Harsh, mocking laughter filled the Cardinal locker room at New York's Shea Stadium one day last week. "Hear that?" asked outfielder Andy Van Slyke. It was hard not to. Across the room a clubhouse boy had just switched on one of those prank laughing boxes: HO-HO-HO-HO HEE-HEE-HEE-HEE HA-HA-HA-HA! "That right there," said Van Slyke with a pained smile, "is what everybody was saying about us last season: 'Ha, ha, ha.' "
You remember the Cardinals. When we left them last October, they were kicking and flailing and being led to a soft psychiatric couch. Their World Series hopes and delicate psyche had unraveled like sleeves on a cheap sweater. "It was emotionally draining, having the long season end that way," said second baseman Tommy Herr last week. "It left a real scar on me."
Don't get all misty-eyed just yet. The supposedly beleaguered Redbirds, who came into the season with health and pitching woes, are behaving like their old selves again, running the other teams in the National League East ragged and playing the sharpest baseball in either league. They've regained their composure and civility, and even their sense of humor. For example, when Rookie of the Year outfielder Vince Coleman called the team's $150,000 salary offer "a slap in the face" last month, his teammates left a bottle of Mennen Skin Bracer in his locker.
St. Louis was rolling along so well last week that by Sunday night, after a game in New York and three in Montreal, the Cards' record stood at 7-2, the best in baseball, one game ahead of the second-place Pirates. They had stolen 21 of 23 bases, grounded into three double plays and made only three errors. The retooled St. Louis pitching staff had an ERA of 2.03, best in the majors. The team was hitting only .232, but with speed, defense and pitching, and players like MVP Willie McGee, Jack Clark and Herr, first place isn't an odd place to be.
For what it's worth, the Cardinals didn't even get over the .500 mark last year until May 26. "There's confidence here from the start this time," said Van Slyke. "Nobody talks about it, but you can feel it."
The Mets may have felt some of it in their home opener—the only game of a ballyhooed three-game set with the Cards that didn't get rained out. St. Louis, behind converted reliever Ricky Horton and three of his former bullpen committee mates, outlasted Dwight Gooden and four Met relievers for a 6-2, 13-inning win. "I know now that the Cardinals like to play the Mets as much as the Mets like to play the Cards," said ex-Met turned Cardinal reserve Clint Hurdle, who had a key pinch-hit single. Added St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith, "Both teams are picking up where they left off last year."
That's not exactly true. Over the winter the Cardinals scattered much of last year's team around like birdseed. Nine of the 25 men on their World Series roster were released or traded, including tempestuous pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who was sent to Oakland for catcher Mike Heath and young lefthander Tim Conroy. "I figured Joaquin's days were numbered here," says Herr. "Especially after his World Series trouble. In St. Louis the brewery is number one, and when a player embarrasses the brewery, he's gone."
But the Cardinals lost a source of 21 wins and 269 innings when they gave Andujar his joaquin papers. Pitching became a concern, especially when a series of injuries plagued the staff this spring: Conroy showed up at camp with a sore shoulder and was on the disabled list until last Thursday. Ace reliever Jeff Lahti also had shoulder trouble that's only now clearing up. Worst of all, No. 2 starter Danny Cox, heading out for some fishing in Florida on March 30, chipped a bone in his right ankle when he jumped off a three-foot seawall onto the beach. He was expected back this week.
The Cards seemed beset by such bizarre injuries. World Series hero Tito Landrum aggravated a back strain while getting up from dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Van Slyke took a nasty gash over his left eye while searching under a chair for a piece of his young son's jigsaw puzzle. "I learned not to mess with a La-Z-Boy recliner," he says.
There were also worries about Smith's recovery from a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. He had hurt the shoulder diving back into first base last July, and the throbbing pain had bothered him the rest of the season—not just on throws, either. It became so troublesome that at times Smith had to reach over with his left hand just to tune his car radio. He vetoed surgery, however, fearing that his career might be further jeopardized. "Guys generally don't come back from that operation," says St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog.
But remarkably, in chain reaction, all the Cardinal problems disappeared. Rest and light weightlifting work healed Smith's shoulder so well that he's fielding better than ever and is hitting .394. His non-baseball rehabilitation regimen allowed him to sell his Iron Mike pitching machine to Coleman, who set it up in his Jacksonville backyard in November. Coleman began hitting four hours a day, working on shortening his stroke and being more selective. He recovered from his tarpaulin accident two weeks after the World Series, and proved it by clocking a 9.7 100-yard dash and finishing second overall at the Superstars competition in February. As of Sunday he was batting .286 with four stolen bases in four tries and eight runs scored.
On the mound, meanwhile, the development of lefty reliever Pat Perry strengthened the St. Louis bullpen and freed Horton to move to the starting rotation. Perry was signed in 1983 on the recommendation of the Cardinals' assistant equipment manager, who had seen him play amateur ball, yet Perry was considered a non-prospect until he developed a good changeup last year.
Horton, an upstate New Yorker and former Mets fan (the Cards, surprisingly, have several), is a Virginia graduate gifted with intelligence rather than great talent. It was apt that in spring training someone posted a Peanuts strip over his locker showing Charlie Brown's fastball being timed with a sun dial.
Because of the injury to Cox, a slot also opened in the starting rotation for a former Met phenom, Rick Ownbey, who is all the Cards have left to show from the 1983 Keith Hernandez trade. Ownbey, now 28, had to be coaxed into baseball from an assembly-line job making doorknobs several years back; a former Frisbee competitor, he would warm up for games by flinging the discs, sometimes with his toes. "Now I only throw them in the off-season," he says.
The Cardinals needed a good catcher to handle their reshuffled staff, and they got one in the gritty, 31-year-old Heath. Heath has a shortstop's arm, having played the position in high school. (Hillsborough High in Tampa retired his uniform, No. 16, a number coveted by a later Hillsborough player, Dwight Gooden, who had to wear Nos. 9 and 10.) In Friday's 4-2 win at Montreal, Heath drilled two doubles and a homer and threw out Expo rookie Andres Galarraga in a crucial situation as he was trying to steal. "He threw out Galarraga before he had a chance to think about sliding," said winning pitcher John Tudor afterward.
Tudor's victory on Friday was his third of the season and 14th in a row, leaving him just one shy of Bob Gibson's club record for consecutive wins. "I don't want to hear it," he said when told of the milestone. "I don't want to hear anything about anything." Tudor, alas, still treats reporters as a necessary evil at times. But at least hear this about him: He hasn't lost a game in St. Louis since April 22, 1985—that's 18 straight wins in 21 starts at home—and he continues to pitch with utter mastery.
A key to his success, of course, has been the Cardinals' exceptional defense. Of the team's three errors this season, two were on wild pickoff throws and the other occurred when Coleman allowed the runner to take an extra base. "This might be the best defensive club that ever played the game," says Herzog. "I've been in baseball 37 years and I haven't seen one better. You look back and Baltimore had some good ones in the '60s and '70s, and there were others, but every team you come up with had a plumber or two. We don't have any plumbers out there."
On Saturday the Cardinals won their second marathon of the week, beating the Expos 9-6 in 17 innings. The unlikely hero was Conroy, just activated off the disabled list. He pitched three no-hit innings and, batting for the first time since high school, drew a bases-loaded walk off Floyd You-mans to force in the game-winning run. "It's a good way to get over the hump," said Conroy. McGee followed with a two-run single for insurance. On Sunday, St. Louis and Horton went seven scoreless innings before the Expos pushed two runs across in the eighth to win 2-0.
As the Cardinals and Mets sat around Shea playing cards and watching the rain fall last week, a pithy dialogue developed regarding the rivalry between the two teams. "The only gripe we have is that all you ever read about is the Mets and how they're going to win it all," said Herzog. "Hell, why even bother playing the bleeding season? Last year we were out in front the whole way, but you'd have sworn they were. That's what gripes the players. That crap gets old."
"That's their problem," answered Met first baseman Keith Hernandez. "It's obviously a thorn in their side."
The Cardinals have already plucked enough thorns from their skin to last them at least a few more seasons, thanks. This year they're after something more enjoyable: the last laugh.