MLB Off-Season Wheeling and Dealing: The St. Louis Cardinals in 1980-1981

louis-cardinals-world-series-champions-team-plaque-3311693There has been quite a lot of good sport-writing about the off-season deals being made this winter by several major league teams. The Chicago Cubs have made spectacular trades and signings and are poised to become a major force in the National League pennant run in the summer of 2015. So have the Dodgers, Padres, and Marlins. We all have our favorite situations that we are watching play out. Which teams will be successful?

This type of wheeling and dealing has been repeated many times in the past. When I view what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been do with with the Cubs I am reminded of the experience of Whitey Herzog when he took over the St. Louis Cardinals in 1980. As both general manager and field manager, Herzog emphasized his “Whiteyball” style of play on the field—which also happened to be the hallmark of many great Cardinals teams of the past—pitching, speed, and defense. Herzog commented in his autobiography, White Rat, his thinking on how to win in the National League: “In baseball today, geography is all-important. In the National League, you’ve got a whole bunch of big ballparks—ten to be exact—where it’s hard to hit home runs. Our park in St. Louis, where we play eighty-one games a year, is the toughest hitter’s park of them all.”

Since this was the case, Herzog began looking for quality pitching and swift runners who could handle a glove. Herzog had been both a scout and director of player development for successful teams, and he immediately made useful acquisitions. On December 8, 1980, he acquired from the San Diego Padres relief ace Rollie Fingers, lefthander Bob Shirley, catcher Gene Tenace, and a minor leaguer. The next day he acquired perhaps the best closing pitcher in baseball, Bruce Sutter, from the Chicago Cubs. Having Fingers and Sutter in the same bullpen presented some difficulties, for both pitchers expected to be called upon in “save” opportunities.

Keeping them both closers happy would be impossible, and Herzog decided to use one as trade bait for other acquisitions. As a result, on December 12 Herzog dealt Fingers to Milwaukee along with starting pitcher Pete Vukovich and Ted Simmons in return for speed-burning outfielders Sixto Lezcano and David Green, and pitchers Lary Sorensen and Dave LaPoint. He then signed veteran catcher Darrell Porter, who had worked with him in Kansas City, to take over behind the plate. In less than a week Herzog had remade the team in his own image, unloading thirteen and adding nine players.

The Cardinals immediately responded to these changes on the field. In the strike-shortened 1981—when the middle third of the season was lost because of a fully legitimate players strike to prevent the owners from rolling back hard-won benefits—the Cards had the best record in the Eastern Division, 59-43. Unfortunately, because of the strike, the owners decided to divide the season into two parts and to have the winner of each half meet in a playoff to determine the division champion. The Cardinals were one-and-a-half games behind Philadelphia when the strike began and therefore failed to win that half. They then trailed the second-half winner, the Montreal Expos, by a half game. As a result, they sat out the post-season.

Herzog built on his earlier success by acquiring in the fall of 1981 several key pieces that would fuel the championship team of 1982. The first took place on October 21, 1981, and turned out better than anyone would have expected. He acquired a young minor leaguer named Willie McGee from the Yankees for an also-ran pitcher. McGee immediately took over center field. A bad-ball hitter, swinging at anything thrown, yet still he succeeded year after year. In 1982 he hit .292 to spur the Cardinals offense from his leadoff position.

Herzog also acquired from the Cleveland Indians in November 1981 speedy outfielder Lonnie Smith. With Smith and McGee in the outfield the Cardinals had a strong defense and a great opportunity to manufacture runs with good foot speed. Indeed, Herzog told the St. Louis fans during spring training in 1982 that while he did not expect the Cardinals to hit many home runs, he guaranteed that there would always be some “jackrabbits” on base at the top of the order for the RBI producers to drive in.

By far Herzog’s most significant acquisition took place on February 11, 1982, when he obtained Ozzie Smith from the San Diego Padres in a swap of shortstops. This trade ranks as one of the best in Cardinals history, ranking close behind the Lou Brock acquisition. No question about it, the “Wizard of Oz,” or “The Wizard of Ah!’s,” as he came to be called in St. Louis, was the greatest glove man at shortstop in baseball history. For nineteen years, Ozzie Smith dominated baseball with breathtaking, and often game-saving, defensive play. To watch him play was a joy. He went on to the Hall of Fame after having  earned thirteen straight Gold Gloves (1980-1992) at shortstop and led the National League in fielding percentage seven times.

With second baseman Tom Herr (also a good glove man), Willie McGee in center field, and sure-handed Darrell Porter behind the plate, the Cardinals had one of the strongest middle defenses in baseball in the early 1980s.

Fire-balling right-handed pitcher Joaquin Andujar was the last piece of the puzzle for a team that won the World Series in 1982. Referring to himself as “one tough Dominican,” the colorful Andujar reached his peak in the mid-1980s as a Cardinals workhorse who pitched well on three day’s rest. Coming from the Astros during the 1981 season, a team that had not been able to handle his unique personality and had misused him in the bullpen, Andujar’s 15-10, 2.47 earned run average (ERA) record in 1982 helped St. Louis to a world championship.

The Cardinals took the Eastern Division title by finishing with a 92-70 record, three games ahead of the Phillies. After dispensing the Atlanta Braves in the League Championship Series the Cardinals defeated the Milwaukee Brewers in a seven game World Series. It was a team built on the fly, but with a firm approach to playing the game and good judgment in player selection.

Perhaps the Chicago Cubs are on the verge of dominating in the National League the same way the Cardinals did in the 1980s. It would not surprise me.

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