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Give Whitey Credit for His Two Miracles in St. Louis

September 01, 1985|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

Give the Rat his due. Whitey Herzog may know baseball better than anybody else.

It's one thing to take over a last-place team and turn it into a World Series winner in 28 months, as Herzog did in St. Louis in 1982. It's quite another to have that champion fall apart so quickly and so badly that you have to replace 18 of your 25 players and do the whole blasted job over again.

Few thought Herzog could revive the Cardinals in the first place. That he would resurrect them twice, and manage it so quickly, is a thing only he could have done. The task fit the man exactly.

Let's join Dorrell Norman Elvert Herzog--Whitey to baseball fans, The White Rat to his friends, and just Rat to his St. Louis players--as he tells Richie Ashburn a story.

How Herzog weaves the tale, the details he appreciates and the ironic core that appeals to him in the parable, tells volumes about why he has his Cardinals solidly in the race in the National League East.

"We're sitting around this table with the Mets back in '65," Herzog says to Ashburn, painting a picture for the old batting champion of everybody who was there. The names, like Bing Devine and Joe McDonald, few fans would recognize; but every baseball insider would. Like Herzog, they're part of that infrastructure of lifers who make the game's gritty decisions about who gets signed, promoted, traded or cut. Since Herzog is the only man in history who's held every job from player to scout to coach to farm director to GM, he may know more such people at more levels than anyone.

Herzog tells Ashburn about this sad rookie in the minors who's been signed out of military ball at 22, is in way over his head facing teen-agers and is ready to go back to the Minnesota farm. "We decide to release him. And he'd have gone home, too. But Joe McDonald says, 'Wait. I just loaned that guy $50. Let's keep him 'til payday.' "

As always in such yarns, the young pitcher saved his career with a couple of shutouts and has gone on to win 222 games in the major leagues. "So when Jerry Koosman goes against us this afternoon," says Herzog, "I'm gonna remind him he's just a $50 pitcher."

From the bleachers, baseball seems geometrical, logical and at times even quantifiable. From the field, it reveals itself to be the same tangled maze of luck and coincidence, opportunity and circumstance, that tantilizes all human beings. Over a $50 whim, a life can change.

When fans talk trade, they discuss players, some outfielder who hit .289.

Whitey Herzog trades living men.

Building, tinkering, reworking and, especially, gambling are his passions. No central character in baseball is so at home in his world, so relaxed in the face of failure and so willing to take a chance just for the pure devilish hell of seeing what will happen.

Other baseball men, scalded by an awful trade such as Keith Hernandez for Neil Allen, might've lost their nerve.

Instead, Herzog keeps rolling the tumblers, waiting for the lock to fall open. This year, he's broken the bank.

Twice.

In almost any other year, trading old grumpy George Hendrick to Pittsburgh for John Tudor, who's 15-8 with a 2.12 ERA, would be the theft of the season. Herzog had spotted how wonderfully all of Tudor's stats (except his 12-11 record) improved when he moved from Fenway Park to Pittsburgh in '84. What, he wondered, would Tudor do in an even bigger park with a marvelous defense behind him. Answer: win 20, looks like.

This year, Herzog will have to compete with himself as foremost felon in the larceny sweepstakes. Jack Clark, who was having an MVP-type season before he was injured and had to go on the disabled list, was extracted from the Giants in February for four gentlemen of rapidly diminishing repute. Of the quartet, the only one who may leave a lasting dent in lore could be Jose Gonzalez, a journeyman who changed his name three times in a month, prompting coach Rocky Bridges to say, "He really is the player to be named later."

Perhaps the Tudor and Clark magic shouldn't have surprised us. Herzog, you recall, has done all this before.

Remember Hernandez, Hendrick and Lonnie Smith--the three top homer and RBI men on that '82 gang (the later two grabbed in Herzog deals)? They're all long gone now, just like third baseman Ken Oberkfell and the entire bench.

Of Herzog's 10 '82 Series pitchers, only two remain. And one of them (Bob Forsch) has gone from star to mop-up man.

"Dynasties" don't last long these days, but Herzog's house of cards couldn't even stay upright until the next season's All-Star game.

When the Cardinals, after being losers in '83 (79-83) and mediocrities in '84 (84-78), failed to resign reliever Bruce Sutter--The Franchise--last winter, folks thought Herzog was acting irrationally. Instead, the Cardinals are headed for 100 wins.

Even with hindsight, this seems almost impossible. Only four important characters from the '82 champs retain vital roles: Joaquin Andujar (20-7), Willie McGee (.363), Tommy Herr (87 RBIs) and Ozzie Smith (of the Golden Glove.)

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