During the offseason we have been taking a look at the past, giving readers a timeline of St. Louis baseball throughout history. Last time we learned about how Whitey Herzog came in and rebuilt the organization into a lean mean running machine. Whiteyball led to a World Series title in 1982, but felt a little less than potent in the two years following. Could the team rise to the top?
When people talk about the Cardinals’ 1985 team, it all seems to boil down to the Series. More specifically, it points to the Call. The team here at I-70 Baseball even did a week-long tribute to the 1985 Series between the Cardinals and Kansas City Royals (You can find the archive here). It is unfortunate that a 101-61 record that witnessed players winning the MVP, Rookie of the Year, and Gold Glove awards has boiled down to one call, but it happened.
Whitey and owner Gussie Busch were disappointed with how the team had performed in both 1983 and 1984. Because of that, most of the championship team from 1982 was long gone before the beginning of 1985. The real holdovers included Ozzie Smith and Tommy Herr in the infield, Willie McGee in the outfield, and Bob Forsch and Joaquin Andujar in the rotation. Joining those names were slugging first baseman Jack Clark, outfielders Vince Coleman and Andy van Slyke, and starting pitcher Danny Cox.
The Cardinals did not exactly run away with the division, as their biggest lead of four games out in front would indicate. They battled with the New York Mets tooth and nail all the way through the season. The “Pond Scum” Mets featured former Cardinal Keith Hernandez and young pitching phenom Dwight Gooden, who at age 20 picked up 24 wins in 1985.
What pushed the Cardinals to the top? Speed. The Mets and Cardinals basically had the best two lineups and pitching rotations in the National League, going toe to toe in many of the top counting categories, with the exception of a few. Where the Mets relied on power, in the form of home runs from their sluggers and strikeouts from their pitchers, the Cardinals looked to speed around the bases and scoring runs in bunches.
The Cardinals pushed through the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers despite facing such pitchers as Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser and Tom Niedenfuer. The real loss of that series occurred in Game 4, when Rookie of the Year winner Vince Coleman was trapped by a rolling tarp and suffered a broken leg. Losing his speed on the basepaths for the rest of the playoffs was a tough blow, but the team was far from finished.
The big question: if the Call does not happen, do the Cardinals win the Series? It is certainly possible. However, one bad call does not produce seven games’ worth of outcomes. There was still one whole game after it happened. The Cardinals still could have won… but they rolled over in game seven. They let it slip away.
1986 was a down year across the board. For Willie McGee it meant dropping from an MVP winning season in which he batted .353/.384/.503 to a disappointing .256/.306/.370 line. He was not the only sharp fall. The team was dead last in hits, runs, doubles, home runs, batting average, slugging and on base percentages. That is correct… dead last in the National League. The funny thing is they still managed to lead the league in stolen bases, despite having the fewest opportunities to do so.
The pitchers did not have quite a drop, but consider this: in 1985, Tudor and Andujar both won 21 games and Cox won 18. The pitching staff was in the top 3 in every category except strikeouts. The next year Andujar had found his ticket out of town and Tudor/Cox/Bob Forsch all put up rather similar lines of 12-14 wins and a roughly 3.00 ERA. Not bad, but who was the shutdown ace? That was a rotation of number two or three starters.
Speaking of not having an ace, the 1987 team might fit that bill even better. Have you ever heard of a team that went to the World Series without a pitcher winning more than eleven games? It happened. Eight different pitchers won at least eight games, but no pitcher on the team won more than eleven. Whitey pulled wins out of that team every way he could, because on paper, this team was not the top.
All in all, the lineup was solid. The starters all seemed to hit around .285, and for the first time in what felt like decades, the Cardinals had a genuine slugger in Jack Clark, who thumped 35 home runs and racked up a ridiculous 136 walks. The whole team was patient at the plate, leading the league in walks and, as a result, in on base percentage, but Clark blew them all away. Wonder of wonders, the highest batting average on the season belonged to “light hitting” shortstop Ozzie Smith, who smacked out a .303 batting average (despite 138 of them being singles).
Finishing at 95-67 put the Cardinals three up on the Mets in the National League and pushed them into the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants, led by Will “the Thrill” Clark. Despite pushing the series to seven games, the Cardinals snuck out of it and on to the World Series to face the big bats being wielded by the Minnesota Twins’ Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and Garry Gaetti. The Cardinals’ wiry runners looked like batboys next to the big guys hanging out in the Twins’ dugout!
The World Series turned out to be one of those affairs where the home team wins every game, but some people have made somewhat of a stink about that. The Twins played in the Metrodome, and in at least one player account of the Series, when the Twins’ players were up to bat the crowd noise was such that the team would turn on fans somewhere in the stadium that caused balls to blow into the stands, helping those sluggers just a little bit more. Who knew there would be wind in a dome? This was never confirmed of course, but considering the very lopsided scores in those four games in Minnesota (10-1, 8-4, 11-5, and 4-2), I suppose anything is possible.
Coming out of the World Series that year felt like a letdown, but for kids like Joe Magrane, who finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting in ’87, getting to the postseason was a, “Ho-hum, we will be back next year,” kind of feeling. Little did any of them know that this would be the last time the team sniffed the postseason for ten long, lean years.
1988 was awful for the Cardinals. Jack Clark and general manager Dal Maxvill were not the best of friends, and when the two could not come to terms on a new contract, the free agent basically threw his hands in the air and walked away to join the Yankees. It was a sucker punch to the rest of the team, who relied on the big slugger to push across all the runners they were getting on base for him. Without a guy to bring in the runners, tallies on the scoreboard were scarce. Vince Coleman and Willie McGee were still tearing up the basepaths, but they were left stranded more often than not. Joe Magrane knew that better than anyone, winning the ERA title in ’88 with a puny 2.18, but finishing with a 5-9 record. He would go up against David Cone and the Mets’ fearsome lineup, but his team could only ever scratch out a run at a time for him. With that kind of support, the team finished an abysmal 76-86, a very distant fifth place in the NL East.
1989 had promise. Slugger Pedro Guerrero came through in a big way, finishing third for the NL MVP, being branded with a “clutch” label and bringing around all those baserunners to score, racking up what felt like a monstrous 117 RBI after a year in which no one could seem to push a runner across. The pitching staff felt less of a burden to allow one run or less in every start, and as a result Joe Magrane had a nice year, going 18-9 and finishing third in the CY Young race.
Unfortunately, things were getting messy off the field. Gussie Busch’s health was failing. He turned the team over to his son, August Busch III, who had little interest in the team, and forced Whitey to go through a board of directors to get any baseball decisions done. On September 29, Gussie died, but the Cardinals had already started to fade out of the pennant race, finishing a close third. The pitchers’ arms tired and the bats could not keep up with the Cubs.
The end was nearing for the Cardinals. Gussie was gone, and Whitey was going to be next. The only question was when.