We in Cardinals Nation are truly fortunate for all of the great players that have come through the organization in the last 50 years. It absolutely mind-numbing when you begin to think about it, position by position.
First base: Bill White, Orlando Cepeda, Richie Allen, Keith Hernandez, Pedro Guerrero, Mark McGwire, and of course – the greatest of them all – Albert Pujols.
Second base: Julian Javier, Ted Sizemore, Tommy Herr (OK, maybe we’re a little bit thin on second basemen)
Shortstop: Dick Groat, Dal Maxvill, Ozzie Smith, Edgar Renteria
Third base: Ken Boyer, Mike Shannon, Joe Torre, Ken Reitz, Terry Pendleton, Scott Rolen
Catcher: Tim McCarver, Ted Simmons, Darrell Porter, Tony Pena, Tom Pagnozzi, Mike Matheny, Yadier Molina
Outfield: Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Roger Maris, Reggie Smith, George Hendrick, Willie McGee, Lonnie Smith, Vince Coleman, Ray Lankford, Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker, Matt Holliday
Starting pitchers: Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Bob Forsch, Joaquin Andujar, John Tudor, Darryl Kyle, Matt Morris, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainright
Closers (and helpers): Joe Hoerner, Al Hrabosky (yes, folks – he was that good), Bruce Sutter, Ken Dayley, Todd Worrell, Jason Isringhausen
It is overwhelming when you consider all of this talent in such a small timeframe. Yes, we in Cardinals Nation are fortunate, and perhaps a bit spoiled. But that’s why we turn out in huge numbers (over 38,000) at the end of a season for a meaningless game in the middle of the week. Because to us, no game is meaningless, and there is always somebody on the roster doing something worthy of our attention.
Yes, we’re spoiled – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be just a bit greedy. For at least 5 minutes. To kick off some discussion, I’d like to take a look at some players that I wish had worn the Birds on the Bat. Each of these players brought something special to the game, and I frequently found myself cheering for them, even then they were beating up on my Cardinals.
#5: Andre Dawson (1976 – 1996) – RF
1,890 hits, 438 home runs, 1,591 RBIs, .279 / .323 / .482 Rookie of the Year, MVP, 8 gold gloves
Yeah, those numbers would have looked so good in the Cardinals box scores, especially in the late 1970s. After the Curt Flood fiasco in 1970, the outfield became something of a revolving door of veteran player well into their declining years, or young players that we gave up on prematurely. Each successive trade brought less and less to the team, requiring a near-total retooling when Whitey Herzog took over as manager and GM. It almost gives me goosebumps to think about what a couple of years of a Lou Brock/George Hendrick/Andre Dawson outfield might have looked like. While Reggie Smith had a couple of good seasons in St. Louis, none of the other outfielders (Vada Pinson, Jose Cardenal, Tony Scott) came close to putting up anything that looked like Dawson’s first few seasons with Montreal, and he got a lot better after that.
#4 Elroy Face (1953 – 1969) – RP
104-95 3.48 ERA 193 saves Led the league in saves 3 different times. 18-1 in 1959 – all in relief!
Roy Face is one of the most important players in baseball history. He was the archetype for the modern closer, but he did it in a time when that role was not understood or appreciated. In Face’s era, the bullpen was comprised of veteran pitchers, trying to keep their careers alive, and young hurlers trying to learn how to pitch in the major leagues. Face was neither. He was a little guy, 5′ 8″ and 155 pounds, if he stood on a phone book, dripping wet. He was recruited and developed as a starter, but that didn’t work out for the young right hander. What the Pirates soon found out was that he had the kind of arm that could rebound on one day rest, and be ready to pitch an inning or two ever other day. He quickly became the go-to guy out of the bullpen for the Pirates, setting records for wins in a season by a reliever, appearances in a season, career appearances for a pitcher.
In many respects, Roy Face was the Mariano Rivera of his era. He threw one pitch, the forkball. And when you saw him jam the ball in between his first two fingers, it made you wince in pain. But he threw it, inning after inning after inning. And hitters knew it was coming, but continued to pound the sinking breaking ball into the ground, at-bat after at-bat. Ted Abernathy followed Face, and eclipsed many of his records with a wicked submarine delivery that just tore up right handed hitters, but if you were there at the right time, you got a chance to see Abernasty pitch for the Cardinals. Face’s 18-1 record in 1959, all in relief, is one of those eye-popping records that will likely never be broken, especially the way the game is played today. I saw him near the end of his career, and can only imagine what he must have been like in his prime.
#3 Gene Garber (1969 – 1988) – RP
96-113 3.34 ERA 218 saves
Since Ted Abernathy spent a short time in a Cardinals uniform, and I still remember how cool it was to watch him warm up, the next best unconventional reliever would be Gene Garber. His pitching motion may be the most unorthodox in the modern era. At the start of his motion, he would pivot all the way to the right, facing the second base bag. He would then whip back around violently, delivering the pitch with a low sidearm motion. With all that was going on in his delivery, you would expect the ball to be coming in harder than it really was. His pitch of choice was the change-up, but when thrown from the side, added a nasty break away from the right handed batters. Oh, he was so much fun to watch pitch.
His best season was with Atlanta in 1982, and we got a good chance to see him pitch in the League Championship Series. After striking out the side in the seventh inning of Game Two, the Cardinals scored one run in each of the next two innings, executing small ball to perfection. Garber would take the loss in that game. In his last post-season appearance in Game Three, Garber would give up a home run to Willie McGee, but the Cardinals already had a 5-2 lead at the time, and he was out there in a mop-up capacity.
The sidearmer would prove exceptionally durable, and is still among the career leader in appearances by a pitcher with 931.
#2 Brooks Robinson (1955-1977) – 3B
2,849 hits, 268 home runs, 1,357 RBIs MVP 16 consecutive golden gloves
Simply put, there had never been a player that could play third base like Brooks Robinson, and there hasn’t been another one since. He was a one man highlight reel. There were games when it seemed like there was no ball that could get past him and down the third base line. And if he did manage to stop the ball, he had a cannon of an arm that could throw out the fastest runners in the game. Oh, and he could hit a little bit too!
Every kid that played baseball in the 60’s and 70’s took infield drills and imagined that they were Brooks Robinson, snagging a game saving liner down the third base line. He was one of a kind. His best season was 1964, with the Baltimore Orioles. He would earn the league MVP with a .317 batting average and 118 RBIs. Fortunately for the Cardinals, the Orioles finished third that season – since it was largely defensive miscues that helped the Redbirds win the World Series. Error and Robinson were never used in the same sentence.
An honorable mention goes to Frank Robinson. Henry Aaron and Willie Mays got all of the attention, but Robinson may have been the best all-around player of his generation. He could hit, hit for power, run, throw and catch anything hit in the air. Take everything you know about Ken Griffey, Jr and kick it up a notch – that was Frank Robinson.
#1 Juan Marichal (1960 – 1975) – SP
243-142 2.89 ERA 2,303 strikeouts (to only 709 walks – that’s a 3.25 K/BB ratio) WHIP 1.101 Won 20 or more games 6 times, 18 twice more
And never won a Cy Young Award. Does that sound a bit familiar ? Adam Wainwright has a few more 20 win seasons to go before he’ll get any sympathy from Juan Marichal.
There were two pitchers you had to see in the 1960s. Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal. Nobody else pitched quite like they did. That’s not to say there weren’t some other great pitchers at the time – there were. But none of them entertained you like Gibson and Marichal. A few times you might get a treat and see both pitch in the same game.
Where Bob Gibson would give you a devilish stare, and then start a violent windup, delivering a high velocity pitch and then fall off hard to the left of the pitching mound, Marichal was almost the exact opposite. He would smile, almost as if being told a joke (like how badly the batter is going to swing and miss at his next pitch). He would then rock back behind this enormous leg kick, not out to side like Jim Bouton, Denny McLain or Bronson Arroyo, but right at the hitter. All the hitter would see is spikes, a leg, and then from somewhere on the right side of that confluence of body parts would come a pitch. Where Gibson would over-match the hitter, Marichal’s game was deception. Not that he didn’t have a good fastball, he did. But he also had a good curve, change-up – and he would throw any of these pitches from several different arm positions. With all that he had going on, his control was exceptional – perhaps one of the best in history.
Until I was able to drive, I would look at the pitching matchups in the newspaper, and if Marichal was scheduled that night, I would beg and plead with my dad to take me to the game. Fortunately, my dad enjoyed watching Marichal as much as I did, so we saw most of them. That’s a good thing, because he retired before I got my drivers license.
Marichal would throw a no-hitter against the Houston Colt .45s on June 15, 1963, winning a nail-biting 1-0 game. Two weeks later, he would participate in one of the greatest games in baseball history – and yes, it tops his no hitter. On July 2nd, he would hook up with another great pitcher of the era, Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves. The two of them would battle for 15 scoreless innings. Marichal pitched a scoreless 16th, but a one out home run by Willie Mays in the bottom of the 16th gave the Giants a 1-0 win. Both Marichal and 42 year old Spahn threw complete games (16, and 15 1/3 respectively). Like Gibson, Marichal would routinely pitch well into extra innings, but I dont’ recall anything like this 16 inning marathon.
Those are my top five. Who are some of yours ?