Are Cards Dealing a Stacked Deck? : Somehow, Their Shuffle Has Led to Winning Hand

Times Staff Writer

They were just unimportant, nondescript, nothingburger little plays, but they told a lot about the St. Louis Cardinals. They showed how the Cardinals play the game, how they come into a ballpark like fog, on little cat feet, and then scamper all over the place until you get good and tired of chasing them.

One of the plays was a simple little infield out. It occurred in the fourth inning of Tuesday night's All-Star Game at the Nerf-turfed Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

Ozzie Smith, the lightning bug who plays shortstop for the Cardinals, dug in against Bert Blyleven, the big curveball artist from Cleveland. Well, dug in might be a tad too descriptive. Stepped in is more like it. Ozzie Smith is the kind of guy who rarely hits a baseball farther than the position he occupies defensively.

Smith hit a one-hopper, St. Louis style. He chopped at it like a woodsman, driving the ball into the turf. It sprang off the rug--which is not unlike the one on which Smith cavorts 81 times a year at Busch Stadium--and zoomed into the air, 15 or 20 feet high.

The only way Blyleven was going to get him was the way he got him. The pitcher plucked the ball out of the air with his bare hand and threw a fastball to first base. Out by an eyelash.

That was one play that told something about the St. Louis Cardinals. They will try anything--trick shots, two-cushion caroms, whatever--to beat you. You had better bring your reflexes with you when you play them, as the Dodgers must do when the Cardinals come to town today to start the second half of the regular season.

Another play that told something about St. Louis happened in the ninth inning of the All-Star game, with the bases loaded.

Willie McGee, who could outrun a jaguar--small j or capital J, doesn't matter--turned around to bat right-handed against the American League's hastily summoned southpaw, Willie Hernandez. The outfielders moved in, which McGee's St. Louis and All-Star teammate, Jack (Rambo) Clark, knew was a big mistake.

"Willie's got a ton of power right-handed," Clark said later. "I've seen him clear the center-field fence several times in St. Louis, and that's a poke."

McGee promptly cleared the center-field fence in Minneapolis--on one bounce. If the rug hadn't been quite so rubbery, the ball would have hit the fence on the bounce, and the center fielder's miserable job would have been to retrieve the ball and return it to the diamond before Willie McGee had already circled the bases and gone back into the clubhouse for a sandwich.

As it was, McGee was rounding second when the ball hopped over the wall.

"I don't know if I could have gone all the way around but I sure would have liked to see me try," McGee said. "Inside-the-park grand slams at All-Star Games don't happen every day."

What that play said about the Cardinals was that some of them are underestimated. Parts of three seasons have passed since Willie McGee rose to fame in the 1982 World Series, and some people are still waiting for him to be proven an accident, a fluke. Years from now, McGee is still going to be sitting there with a batting average in the .300s and a whole bunch of stolen bases while still waiting for somebody to certify him as a star.

"Willie McGee is going to be one of the great players in the game for a long, long time, and the world had better get used to that fact," said Ozzie Smith, McGee's friend and one-time housemate.

Right now, the world is having enough trouble acknowledging the Cardinals themselves. They see them up there at the top of the National League East standings and still wonder what they are doing there. Weren't these the guys who won the '82 World Series and then got rid of Keith Hernandez, got rid of George Hendrick and got stripped of Bruce Sutter? Weren't these the guys who were going to fight the Pittsburgh Pirates for fifth place?

"We are fooling just about everybody, with the possible exception of us," Clark said.

Clark, the new club on the club, the team's only genuine thumper, has been reborn of body and spirit since escaping San Francisco.

"I'm just not used to playing with this caliber of players," he freely admitted. "But I sure am enjoying it."

The feeling is mutual, because the little roadrunners on the roster sure are enjoying having this tall, tough, permanently 5-o'clock shadowed coyote in their midst.

"Hey, Rambo!" Smith called out to Clark as he saw the big guy pass by his locker in the NL clubhouse, when the players were straggling in for Monday's All-Star workouts. "You wake up yet?"

"Yeah. Just did," Clark mumbled, sleepily.

Smith turned back to a reporter and kept the train of thought. "Wake up," he said. "Hah. That man right there was wide awake the minute he showed up for spring training. Jack Clark was just the right touch for this team. We find ways of getting on base and then he steps up and knocks us all home."

The Cardinals seem to have found just the right combinations:

--McGee and Herr not only have found their batting strokes, they are among the league's leaders.

--Smith, a lifetime lightweight, is hitting in the .280s. "I usually try to climb up to .250, .255 by the end of the season," Smith said. "One point a day."

--Clark is contributing the long ball, handy Andy Van Slyke has played several positions and kept his average in the respectable .270s and rookie-of-the-year shoo-in Vince Coleman keeps stealing bases to the point that opponents are haunted by the ghost of Lou Brock.

--As for the pitching, which on paper appeared to be a horror story, Andujar, the reluctant All-Star, leads all big league pitchers in victories and could be on his way to 25 of them, maybe even 27 or 28. John Tudor, off to a 1-7 start, suddenly forgot how to lose. Danny Cox won 10 games before anybody outside Missouri had ever heard of him. And Jeff Lahti and Ken Dayley nearly have made people forget Sutter.

"There was a lot more talent on this team than a lot of people thought," Clark said.

Cardinal fans were so stupefied by the departures of Hernandez, Hendrick, Sutter and Lonnie Smith that the last straw was the contract impasse of Smith, the man who plays shortstop as it has rarely been played before. Trade rumors were rampant.

"I went everywhere," Smith said. "I was thinking about trying to get me a shuttle."

But popular sentiment persuaded the Cardinals to offer Smith a huge contract, and it appears he will be a long time at short.

"Anytime you dismantle a team like that, you get nervous," Smith said. "But if you continue to put productive people on the field, you're OK. The organization gave people like Vince Coleman and Andy Van Slyke an opportunity to play. Then they went out and got Jack Clark and gave him a new lease on life. All of a sudden, we're a pretty doggone exciting baseball team."

Rambo thinks so, too.

"I keep watching these guys zipping around the bases and wonder what they're going to do next," Clark said. "Sometimes I'm so fascinated watching my own team play, I forget to bat. I'd rather watch them. "

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