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BATTERED BIRDS FLYING HIGH

May 18, 1987
May 18, 1987

Table of Contents
May 18, 1987

NBA Playoffs
Cardinals
Payne Stewart
Joe Goldstein
Track & Field
Tennis
Sailing
Lindgren
First Person
Point After
Departments

BATTERED BIRDS FLYING HIGH

The St. Louis Cardinals have survived a freakish rash of early injuries to stay in the race for first place in the NL East

Sure, Sure, Injuries are just part of the game. No team goes through a season without them. You take the bad breaks, as it were, with the good. You suck it up and do the best you can.

This is an article from the May 18, 1987 issue Original Layout

But then you have the St. Louis Cardinals. "We don't just get injuries, we get strange ones," said shortstop Ozzie Smith recently, while recovering from a sprained ankle suffered sliding into first base. "I mean, we lead the league in strange. We get a guy caught in a tarp. We get one jumping off a wall. And another gets run down while he's sitting in his own dugout. That's strange."

Indeed it is. But it's even stranger that on Sunday the Cardinals were just a half game behind the first-place Cubs. Smith's melancholy recitation referred to the bizarre, almost H.P. Lovecraftian mishaps that have befallen his team the past several years. One of these—Vince Coleman's being swallowed live by the automatic tarpaulin at Busch Stadium before the fourth game of the 1985 National League playoffs—has become part of baseball legend. Another—pitcher Danny Cox's fracturing his right ankle just before the start of the 1986 season by jumping off a seawall in St. Petersburg. Fla.—is generally good for a laugh from anyone but Cox. And a third—ace pitcher John Tudor's getting a bone broken below his right knee in the Cardinal dugout on April 19 by Mets reserve catcher Barry Lyons—is taking its place among the game's weirdest catastrophes, alongside Curt Simmons's severing his own toe with a lawn mower, Eddie Waitkus's being shot by a groupie and Coleman's getting tarp-eaten.

The irascible Tudor is, of course, no stranger to the offbeat injury. So enraged was he by his dismal performance in the final game of the 1985 World Series—five earned runs in 2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings—that he took a poke at an electric fan in the Cardinal clubhouse on the way to the showers. The fan survived the blow; Tudor was packed off to a local hospital to have his pitching hand sewn back together. Fortunately—or rather, unfortunately—the season was over for both him and his team.

Tudor's latest accident, which will immobilize him for much, if not all, of the season, is all the more galling to Whitey Herzog because it occurred in a game against the Mets, a team the Cardinal manager regards with a corrosive mixture of envy and contempt. Noting that the pop foul Lyons was pursuing with such foolhardy abandon landed four rows into the box seats, Herzog snarled, "It must be great to be a Met, but not even one of them, as far as I know, can fly."

It is Herzog's practice, yet unchanged, to have the pitchers in his starting rotation remain in the dugout on their off days, "to root for the guys who root for them," instead of languishing before a television set in the clubhouse. Tudor was dutifully seated on the bench cheering for the home team when, with two outs and nobody on in the third inning, Jack Clark lofted a pop foul to the first base side. Third baseman Terry Pendleton was sitting next to the pitcher at the moment Lyons came thundering toward the Cardinal dugout. Pendleton assumed that Lyons would put on the brakes, but he was prepared to catch the Met if he didn't do it in time. "He never broke stride," says Pendleton. "He just kept coming face first. So I jumped out of his way. I guess John stayed where he was to help. He got pinned between the catcher and the bench. It was a plus for Lyons, but a real minus for us."

Tudor now watches Cardinal games from the safety of the KMOX radio booth, his injured leg encased from hip to ankle in a complicated brace. "And I thought we were going to have a helluva pitching staff," moans Herzog. "Maybe even the best I've ever had."

Actually, he should have been disabused of that notion as early as last year, when his premier relievers from the 1985 pennant-winning season, lefty Ken Dayley and righty Jeff Lahti, went down with arm problems. Lahti hasn't pitched since April 1986 and Dayley since July. Lahti may never come back from his rotator cuff problem. Dayley, who has had nerve-transfer surgery in his elbow, probably won't be available until July. "And the Mets complain about losing Gooden and that reliever [Roger McDowell]," says Herzog. "We've had it worse. Gooden isn't coming back from any arm problem, and I've lost 30 saves [the number Lahti and Dayley combined for in '85]."

Last year's Cards were sabotaged by other injuries as well. First baseman Clark played only 65 games after tearing ligaments in his right thumb, and 1985 National League MVP Willie McGee missed 36 games with hamstring problems and a season-ending knee injury.

Hopes that this year might be different were dashed early. On April Fools' Day, the Cardinals traded outfielder Andy Van Slyke and catcher Mike LaValliere, two 26-year-olds with considerable promise, and a minor league pitcher to Pittsburgh for All-Star catcher Tony Pena. Pena was the experienced man St. Louis needed behind the plate, and he has a solid .285 career batting average. In the third game of the season, while facing the Pirates' Brian Fisher, he was hit on the left hand by a pitch. Pena's thumb was broken, and he was placed on the 21-day DL. "Not only did we lose him," laments Herzog, "we lost the two guys we traded him for. That's three players on one pitch."

Tudor was next, in the 11th game of the year. Four days after that, second baseman Tommy Herr, then second in the league with 15 RBTs, tore a groin muscle while running to first after singling against the Cubs. He, too, went on the DL. But his replacement, Jose Oquendo, had been on a tear. He was hitting .448 in 13 games when...uh, oh...he strained a muscle in his rib cage on April 28. Talk about April showers. "We come in two pitchers short," Herzog says, "then we lose a catcher we just got, our No. 1 starter, our No. 1 second baseman and our No. 2 second baseman. T can't figure it out. I've never had stuff like this happen to me before." Shortly after that, outfielder Tito Landrum broke a bone in his left foot. And Herzog's litany does not even include the various minor injuries that have afflicted everyone in the starting lineup except Pendleton, who himself has been playing every day with a lingering case of the flu.

"It's definitely got me puzzled," says Herzog. "Players today are all in such good condition. When I played ball, spring training was just a time to get in shape. Now they work out all year long and come to spring training already in shape. And then, when the season starts, they go out and pull muscles all over the place. And it's not like we've been having 30-degree nights, either. We've had good weather. I don't know the answer."

But as Smith so sagely says, "You don't worry about what you don't have; you get the most out of what you do have." The Cardinals have. Steve Lake, hitting .315, and Tom Pagnozzi have been capable substitutes for Pena, who meanwhile has kept his throwing arm in shape by playing catch one-handed before games. Relievers Ricky Horton and Pat Perry, who have appeared in 29 games between them, have picked up the slack in the bullpen, particularly since 1986 Rookie of the Year Todd Worrell and Bill Dawley have started slowly. "Thank God for Horton and Perry," says Herzog reverently.

In fact, the lefthanded Tudor hasn't really been missed. When Lyons ran him down, he had an atrocious 6.06 earned run average in three starts. Joe Magrane, a 22-year-old lefty who came from Louisville on April 24, moved into the rotation and has been outstanding.

A former All-America from the University of Arizona, Magrane is in only his third professional season. But in his first three starts with the Cardinals he won two games and allowed only three earned runs. After St. Louis suffered two humbling losses to the Giants early last week, Magrane got the team back on track with a 3-0 shutout of San Diego on Wednesday. That was the first complete-game shutout by a Cardinal pitcher since Tudor defeated Philadelphia 5-0 on Sept. 26, 1985.

Another newcomer from Louisville, utility man Skeeter Barnes, has replaced Landrum. The 30-year-old's previous major league experience had consisted of parts of two seasons with the Cincinnati Reds. But in his very first at bat of the season, last Thursday, he hit a three-run homer against the Padres in a wild 17-10 Cardinal victory.

In a way, the new faces have proved refreshing, none more so than Rod Booker's. Booker came from Louisville on April 27 and entered his first major league game two days later against San Diego as a replacement at second for the injured Oquendo. He got a hit, scored two runs and stole a base in a ragged 10-6 Cardinal win that went to Perry in relief of an ineffective Worrell. The next day, Booker was the star of the game, going 2 for 3, driving in two runs and making an Ozzie-esque backhand stab of a sharp ground ball up the middle. The Cards won again 5-4, with Perry getting the save.

Booker stood before his locker in full uniform, cap and all, for 45 minutes after that second game, introducing himself to a local media hungry for tidbits on this newest mystery man. At 28, Booker is no starry-eyed youngster. He was drafted by Minnesota out of the University of California in 1980 and bought by the Cardinals in '83. For seven discouraging years he labored in the minors, mostly at the Double A level. A smooth fielder who primarily played shortstop, he never hit above .273 with one team in a full minor league season. But he was batting .362 in 12 games at Triple A Louisville when, out of desperation, the Cardinals summoned him.

In his overlong apprenticeship, Booker never lost hope. "I didn't want to be a quitter." he said, recognizing that most career minor leaguers his age see the handwriting on the wall. "I always had it in the back of my head that I'd be up here sometime. The one thing I learned after seven years in the minors was that the good times come and go and so do the bad, and neither lasts very long. Being up here is everything I thought it would be and much more. When I got my second hit, I found myself standing on first base and saying, 'Man, you got two hits today.' I'm riding on a cloud. I can't remember being this excited. They've told me that when everyone gets well, I'll probably be going back down. I'm going to try my best to change their minds about that."

This is the sort of spirit that has buoyed Herzog in the face of his many troubles. That and his abiding detestation of the team from New York. It doesn't matter especially that, as he says, "we haven't played well against anybody but the Mets," because the Cards have beaten the defending world champions five games out of six. His pitching staffs 4.38 ERA bothers him because, "that's way too high in a big ballpark like ours." But the fact remains, the Cardinals are still somehow in first. "You don't cry about the injuries," says Herzog, "because if you do, the people around you, the players, will have a tendency to feel sorry for themselves. Besides, we've had troubles before. In '82 David Green got hurt, so we brought up Willie McGee, and his play sparked us to the World Series. In '85 they said we couldn't win without Bruce Sutter, and without him, we had the best bullpen in the game."

Herzog was relaxing in his office after lecturing Cox, his starter for the day, on the folly of feeding fast-balls to the Padres' John Kruk. His mood turned philosophical. "I have this friend from Illinois," he said, leaning far back in his swivel chair. "German fella. Talks like this [elaborate impersonation of Midwestern-German accent]. I tell him he got me to the big leagues because if I hadn't gone 5 for 5 against his pitching in a high school game, no scout would've signed me.

"Anyway, we've been friends for a long time. We go fishing together, and something always seems to happen. Well, not long ago, we're fishing this little lake, and I'm on one side of the boat, and he's on the other. We're doing fine until the wind comes up, and I'll be damned if my hook doesn't get caught in his head. This could only happen when I'm with him. I tell him to sit still, and I get up to try and get the thing out, and damned if the boat doesn't capsize.

"Down we go into the drink, along with 500 dollars' worth of fishing tackle. The hook comes out of his head, but he loses his glasses and God knows what else. Everything but us goes to the bottom. What a day! So what happens? The next day, my buddy meets this kid who's a scuba diver, and he brings him out to where we were. And what d'ya know, the kid brings up everything, including my buddy's glasses."

Herzog smiles. The message is clear: Just when everything goes to the bottom, somebody will come along to bring it all back up. So far in this young season, Whitey's had more than his share of willing scuba divers. Now, if he can just manage to keep the boat afloat the rest of the way....

View this article in the original magazine

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONHerr was on a batting tear before he tore a groin muscle.PHOTOSTEVEN GOLDSTEINLandrum broke his foot in BP, proving even subs aren't safe.

THE CASUALTIES KEEP COMING

PLAYER

INJURY

DATE

GAMES MISSED

1986

TIM CONROY, P

Shoulder

3/24

6

DANNY COX, P

Ankle fracture

3/30

11

JEFF LAHTI, P

Shoulder

4/24

150

RICKY HORTON, P

Elbow

5/25

29

CONROY, P

Shoulder

5/25

41

JACK CLARK, 1B

Thumb

6/24

93

WILLIE McGEE, OF

Hamstring

7/23

6

McGEE, OF

Hamstring

8/2

25

McGEE, OF

Hamstring

9/7

4

JOHN TUDOR, P

Shoulder

9/15

18

McGEE, OF

Knee

10/4

1

1987*

LAHTI, P

Shoulder

4/2

29

KEN DAYLEY, P

Elbow

4/5

29

TONY PENA, C

Thumb

4/10

26

TUDOR, P

Leg

4/19

18

TOM HERR, 2B

Groin tear

4/23

15

TITO LANDRUM, OF

Foot fracture

5/1

8

*Through May 10