The St. Louis Cardinals always find a way. A way to maximize their talent. A way to stay relevant in a constantly changing landscape. Above all else, they always find a way to win baseball games.
At least that’s the narrative this generation of fans are used to. If you rewind 40 years, you’ll discover it wasn’t always this way for St. Louis.
After winning World Series titles in 1964 and 1967, the Cardinals became mired in mediocrity throughout the ‘70s and were looking for answers to begin the 1980s. That's when owner August “Gussie” Busch called Whitey Herzog, who had recently been fired by the Kansas City Royals, and offered to let him remake the Cardinals in his vision.
What followed was the birth of "Whitey Ball" at Busch Stadium.
Herzog tore down and rebuilt the Cardinals around a style that captivated fans to the extent that it’s still being talked about decades later. Don't believe us? Then tune your televisions to MLB Network on Tuesday, Jan. 28, because at 8:00 p.m. ET, you'll see Whitey Ball come to life again in the premiere of “Birds of a Different Game: The ‘80s Cardinals.”
We were fortunate to be given an advanced look at this latest fantastic production in the MLB Network Presents series. The 60-minute documentary style program covers the construction, execution, evolution and ultimately the legacy of Herzog’s brainchild.
It’s a fascinating program that also provides a different perspective on today’s game. Truth is, it got us wondering how the Cardinals’ style then, which was built around contact, speed and defense, would hold up in today's game, which is built around power hitting and power pitching.
To form a true opinion, we must go back to the beginning.
Creating an identity
For a little perspective, between the years of 1971 and 1993, the Cardinals reached 100 home runs as a team in just two seasons. They hit 100 homers exactly in 1979. They followed with 101 in 1980. In the other 20 full seasons, it was news if they cracked even 90 homers.
In the ‘70s, the Cardinals didn't make the playoffs once. They also didn't have a real identity. Whitey Ball changed that. The additions of Smith, Willie McGee, Tommy Herr and Vince Coleman, just to name a few, helped St. Louis revolutionize the game. No, the Cardinals still didn't hit home runs in the ‘80s, but they knew exactly how they wanted to beat opponents.
In the process, they did something that might seem unrealistic in today's game. They won three pennants despite hitting the fewest home runs in the league each season. That hasn't happened one time since. What St. Louis lacked in power, it made up for in speed. The Cardinals stole over 200 bases in each of those seasons, even topping 300 in 1985.
“It was a track team, and every once in awhile a baseball game would break out.” That's how former Cardinals outfielder Andy Van Slyke described the team's style. But it wasn't just their ability to get on base and create havoc, it was their ability to prevent opponents from scoring.
“Momentum is more than just offense,” Ozzie Smith explained during the program. “Momentum is defense as well. It was as important to save a run as it was to drive in a run.”
The Cardinals bought in. It helped having a star like Smith as an anchor. The 13-time Gold Glove winner-turned-Hall of Famer is described by Herzog as the glue that held everything together. He set the tone for a defense that made life easier for the impressive array of pitchers — from John Tutor to Joaquín Andújar to Bruce Sutter — that passed through St. Louis.
Gauging their success
With a style all their own, the Cardinals won three division titles during the ‘80s. That was the only ticket into the postseason before the wild card came into play. Had the wild card existed then, that number may have jumped to five or six postseason berths. Nonetheless, St. Louis reached three World Series, all of which were decided in seven games. But they only won one.
In 1982, St. Louis topped the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1985, an infamous blown call by umpire Don Denkinger in Game 6 set the stage for heartbreak against the Kansas City Royals. In 1987, the Cardinals were maybe the best they’d ever been. The Minnesota Twins were just better when it mattered most.
One title doesn’t make a dynasty. That’s why these Cardinals are overlooked when baseball’s greatest teams are discussed. But in today’s game, with more playoff spots available, perhaps a team like these Cardinals could start clicking at the right time and give a powerhouse team fits.
Could the 1980s Cardinals succeed in 2020?
Keith Hernandez was a member of St. Louis’ championship team in 1982. The current New York Mets broadcaster says he’d give anything to put that team in the league right now. We would too.
Willie McGee vs. Gerrit Cole? Sign us up.
Vince Coleman going first-to-third on Yasiel Puig? Yes please.
Shifting a defense anchored by Ozzie Smith? Maybe. But only because Smith can cover half the infield by himself anyway.
Could opponents manufacture runs against the Cardinals’ defense? Would the Cardinals lack of power hurt them too much? Or would whatever might be happening with the baseball help negate that disadvantage?
The 2015 Kansas City Royals might be the closest thing we’ve seen to a “Whitey Ball” team over the last 30 years. Their 139 team home runs were 37 less than the American League average, yet they won a World Series behind speed and defense. That tells us there’s a chance. But baseball has changed a lot even since then. Now, it’s all about the power.
So many fascinating questions. So few clear answers. But there are countless reasons to watch “Birds of a Different Game.”
Why you should watch
Everyone loves nostalgia. If your love for baseball took shape in the 1980s, then you'll appreciate the trip back to when the gap between old school and today's game was being bridged.
If you're a Cardinals fan, you'll get to relive some of the franchise's greatest moments and hear the backstory on how the team’s key pieces were put together.
Check it out on Tuesday, Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. ET on MLB Network and then let us know your opinion on how the Cardinals of the 1980s would fare in 2020.
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