to a phenomenal 2.29 ERA, and Joe Magrane looked like an emerging ace at times, but the offense as a whole went in the tank and the pitching staff was uneven, to say the least.

Bob Horner tried to fill Jack Clark’s shoes at first base and...did not. Dal Maxvill and Herzog tried to add a big bat by trading Tommy Herr to the Twins for Tom Brunansky, which also didn’t work out that well. Brunansky was fine in ‘88, but fell off in ‘89 then crashed hard in 1990 and was dealt away to Boston. Brunansky was never really the kind of slugger the club needed; when Walt Jocketty signed Juan Encarnacion following the 2005 season, it was very much a Tom Brunansky kind of move, to put it into a more recent context. (Looking at Brunansky’s career, he posted bizarrely low BABIPs almost every year. I wonder what the deal with that is?)

The ‘88 Cardinals were a lot like the ‘86 version, in that they just...couldn’t...score. The ‘86 club scored just over 600 runs; the 1988 Cardinals scored just 578. The Cards scored nearly 200 runs more in 1987 than they did in 1986, and then scored 220 fewer runs in 1988 than in ‘87. I have no idea what to make of these enormous swings from year to year. I was puzzled back then why the team couldn’t seem to be good for more than one season at a time, and now, over 30 years on, it’s still incredibly confusing.

John Tudor was traded midseason to LA, where he would help the Dodgers win the 1988 World Series. I remember being vaguely happy for Tudor to get a championship ring after falling short in ‘85 and ‘87, but by that time I was really starting to like Dennis Eckersley and the A’s, so my enthusiasm was somewhat blunted. Luis Alicea came up in ‘88 and took over for Herr, and what I remember most is Mike Shannon calling Alicea the Ninja, after a new lawnmower put out by Snapper at the time. (I think Snapper was a sponsor, but I won’t swear to it.) Jack Buck and Mike Shannon on the radio on trips to Elephant Rocks is what I remember about 1988.

From 1985 to 1988, the Cardinals’ win totals under Whitey Herzog were 101-79-95-76. It seemed at the time like 1989 would be a good year. After all, every other year the Cardinals were awesome and went to the World Series, right?

1989 was not as awesome as I was hoping.

The Cardinals were better that year, to be fair, but ‘better’ in this case only means an 86-76 record and a third-place finish in the division. Pedro Guerrero, the player received in return for John Tudor the previous summer, was a beast, posting a 145 OPS+, but he was also old. Pete was 33 in ‘89, and it was his last good year. Dan Quisenberry had been picked up midseason of ‘88 as well, and he was great in 1989, but he was also old. He was 36, and would pitch only one more season, with the Giants, before retiring.

By this point, the Cardinals had begun to fall, hard, into the trap of trying to hold on. The brewery was not pouring in the kind of resources to win year after year by spending, but the front office was still making win-now, short term moves, usually built around older players. They did bring in the officially awesome Milt Thompson, but it wasn’t quite enough.

This is the part where you can start playing the back half of “Layla” in your mind if you want.

Todd Worrell’s injury troubles began in 1989; he had thrown nearly 300 inning in relief from 1986-’88, and he would have Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 1990 and ‘91 seasons. He came back strong in ‘92, the went to the Dodgers for a handful of up and down seasons to finish out his career. Worrell managed to pitch until he was 37, amazingly, but the guy who came up throwing gas in ‘85 was gone by the time the nineties arrived.

Todd Zeile was the great white hope of the late 80s, and he never quite worked out. Joe Magrane, so young and strong in 1988, was hurt by 1991 and never had another good season after that. Ken Hill came up in ‘88-’89 full of promise, but didn’t really take off until he was dealt to the Expos before the 1992 season. This was the way of the late 80s and early 90s front office. They traded for Pete Guerrero and Dan Quisenberry to shore up weaknesses, but dealt away a 25 year old Ken Hill just before he took off to another level.

The final year of Whitey Herzog’s Cardinal career was 1990, and 1990 was a brutal year. The Cards would go 70-92 on the season, with Herzog leaving after a 33-47 start. Red Schoendist would return as an interim manager, then Joe Torre would be hired.

Willie McGee was great again in 1990, but he was traded at the deadline to Oakland. (On a side note, I remember McGee losing the batting race to Lenny Dykstra in 1990, but a couple commentors pointed out that’s actually wrong. I remember being devastated when he was traded, and apparently that disappointment erased everything else about that summer.) Jose Oquendo was a fantastic player in 1989, then collapsed in a puddle in 1990. He would be mostly done by 1992 at the age of 28, the victim of knee troubles. Geronimo Pena would first show up in 1990 and break out in ‘92, but his short career would ultimately be marked by an inability to stay on the field, as he never reached even 300 plate appearances in a season.

The 1990 Cardinals were, by and large, an old team. Ozzie Smith was 35, though seemingly ageless. Willie McGee was 31. Guerrero was 34, and on his last leg. Terry Pendleton was 29 and had never really hit the way it was expected he would, though he was one of the best defenders of his era. (Of course, Pendleton was also one year away from going to Atlanta and winning the 1991 MVP award, just to show you what kind of reverse Midas touch stuff was going on with the Cardinals in this era.) Brunansky was 29, and it was an old 29. The club’s big addition from 1989 to ‘90 was Lee Smith, already 32 at the time. Smith was legitimately fantastic, so it isn’t as if he was a failed acquisition, but Lee Smith is who you spend on when you’re looking to contend, not when you have a 70-75 win club heading into the season.

There was hope on the horizon, in the form of Ray Lankford, who first appeared in 1990 as the outrider of the Cardinals’ triple-threat outfield of a couple years later. Bernard Gilkey, the University City legend himself, made a brief appearance late that year as well. But Todd Zeile never developed as hoped (he had an amazingly long career for never really being much more than average, weirdly enough), Geronimo Pena could never stay healthy, and Felix Jose produced, but then left, and then fell apart completely in Kansas City. There was the makings of an intriguing young pitching corps; Magrane was still only 25 in 1990, Ken Hill was only 24, and there was this super talented 22 year old kid named Omar Olivares who made his debut that summer. As I said, though, Magrane’s arm didn’t hold up, Ken Hill was traded too soon, and Olivares just never really panned out.

The early 90s were a time of floundering for the Cardinals. Anheuser-Busch conducted themselves as essentially absentee owners, and the front office was always making mediocre second-tier moves to try and contend. The Lankford-Gilkey duo would mature in 1992, joined a couple years later by Brian Jordan, but those early 90s teams were a whole lot of Mark Whiten signings and me learning to imitate Gerald Perry’s batting stance because it was so weird, and because he had this unbelievable run as a pinch hitter in ‘93-’94.

The Whiteyball era ended not with a bang, but a whimper. Those two runner-up clubs, 1985 and 1987, represented the earliest heartbreaks of my life, I think, in the way that only a very small child can have his or her heart broken by things which do not matter. By the time 2004 rolled around, and the greatest team of my life not to win a title was not winning a title, I had bigger concerns. I had rent to pay and car insurance and failed relationships to drink away. The 2006 championship was the first I ever saw, but those Whiteyball teams were the ones that taught me what it was to be a baseball fan. The ups and downs, and how to feel about both. The dark, lean years of my adolescence did not kill my passion for the game, but I wonder if they would have had not the good times been there to suck me in and sucker me in when I was younger and more impressionable.

Neither the ‘85 squad nor the 1987 Metrodome air conditioning victims ended up the consensus best team not to win a championship. But those were my runner-ups. Those were my grand failures, my so close, yet so far. The 2004 club was the best, but I was an adult by then. The Cardinals of Whiteyball were gods to me, and they deserved so much more than they got.