The Most Disappointing Season For … The St. Louis Cardinals
The 1983 St. Louis Cardinals
Record: 79-83 (4th NL East, tied for 8th out of 12 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 78-84
Runs Scored: 679 (5th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 710 (10th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 92-70
Manager: Whitey Herzog
Hype: World Series champs were back with their entire lineup, all of them in their prime, a good starting staff and the best reliever in the game. There was no reason not to expect a repeat performance in the Fall Classic.
The Gory Details: No doubt, the Whitey Herzog Cardinals were built for Busch Stadium. Speed and defense ruled the team, and even though Keith Hernandez and George Hendrick weren’t power hitters in the traditional sense, they drove in runs by the buckets thanks to their timely hitting with speedy guys on base.
Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr and Ken Oberkfell cleaned up in the infield, and Willie McGee, Lonnie Smith and young David Green (Lonnie’s caddy and just as fast) added the speed in the outfield.
The rotation had experience in Bob Forsch and ace Joaquin Andujar and solid youngsters like John Stuper and Dave LaPoint. Then add in Bruce Sutter and you had a recipe for great success, on the surface.
The cog of the Cardinals was definitely Hernandez. He was their leader, a former MVP, a pure hitter and the best fielding first baseman in baseball. He also was 29 years old, and definitely could contribute for years to come – if he decided to stay in St. Louis.
What no one saw, though was that Whitey Herzog hated Hernandez. Hated, hated, hated him. He thought Hernandez had a bad attitude, was lazy, was selfish, and cared more about smoking cigarettes and doing puzzles than putting in the work to maintain his craft.
Teams have overcome toxic relationships to win, and this hell-scape in the clubhouse wasn’t noted in the St. Louis media.
All starts out great for the Redbirds. After losing opening day, the Cards reel off six straight wins, with Andujar winning two of them. They lead the division in April, and after a rough patch where they lose six of seven they pull out of it and go on a hot streak.
They enter June with a three game lead on Montreal. The Phillies are third, and no one else is really close. Philadelphia had decided to throw itself behind a team of geezers in an effort to win one more time, but right now the speedy Cards were in control.
June started out a bit rocky, as they were swept by the Braves early on. Still, coming into June 15th the Cards were a game ahead of Montreal and 2 ½ games in front of the Phils.
St. Louis had two more games against the aging Phillies in this homestand.
At 7PM, Hernandez was called into Herzog’s office. He was out of St. Louis, traded to the Mets. The last place and horrible New York Mets. In return, the Cardinals were going to get a stressed out Neil Allen and a body named Rick Owenby. Hernandez, the glue of the team, was gone.
But importantly for Herzog, the loafing narcissistic first baseman with a bad attitude was gone, and now the team could focus on winning games without his influence. Also, unknown to Herzog, Hernandez was a coke fiend (who claimed to have stopped right before the trade). He and Lonnie Smith and others (perhaps) weren’t giving it all thanks to their love of the white powder.
For whatever reason, Hernandez was gone. St. Louis Cardinal Nation was livid. Outraged. Incensed. They didn’t take it well. The mealy mouthed reason was that Forsch and Andujar were slumping, so they needed more pitching.
Yeah, everyone needs more pitching, but trading a franchise cornerstone for Neil Allen and a whozywhats? Neil Freakin’ Allen?
Well, no matter who is on the team and who is not on the team, you still gotta play ball, and Herzog called up phenom Andy Van Slyke two days after the trade. Van Slyke moved to the OF as Hendrick came in to play first. This still was a good team; this still was a team that could win. Andujar and Forsch were vets, and they would come around. Sutter was struggling but relief pitchers do that. He’ll come around.
The Cards were in a daze, and were 2-2 in the rest of their homestand after the trade. Still, they were 32-28 and tied for first. They had a road trip coming up, the first stop was New York and a lovely SIX game series against the Mets. Oh, rainouts.
There were doubleheaders on Monday and Wednesday and single games Tuesday and Thursday. Winning four of six, maybe sweeping one of the doubleheaders, would be great. The Mets were terrible, even with Hernandez. You aren’t 21-34 by accident.
They indeed split Monday’s double dip. Allen then shut out his former team on Tuesday. All was coming to plan. Forsch and Andujar were starting the Wednesday doubleheader, against Tom Seaver and Mike Torrez. Those two were still good pitchers, but were long in the tooth and not dominant anymore.
Forsch got knocked out early, and the Mets coasted to a win. Then Andujar continued his bad luck, losing a 2-1 contest to Torrez. That left One Tough Dominican with a 3-10 record on the year.
Stuper pitched Monday, and had to come back Thursday on short rest. Both starters were knocked out early, and the Mets won, thanks to a Herculean five inning save from Doug Sisk. You heard me – five inning save.
The Cards crawled back to Busch 2 ½ games behind, and then were promptly swept by the Pirates in a four game series. The Mets then beat them again, extending the losing streak to eight games. Finally, normalcy was restored and St. Louis won the next three games to end June 37-37, but just two games behind.
Hopefully, the bad vibes and shock from the Hernandez trade had subsided. There was still three months of baseball to play and three months of good baseball would win the division. The big key was getting Andujar back on track. After his 2-0 start to the year he was 1-11 with a 4.62 ERA.
Instead, for the first part of July they played meh baseball, but as of July 18th they were in first place, at 45-44, with a big homestand coming up against the Padres, Dodgers and Giants. Time to make hay.
Well, they did go 5-4 on that homestand, but lost ground and were now in third place. Two months to go, and the Cardinals Nation wasn’t too happy. Fortunately, a series against their archrival Cubs, and a big series against the Phillies awaited them. Again, it was time to make hay.
Instead, they got threshed.
It’s bad to lose a three game home series when you’re fighting for the pennant. It’s worse when it’s your archrival. It’s the absolute worst when they’re a hopeless case of a team with a manager who is a dead man walking. Yes, the Cubs and Lee Elia swept the Cards, and St. Louis then compounded it by losing the next three to the Phils.
Instead of climbing up to first, the Cards were sinking, in fourth. And while the NL East was a close race now (the Pirates stuck their nose in there making it a four team affair), St. Louis was collapsing.
They tried to rally. They moved to third place for a brief time. On September fifth, they were just ½ game back (if that kind of race happened now, ESPN, Fox and the MLB network would do a pitch by pitch quad screen). A 13-game road trip against their division compatriots would settle their score, and everyone else’s.
The Cards played like a tired, distracted team, which they had been ever since the Hernandez trade. They went 3-4 on the first leg, then were swept in a three game slate by the Phillies. That basically sealed their fate. A three game sweep by Montreal threw dirt on their grave, and the rest of the season they watched as the Wheeze Kids Phillies took control of the division, while they languished 11 games back in fourth.
Herzog was right, in a sense. Pitching was the main problem. The offense did OK, with only Willie McGee having a truly down year, but you could always use a Keith Hernandez in the offense. The starters were all fair to mediocre, and Sutter blew nine of his 30 saves.
They needed arms, but not at the expense of their best all-around player. They couldn’t get make any trades it seemed since almost everyone was in the race, and wanted to protect themselves.
The Cardinals recovered, and made the World Series again in 1985 and 1987. But they thought dynasty after 1982, and hit the ground hard, thanks to one trade based on the managers abject hatred of their best player.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Here was another problem. I didn’t write much about the players because they were all just a’ight. Darrell Porter led the team in WAR with a 3.9. Ozzie Smith had a 3.8 WAR, and of course that was all defense.
Honorable Mention Team: The 1988 Cards. They lost the World Series to the Twins in 1987. They replaced Jack Clark with Bob Horner. Say. No. More.
Bad Blast from the Past: The 1899 Perfectos were expected to win the NL, coast to the win even. The league forced out Chris von der Ahe, finally, after he made a mockery of his franchise.
Thanks to syndicate ownership, the Robison Brothers bought the team, and basically swapped franchises with their existing Cleveland club, sensing St. Louis was the better market. The 1899 Perfectos had two HOF players in Jesse Burkett and Cy Young, and plenty of good to great players like Patsy Tebeau, Cupid Childs, Bobby Wallace and after a ‘trade’ with their sister team, Lave Cross. Still, they could only muster a fifth place finish, well out of the money.