For better or worse, baseball managers in St. Louis will probably be compared to Whitey Herzog for a long time to come. Many fans (possibly an inordinate amount) who watched Cardinals baseball during the 80’s have a fondness for Herzog and his style of baseball that has not been equalled by Joe Torre or Tony LaRussa. That’s understandable to a certain extent, because “Whiteyball” lead to a lot of in-game action. Fans were treated to a lot of base stealing, hit-and-run action, and situational hitting. Before the Rams of Kurt Warner and Isaac Bruce, the Cardinals of the 80’s might have been the “Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis. However, I’m often questioned by younger fans about whether or not my fondness for “Whiteyball” is based on a perception of reality that has been altered over time. Could it be that I simply perceive those “wonder years” differently now that I’m living in the TLR Era? You better believe that I’m ready for that question, and the answer is a resounding “no”.
Why is that?
I can go on and on. I really can.
My first reason is the managers, and I’ll begin by stating what I consider the absolute obvious. The Cardinals have had some pretty good ones as of late. From 1980-1990, the Cardinals had Hall of Fame Manager Whitey Herzog managing the team. Since 1996, the Cardinals have had future HOFer Tony LaRussa at the helm. In between the two, they had some guy named Joe Torre for 5 years. While his tenure may not have been memorable, it’s fair to mention that he was handed some absolutely horrific teams. Still, I consider Torre a future HOF manager as well, so that’s 3-for-3 in my book. That’s also just 3 managers in 30 years, so it’s not like there hasn’t been some consistency.
The second reason why perception hasn’t changed? Talent disparity. No matter how you look at those teams from the 80’s, they just didn’t have the raw talent that a lot of their peers did. Just take a look at the 1982 World Series winner. Based on WAR, the most valuable player on that team was Lonnie Smith (5.9). However, that WAR value just barely puts him into All-Star territory, and it pales in comparison to Albert Pujols‘ career average WAR value of nearly 8.4. More importantly, consider how Smith generated value for the team in 1982. His batting line of .307/.381/.434/.815 was solid, but it was his 68 stolen bases and team high 120 runs scored along with a dWAR of 0.8 from LF that added up. That team stole 200 bases that season, and Smith was responsible for over 1/3 of those thefts. For a team that only hit 67 home runs, you could argue that the value added from those stolen bases had a substantial cumulative effect over the course of the long season.
Finally, there’s a few quick reference talent test. In 1984, Herzog lead the team to a winning record (84-78), and the best player based on WAR was……the closer, Bruce Sutter (WAR = 4.5). Seriously. When your best player is your closer, and you can manage a winning record, you’ve accomplished something.
It obviously wasn’t all famine, though. In 1985, Herzog did have an MVP lead the way. Possibly the most unlikely MVP ever and also one of my favorite Cardinals of all-time, Willie McGee (I named a SABR stat after him) won the MVP award that year and scored the highest WAR value of any Cardinals player during the Herzog era (8.5). Keep in mind, that’s only 0.1 above Albert’s seasonal average.
Lest you think it’s all about Whitey, I should mention a few other years that stand out as well. Torre’s work in 1993 was really, really good. That team had Tom Pagnozzi, Gregg Jefferies, Luis Alicea, Ozzie Smith, Todd Zeile, Bernard Gilkey, Ray Lankford, and Mark Whiten in the field and Bob Tewksbury, Rene Arocha, Donovan Osborne, Rheal Cormier, Joe Magrane, and Allen Watson. That list includes a lot of my favorites, but I didn’t give it much hope at the time. They managed to finish 87-75 in a reasonably strong NL East, although they were double digits back by the end of the season. Perhaps most importantly, they did finish ahead of the Cubs. One more year worth mentioning is 1996, because I still think that might have been TLR’s best managing work in St. Louis. If you have trouble remembering the team’s outfield from that year, just picture the backend of a typical NFL cover 2 scheme. Ron Gant, Ray Lankford, and Brian Jordan looked like the infielders were playing with safety-cornerback-safety help over the top. (Technically, they were in the case of Jordan.)
What does all this mean? It means that I’ve been awfully spoiled almost my entire life as a Cardinals fan, and many of you probably have been as well. I don’t know who will succeed TLR in St. Louis, but let’s just not compare the person to LaRussa, Torre, or Herzog. Like an elevator in an outhouse, that just wouldn’t be right.
TIDBIT: Yes, that last line was a nod to the movie “Roadhouse”.