Or somebody to play like him.
When Whitey Herzog retooled the 1981 St. Louis Cardinals, he built the team around speed and defense. Thanks to the addition of Ozzie Smith, there was not a better infield anywhere in baseball and it gave the Cardinals a significant advantage when they played on the fast turf in St. Louis. Just as important, he put together a strong outfield although the missing piece didn’t come along until a mid-season injury to David Green in 1982 introduced Willie McGee to the National League. Their impact to the game is very hard to see in the box scores, but one quick look at the 1982 World Series statistics tell you all you need to know – they reduced the stress on the pitching staff, and allowed some good pitchers to become great, and mediocre ones to be winners.
When we fast forward to 1985, a number of new faces show up on the Cardinals roster.
Jack Clark had taken over from perennial Gold Glove for former NL Most Valuable Player winner, Keith Hernandez. While our first base defense took a major step backwards, Clark more than made up for any loss with his ferocious bat – the archetype for a Herzog cleanup hitter.
Veterans John Tudor, Bob Forsch and Joaquin Andujar mentored a pair of young right-handers: Danny Cox and Kurt Kepshire. They would make all but five starts in the season. One was a gamble as Whitey Herzog and Dal Maxvill shopped Neil Allen, desperately hoping to find somebody that would take him. He didn’t make it out of the 3rd inning a 13-2 blowout in Pittsburgh – one of the ugliest games I’ve ever seen. The other four were a spot start by Matt Keough and then three from Ricky Horton in September when the struggling Kurt Kepshire lost his spot in the rotation.
As interesting as these changes are, none compare to the youngster that took over for Lonnie Smith as the catalyst at the top of the batting order. That young man was Vince Coleman.
If you’ve ever seen a military fighter jet take off, you can appreciate what Coleman meant to that team. Just like an afterburner, when Coleman got on base, things started happening very quickly. Coleman would only hit .267 for the season. If you do that math, that’s only 1 hit in every 4 at-bats – but hitting in the lead-off spot, that meant Coleman came up at least 4 times per game. We learned to love those odds. If you add 50 walks to his 170 hits, that’s 220 times on base. Almost half of those resulted in a stolen base or two as he tallied 115 swipes in his rookie season. Willie McGee would add 54 steals, many of them at the same time as Vince Coleman – they worked the double steal to perfection. With Coleman, and often McGee, it was not if or when they would steal, but how many bases would they eventually get before scoring. Tommy Herr and Jack Clark’s offensive statistics from the 1985 season are bloated thanks to Coleman and McGee.
While the Cardinals speed on the defensive side of the game helped take stress off the pitching staff, Coleman became a one man wrecking crew to the opposing arms. Pitchers would start paying more attention to Coleman on base than than Willie McGee or Tommy Herr in the batters box, and both would take advantage. Willie McGee would earn the NL Most Valuable Player award as he led the league in hits (217), triples (18) and batting average (.353), many of those being a quick pitch or due to lack of focus from the pitcher. His 82 RBI’s, mostly from the second spot in the order, were thanks to Coleman flying around the bases. What McGee didn’t drive in became easy prey for Tommy Herr as he joined an elite list of players with over 100 RBIs in a season (110) with 10 home runs or less (8).
To understand this just a bit better, let’s take a look at the game on September 13 when the Cardinals visited the Chicago Cubs. Steve Trout, a tall left-hander started for the Cubs and poor Jody Davis was behind the plate. Remember that it’s supposed to be harder to steal on a left-handed pitcher. Yeah, right.
Vince Coleman leads off the game with one of those 50 walks he’d tally in 1985. He immediately steals second base cleanly. Willie McGee follows that with a single, easily scoring Coleman. McGee then proceeds to steal second base. Getting a bit frazzled, Trout walks Tommy Herr which turned out to be a big mistake. Cesar Cedeno follows with an RBI single, scoring McGee easily. Both Herr and Cedeno take an extra base when center-fielder Bob Dornier bobbles the ball – apparently team speed affects defenders as much as it does pitchers. Tito Landrum drives in Herr with a swinging safety squeeze grounder for the first out of the inning. Terry Pendleton would make the second out of the inning with a strikeout. Ozzie Smith would walk and then get into the larceny as he swipes second base for the third steal of the inning. Unfortunately Bob Forsch would end the inning with a harmless groundout, but the Cardinals had just sent nine men to the plate and totally demoralized the Cubbies, even though no ball was hit hard.
Things wouldn’t get any better for Cubs in the second inning. With one out, Willie McGee would walk. He would advance to third base on a single by Tommy Herr, who would be caught in a run-down, trying to turn the single into a double. Cesar Cedeno would come through for the second time in as many innings with another RBI single.
In the fifth inning, some more Redbirds would get into the action. Andy van Slyke would lead off with a bunt single and steal second base. Terry Pendleton singles him home, and then proceeds to swipe second base himself. Reliever George Frazier wasn’t having any more success than Steve Trout. Neither would his successor, Jon Perlman who would walk Willie McGee in the sixth inning. McGee would steal second and advance to third on a wild pitch. A harmless fly ball from Andy van Slyke would score McGee with the sixth Cardinal run.
No, the Cardinals were not done. Not by a long shot. In the ninth inning, after the Cubs had gotten a couple of the runs back, Andy van Slyke leads off the inning with a single. Terry Pendleton would follow that with a single. Andy van Slyke would then steal third base as the Cubs weren’t paying enough attention to him. Ozzie Smith would follow that with a single, scoring van Slyke. Smith would be thrown out at second base trying to advance to second on the throw to third, which was too late to get Pendleton. Darrell Porter would be intentionally walked to get to the pitcher, a young flame thrower named Todd Worrell. Worrell would be an easy strikeout victim, which was unfortunate for the Cubs. Now it’s Porter’s turn, and he steals second for the 8th Cardinal swipe on the day. Poor Jody Davis. Pendleton and Porter would score on a Vince Coleman single – his only hit on the day.
The point to this story – Coleman would go just 1-4 on the day, but he set the pace early in the game and threw out whatever playbook the Cubs had put together. Five other Cardinals would follow Coleman’s lead by stealing bases, McGee and van Slyke with two each.
And that would not be the only time they would steal 8 bases. The 1985 Cardinals stole 3 bases or more 55 times in the season. That’s over 1/3 of the games they played.
The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals are starting to resemble more of an Earl Weaver “we love the 3 run homer” Orioles of the 70’s, rather than that of Herzog’s Whiteyball, but if you dig back into those great Baltimore teams you will find a youngster named Don Baylor that stole more than a few bases in his day. If the 2011 Cardinals are going to make it to the post-season, they will have to do something other than stand around and wait for Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols or Matt Holliday to hit a three run homer. They will have to play with the aggressiveness of Herzog’s (or even Weaver’s) teams and quit acting like a base runner is a precious commodity. Put runners in motion and good things will happen. Suddenly holes will open up in the infield, pitchers will start pitching quickly and groove a pitch or two. You might even find out that not many teams have a catcher like Yadier Molina. If they don’t, then I’ll be looking forward to House Season 8 in October instead of Cardinals baseball.