Shuffling the Cards : Only Ozzie Smith Remains From the Glory Days of the ‘80s, and Veteran Shortstop Could Be Gone Soon as St. Louis Begins Process of Rebuilding
They were the National League’s dominant team of the 1980s, but when the St. Louis Cardinals arrived for spring training several weeks ago, they found each locker had a sticker over it that read: “Hello, my name is . . . “
You can begin filling in the blanks with the names of outfielders Bernard Gilkey, Ray Lankford and Felix Jose, but it doesn’t end there.
The turnover has been so swift and extensive that among the active Cardinals only Ozzie Smith, Jose Oquendo, Tom Pagnozzi and Todd Worrell remain from the club’s last pennant winner in 1987.
And of the three St. Louis teams to win a pennant in the last decade, only shortstop Smith remains, aware that it may not be for long and that it might be more appropriate if the sticker over his locker said, “Goodby,” rather than, “Hello.”
With Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Terry Pendleton having departed in the past eight months, and with the club dedicated to a rebuilding program that was a factor in Whitey Herzog’s decision to resign as manager last year, Smith is also likely to leave.
The pertinent question is this: Will it be sooner, in the form of a trade to a pennant contender such as the Dodgers, or later, as a free agent after the 1991 season, when the Cardinals are not expected to pick up his 1992 option, believing that Oquendo can become the league’s next great shortstop?
There is no definitive answer, only Smith’s view that he would be surprised if he were offered an extension, considering the Cardinals’ current course and his subtly expressed interest in moving sooner than later.
After all, is a rebuilding program any place for a 36-year-old shortstop confident he can go until 40 as an impact player with a contending team?
“I don’t think anyone in my position wants to go through a youth movement,” Smith said. “You always hope to close out your career with a winner, but I don’t really have any say in it. I have a contract and will do anything I can to help while I’m here.
“Change is inevitable, but the thing that caught everyone by surprise, the thing that was so upsetting, is that it was so abrupt.
“I mean, we’ve won so consistently, no matter who we’ve had, that you always figure you’re going to be in the race, but now I don’t know. There’s a lot of potential, but whether it turns into consistent production is the question.
“It’s only natural that there’s going to be a lot of mistakes when you have this much youth. Fans and players are going to need patience. I mean, we’ve got to live with it whether we like it or not. I just don’t know if I’ll still be here when it all comes together.”
There are things Ozzie Smith can say, things he cannot. A smile speaks for him when the possibility of a trade to the Dodgers is mentioned. The 10-time All-Star and 11-time Gold Glove winner has even told friends that he would be willing to move to second base if it would benefit the development of Jose Offerman.
“I’m not closing any doors or making any demands,” said the man who has redefined the shortstop position, but he suspects it will take more than a wizard for the 1991 Cardinals to be a factor in the National League East.
Last year, after Herzog resigned in July because of a belief he was powerless to manage a group of imminent free agents who knew they weren’t going to be re-signed by the front office, the Cardinals finished last for the first time since 1918.
Herzog’s replacement, Joe Torre, recognizes the difficulty of his task.
“I don’t think anyone is looking at us as a favorite to win the pennant, but how many people picked the Dodgers to win in ’88 or the Cubs in ’89 or the Reds last year?” Torre said.
“It’s just that with young players you never know what to expect, and I don’t want to build false expectations with a team that doesn’t have a lot of experience.
“The hope is that we can make progress, show signs of getting the organization back where it should be.
“What’s the sense of having a farm system if you don’t promote players, if you don’t give them a chance once they’ve had good years in the minors? Usually you do it with one player at a time. We’re being more ambitious.”
Lankford replaces McGee in center field. Gilkey replaces Coleman in left. Todd Zeile, a rookie catcher last year, is moving to third base to replace Pendleton.
Free agency reared its head at a time when the Cardinals said they were ready to rebuild.
There was an attempt to retain Coleman, but the New York Mets offered more. Pendleton and relief pitcher Ken Dayley left for the Atlanta Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays without resistance from the Cardinals. McGee, in the process of winning the NL batting title, was traded to the Oakland Athletics in August because Lankford appeared ready and St. Louis thought McGee’s age and fragility weighed against his expected price as a free agent.
General Manager Dal Maxvill denied speculation--and Herzog’s contention--that Anheuser-Busch has put the Cardinals under stronger financial control, and insisted that the rebuilding process was not a corporate order.
“We felt Lankford and Gilkey were ready to step in, and we made the calls independent of the spiraling salaries,” Maxvill said.
“I’ve never been told no when it comes to money or trades. Those are strictly baseball decisions, and the fact is, our payroll will be about 5% higher even without McGee, Pendleton and Coleman, whom we offered more than $10 million.”
Maxvill also cited the following as additional evidence that he is under no corporate restraints:
--The winter signings of free-agent relief pitcher Juan Agosto and first baseman Gerald Perry for a combined $7.9 million.
--Last year’s free-agent signing of pitcher Bryn Smith to a $5.8-million deal and the trade for relief pitcher Lee Smith, who was then signed for three years at a total of $8 million.
--The recent signing of Oquendo for four years at a total of $8.5 million and the three-year, $6.2-million extension given Pedro Guerrero after he was obtained from the Dodgers.
While Herzog would say that the money no longer flows at the same rate as the beer, Torre says Lankford and Gilkey will provide some of the same gap-hitting speed as McGee and Coleman, and predicts that right fielder Jose, who came in the McGee trade, will eventually be “every bit the home run hitter” Jack Clark and Richie Allen were in Busch Stadium.
“If we made a miscalculation, if there is any second-guessing to be done, it’s that we probably should have started these changes a year earlier,” Maxvill said. “But when we almost won in ’89 after falling on our rears in ‘88--when we felt we were going to repeat as National League champions--it gave us false hope. The way it turned out, ’89 was kind of a last hurrah.”
There is no way of knowing how many hurrahs the Cardinals will receive in ’91. Despite the hopes and promise of the new outfield, the St. Louis rotation has been devastated by an improbable series of injuries.
Since ‘87, six pitchers have undergone or are scheduled to undergo transplant surgery on their elbows. In a passing parade:
--Greg Mathews and Danny Cox are attempting comebacks with the Kansas City Royals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
--John Tudor has retired.
--A rehabilitated Dayley has moved to Toronto.
--Relief ace Worrell, who missed the 1990 season, pitched for the first time Thursday.
--No. 1 starter Joe Magrane will have surgery in April and is out for the year.
“It seems like the Cardinals have had a revolving door to Frank Jobe’s office,” Magrane said of the Inglewood-based surgeon who pioneered the elbow surgery.
“There’s no explaining it because we’re all different type pitchers, but I assure you, it’s very disheartening to know in spring training that your season is over.”
Said Maxvill: “I’d have to tear up the ballclub to replace a No. 1 pitcher. Everyone would ask for a Lankford or Zeile. We’ll have to go with what we’ve got.”
Jose DeLeon, 7-19 last season, becomes No. 1 in a rotation that includes Bryn Smith, Bob Tewksbury, Ken Hill and Jamie Moyer.
The five had a combined record of 33-48 last year, one reason that Herzog now spends relaxing days with a fly rod or a three-iron at his St. Louis home--available, perhaps, for a position with a National League expansion team.
Torre, 50, was enjoying similar tranquility as an Angel TV analyst, living in Newport Beach, but the St. Louis opening represented a chance to work with former teammate Maxvill in the city where Torre had his best years--he was the National League’s most valuable player in 1971--and to redeem his firings by the Mets and the Braves.
“I ran into (former Pittsburgh Pirate General Manager) Joe Brown at the Orange County airport last year, and he asked me if I was going to get the St. Louis job,” Torre said.
“I told him I didn’t know if I really wanted it, that I was comfortable doing what I was doing, and he said, ‘Listen, Joe, you’re too young to be comfortable.’ That had an impact on me. I also talked to (Detroit Tiger Manager) Sparky Anderson and he said something else that made an impact, reminding me that the one thing the Cardinals have always been able to do is develop young players.”
Torre will test several of them this summer, and unlike Herzog, who always thought he was the only leader the Cardinals needed, Torre has asked Ozzie Smith and Guerrero to take on leadership roles.
Guerrero’s most visible response was to say he will demand a trade if the Cardinals don’t extend his contract again, which isn’t what Torre had in mind. But Smith, despite his own interest in being traded, said he appreciated the respect and would help where needed.
There are those who say it is Smith who is showing signs of needing help, that he doesn’t cover the ground he once did, as evidenced by his drop in total chances from 775 in 1988 to 602 last year, and that he has similarly declined at the plate, his average having fallen from a high of .303 in 1987 to .254 last season.
Torre intends to provide him with more rest, but Smith said people are simply making an unfair comparison between Ozzie Smith at 36 and Ozzie Smith at 26, maybe the greatest shortstop ever.
“I know you can’t run from Father Time, but I feel like I came back from a groin pull last year to play as well as I ever have and still better than most,” said Smith, a player who needs no introduction preparing for what appears to be his final season--or part of a season--with a team that does.
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