Twenty-five years ago, in 1987 (and it seems like yesterday), the St. Louis Cardinals went to the World Series to face the Minnesota Twins. It seems appropriate to recall it now, as the World Series is currently underway. Sadly, the Cardinals are not in the fall classic this year, although the team came close.
The Cardinals in 1987 edged the New York Mets for the championship of the East as first baseman Jack Clark (.286 average, 35 home runs, and 106 runs batted in-RBIs) and outfielder Vince Coleman (.289 average and 109 stolen bases) enjoyed some of their finest seasons at the plate. Clark reinjured himself during the playoffs and made only a token appearance as the Cards edged San Francisco for the league championship. He missed the World Series altogether.
Ozzie Smith, who by this time had established himself as a superstar at shortstop—in much the same way as the Baltimore Orioles’s Brooks Robinson had done at third base—had one of the most remarkable years ever in 1987. His offensive play, as opposed to hs defense, was instrumental in the Cardinals’s World Series run. He hit .303 with forty-three stolen bases, 75 RBIs, and 104 runs scored and finished second in the most valuable player (MVP) balloting to the Chicago Cubs’s Andre Dawson. Prior to each of the Cardinals’s three home games during the 1987 World Series, Smith put on a show with an awesome flurry of cartwheels, handsprings, and back flips. By the time he retired after the 1996 season, Ozzie Smith was in a class by himself at shortstop. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post wrote of him, “Instead of ‘1’ his number should be ‘8,’ but turned sideways because the possibilities he brings to his position are almost infinite.”
In the 1987 National League Championship Series (NLCS), the Cardinals faced the San Francisco Giants, a bunch of free-swinging home run hitters led by Will “The Thrill” Clark, Kevin Mitchell, Chili Davis, Mark Aldrete, Bob Brenly, and Jeffery Leonard. Leonard, for example, batted .417 with five RBIs, including a record-tying four homers in the NLCS. Rounding the bases with one arm immobile (one flap down) or both (two flaps down), Leonard created a stir en route to becoming the NLCS most valuable player for that year. Despite the flaps, St. Louis winged its way to its third pennant in six years by shutting out the Giants over the final twenty-two innings. Catcher Tony Peña led the Cardinals with a .381 average in the playoffs, and the reliable John Tudor led the Cardinals pitching staff with a 1.76 earned run average (ERA).
After dispatching the Giants during a seven-game set, the Cardinals met the surprising Minnesota Twins in the World Series. The Twins were one of those hard-luck teams that had never enjoyed much success. In a previous incarnation (as the Washington Senators between 1900 and 1960) the team had managed only three pennants—1924, 1925, and 1933—and one world championship. The decent teams of the 1920s and early 1930s were largely the result of the great Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, baseball’s “Big Train,” who dominated the American League for a generation. After escaping to Minneapolis for the 1961 season, the Twins brought an American League pennant to Minnesota in 1965, but lost in the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, led by pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who mowed them down in five games.
The Minnesota Twins of the early 1980s were perhaps the poorest excuse for a baseball team that one could imagine. The 1982 squad lost a record 102 games. But something happened during that 1982 season that would change the fortunes of the Twins and help rescue them from the depths of the American League. In April 1982 the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome opened in Minneapolis as the home of the Twins. It soon gained the nickname “Homerdome” because of short fences, lack of wind, and heat that seemingly made balls jump over the fence. Enclosed by an inflatable roof—one wit suggested that it was like playing baseball in a hefty bag—the Metrodome also received the name “Thunderdome” because of the high decibels captured there from fan noise. This proved particularly distracting to visiting teams, and the Twins quickly exploited the advantage to become the best home field team in the major leagues.
None of this meant much until August 1987, for beforehand the Twins were always mired at the bottom of the standings. But in 1987 the Twins began to impersonate a contender. They won a very tight American League Western Division title with a mediocre 85-77 record, but went a league best 56-25 while home in their “hefty bag” of a stadium. They took their division in no small measure because of the poor play of the rest of its members; Kansas City finished second only two games back with an 83-79 record. No one else in the division had a winning record. Few gave the Twins a chance in their playoff against the Detroit Tigers, winners of the Eastern Division with a major league best 98-64 record, but the Twins took them four games to one. The Twins, possessing the worst regular-season record of any pennant winner, were going to the World Series.
This set up the remarkable World Series between the Twins and Cardinals. In this seven-game series, for the first time in history, the home team won every game. This was predictable, for the Twins had the best home record in baseball and the third-worst road record. Minnesota swept the four games at the Metrodome amid waving “homer hankies” and high decibel readings and lost all three at St. Louis.
At the Metrodome, the Twins outscored the Cardinals 33-12. At Busch Stadium, their top four hitters combined for a .174 average with one homer. Series MVP Frank Viola went 2-1 with a 3.72 ERA and sixteen strikeouts. Steve Lombardozzi batted .417, and Dan Gladden scored seven runs. With a .409 average, Tony Peña led the Cards, who played without injured slugger Jack Clark and got limited play from injured third baseman Terry Pendleton. When the smoke cleared, when the cheering stopped, the Twins had out-homered the Cardinals seven to two, and outscored them 38-25. So the Cardinals went home defeated by a Twins team that had the worst record of any pennant winner. In the movie Oh, God! George Burns, playing God, said that the last miracle that God had performed was the victory of the New York Mets in the 1969 World Series. Of course, that movie was made in 1977, so it is entirely possible that God performed another miracle in 1987 by willing the victory of the Twins in the World Series. That is as good a way to explain the Cardinals defeat as any.
Whitey Herzog’s Cardinals never returned to postseason play. The team collapsed in 1988 with a dismal fifth-place finish, rebounded to third place in 1989, and then finished dead last in the division in 1990 with a 70-92 record. On July 6, 1990, disgusted with the team’s performance, Whitey Herzog resigned as manager of the Cardinals after ten years.
Herzog’s replacement, Joe Torre, had been one of the great Cardinals player of the early 1970s, and the leadership of the Cardinals would simply become a steppingstone for him as he moved on in the mid-1990s to a distinguished managing career with the New York Yankees.