Slick can play. That's the first thing to know about Slick. Slick can play. Slick is Whitey Herzog's nickname for Andy Van Slyke, formerly one of Herzog's St. Louis Cardinals, now the estimable 28-year-old centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. One would assume that Herzog, the Cardinals' manager, called him Slick with good reason. Van Slyke's wife, Lauri, knows plenty of good reasons. "So cocky, so cool and arrogant, so full of pride," she says.
From across the kitchen table at the Van Slyke home in Chesterfield, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, Slick curls up the corners of his mouth like the Cheshire cat, or the Vicomte de Valmont, or Nuke LaLoosh. He raises one eyebrow in agreement.
"Yes," he says to her. "If you don't think that way, great things will never happen to you."
Lauri already knows this. She and Andy have been together for, what is it now, 12 years? They have three sons—A.J., Scott and Jared, the baby. Jared came in with the New Year, and on this afternoon he's being held securely in Van Slyke's strong hands. Jared wouldn't be any safer with Allstate. Slick has great hands. "And wheels, arm strength and power," he says. "Yep. Was God-gifted with the tools."
April 4, 1989
True. Slick can play the outfield. And what Slick does best is go get it. In 1988 he led National League outfielders in putouts (406) and total chances (422) and was fifth in fielding percentage (.991). He had 12 assists and only four errors in 152 games in centerfield. Two plays from last year will tell you about Van Slyke's season. Against the Cardinals in their home opener, he raced in to shallow center, dived flat out and stole a sure hit from Vince Coleman. During the last week of the regular season, in Pittsburgh, with one out in the top of the ninth and the Pirates leading 3-2 and needing to beat the Cardinals to clinch second place in the National League East, St. Louis second baseman Luis Alicea lifted a fly to centerfield. Jose Oquendo tagged at third. Slick moved back a few steps, ran in with an educated, ballplayer's stutter-step, caught the ball and threw Oquendo out at the plate for the double play.
Watching with special interest from the dugout on both those plays was Herzog, who knew as well as anyone that Van Slyke, as he trotted off the field after that final out of that final-week victory, was carrying some fabulous stats in his pocket, stats that at season's end would read: .288 batting average, 25 home runs, 15 triples, 100 RBIs, 101 runs and, for good measure, 30 steals.
"With Andy Van Slyke, what you see is what you get. He'll never be more than a .270 hitter with 60 or 70 RBIs."
—Whitey Herzog, 1986
Slick can play. Slick can play just about anything. The first time he went bowling, Van Slyke rolled a 200. He had a 36-inch vertical jump at age 17 and can still shoot the eyes out of the basket. At 6'2", he can dunk with authority. He plays golf four or five times a year and the last time out shot an 84. He picked up racquetball in two minutes, and you don't want to see him on the tennis court if you've got an ego to preserve. Slick would probably be a whiz at Nintendo, but he lets A.J. take care of that. "I can get the princess in Super Mario Brothers," says A.J. evenly. No doubt. A.J. is five years old.
Like son, like father. Ask the mother. Andy met Lauri nearly 12 years ago, when he was playing summer league basketball games in Utica, N.Y. Lauri Griffiths was a local beauty who had come to a game to meet Ron Evans, a young man who just happened to be Van Slyke's biggest athletic rival. "I threw in five long jumpers in a row," says Slick. "Lauri yawned. She looked the other way." After the game Andy walked straight up to Lauri and asked her for some gum—"Actually, I asked for some of her Juicy Fruit," he says. She turned and left. That night Andy found her and told her that she was going to a Doobie Brothers concert with him—and told her to inform her parents. The 16-year-old Van Slyke didn't have a driver's license. He drove anyway. What is it Lauri says now? "So cocky, so cool and arrogant...."
And why not? Last season Van Slyke won a Gold Glove and was named an All-Star outfielder in the National League, meaning that for one season he was judged a better centerfielder than Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds. Read that sentence again in 10 years. Slick understands. "Oh, I think Eric is on another level," he says. "It's just a matter of experience and concentration level, which will come for Eric."
"Eric Davis is an unbelievable baseball player," says Pirate manager Jim Leyland. "And Kirk Gibson was incredible last year. But the best all-around performance in the National League last year came from Andy Van Slyke."
"Andy Van Slyke is a throwback to the old-fashioned player," says Syd Thrift, former Pirate general manager and the man who brought Slick to Pittsburgh. "Just a bear-down, clutch player. There's no stat for runners held—runners that don't dare try to run on him. And when he's the runner, he goes from home to third better than anyone in the National League. He takes pregame outfield practice even in 100° August heat. You know anybody else who does that? Then he makes it all look so easy."
Which is not to say that he'll ease up. "That Gold Glove is the only trophy of mine you'll see out," says Van Slyke. "I can get better. I will get better."
"All that's left for him to do is to hit lefthanded pitching just a little bit better," says Leyland. "Some guys' athletic ability won't allow them to do it. But time does it when you're talking about an athlete like Andy Van Slyke. Time and hard work. He'll do it. No doubt in my mind. He'll do it."
"Slick, when you go home, that's as close as you 're gonna get to the Hall of Fame."
—Whitey Herzog, 1983
Slick grew up as Andy, in New Hartford, N.Y., just outside Utica, 30 miles as the crow flies from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Andy was younger brother to Matt, older brother to Patrice and Mary, and the son of Ginny and Jim Van Slyke.
On winter days Andy and Matt would play basketball with two balls—one of the balls was kept in the house to stay warm so that when the other one got too cold to bounce well, the boys wouldn't have to stop playing. "The competition between Matt and Andy was always very keen," says Jim, 59. "And I always thought Matt was even a better athlete than Andy."
"My father is a scholar," says Andy. "He wasn't all that much on ballplaying, as I remember." Indeed, asked when the ambidextrous Andy (throws right, eats left, writes right, golfs both ways) became a lefthanded hitter, Jim says. "God only knows. I don't." Jim is a Colgate man, a former principal, first for six years at Perry Junior High, then at New Hartford High until 1985. One need not ask where the Van Slyke children matriculated during this time. Jim is now the town justice of New Hartford.
"So Andy doesn't think I was much of an athlete, does he?" asks Jim. In fact, the elder Van Slyke had been a pitcher, once upon a time, good enough to be offered contracts by both the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians. He preferred instead to take a scholarship to Colgate. "To tell you the truth, I guess I was just chicken," says Jim. "My older brother Bill had thrown his arm out in Class D ball. So I don't think I had the confidence. And that's what you need if you're going to play ball."
Andy, the principal's son, never had confidence when it came to school. Even now he says, "I liked school. I liked it closed." There were reasons for his disaffection. As a two-year-old, he had an ear infection so severe it caused a partial hearing loss in his right ear. On top of that, Andy had dyslexia, a reading disorder. But his father was the principal. "My father was a very strong disciplinarian," says Andy. "I remember once I got into a fight with this guy, and after I beat him up, I got suspended and the other kid didn't." Says Jim, "He had to know the rules."
Playing ball was Andy's salvation. "Oh, I could see that Andy could play," says Jim. So could Andy. "Oh, my head was big," he says. "All I had to do was show up. Practice? Practice for what?" Andy was a catcher. No one ran on New Hartford High. As a sophomore he hit .430, and the scouts were around from then on. "I thought I was the greatest thing in the world," says Van Slyke. And then one day, at the start of Andy's senior season, the baseball coach, Mike Callan, called him into his office. Callan, a mild-mannered man, was holding a fungo bat. "He just shattered the table in his office with his bat," says Van Slyke. "He used a lot of choice four-letter words. He told me to clean up my act or I'd be kicked off the team. He said that I had a chance not many have. He said I could be a major leaguer. Trouble was, after he told me that, my head swelled up like a balloon."
Still, at the end of Andy's senior year, the Cardinals made him the sixth draft pick in the country. "I viewed it as the sixth draft pick in the entire world," says Van Slyke. The next day he broke his wrist on a freak play at first base in New Hartford High's last game of the season. Jim, who had always had his doubts about baseball as a livelihood, took this as a bad omen.
"Gosh, Ginny and I used to have shouting matches about it," says Jim. "I'd say, 'Gin, he's not going to make it,' and, boy, would she get mad. She'd scream at me, 'Damn you, he is too going to make it! Haven't you got eyes?' "
The way Andy saw it, being a ballplayer would at the very least preclude the need for schooling. He enrolled instead in the College of the St. Louis Cardinals and was shipped to Gastonia of the South Atlantic League in 1980. But he already had big league written all over him. When baseball people said he played the field like DiMaggio, he shrugged. For all he knew, maybe he did. Meanwhile, his off-the-field style was hardly so restrained. "The independence I was seeking was destroying me," says Van Slyke. "I saw too many sunrises." Not only did he close his share of bars but also, a la Bull Durham, he and a few of his teammates actually did hose down the field one night after a bender, in hopes of getting out of a day game. Gastonia played the next day anyway. "The manager made us squeegee the field," says Slick.
Whether in right or center or at third base—"I still think I could have made the big leagues as a catcher," he says—a player like Van Slyke wasn't long for Gastonia. "And thank goodness," says Lauri. Van Slyke moved up to St. Pete in 1981, to Arkansas in '82 and then spent just two months with the AAA Louisville Redbirds in '83. He was hitting .368 when he was called to the head of the class, on the same day the Cardinals traded Keith Hernandez to the New York Mets.
In a pregame introduction on an NBC Game of the Week in 1983, the fresh-out-of-the-minors Van Slyke was introduced by Joe Garagiola as the next Stan Musial. As soon as they went off the air, Slick turned around and pointed to his back. "Look Joe," he said, "it says Van Slyke back there."
But Herzog made his opinion clear from the start: When Slick played rightfield, he was the best rightfielder in the National League. But he didn't play against lefthanded pitching. "I guess I couldn't live up to Whitey's expectations of me," says Van Slyke. "I questioned his judgment in playing Tito Landrum ahead of me [against lefthanders]. But then I thought, Hey, he's Whitey Herzog. I began to doubt me."
Van Slyke says he has never worked harder than he did during the 1986 off-season. "I was possessed," he says. "I knew I'd get there. The second half of the '86 season, I hit .310. Then to be traded....
"On April Fools' Day , Whitey called me in, and I knew, man. I knew. Whitey didn't look me in the eyes that day. He said, 'Slick, you probably know.' Then he said, I appreciate what you did,' and all that stuff, but that meant nothing to me at the time. So much of that loyalty rah-rah stuff was destroyed when I was traded. I called Lauri, and she didn't believe it. She thought it was an April Fools' joke. When I got home, she was bawling. We loved it in St. Louis. We had made friends outside of baseball, and we loved that. But handing the job to Jim Lindeman over me...No, I never understood that."
"Leaving the Cardinals was hard for Andy," says Lauri. "In his heart, he'll always be a Cardinal. Always."
But a Pirate is what he became. Thrift had had his eye on Van Slyke for a while. "Willie McGee had been hurt and Van Slyke was playing center for Whitey," says Thrift. "That's when I saw him and I knew. It's geometric, playing center. You have to know the proper angles. He never wasted a step. I watched him and couldn't believe it. So we worked the deal [Van Slyke, catcher Mike LaValliere and pitcher Mike Dunne for catcher Tony Pena]. I think Van Slyke is a better hitter, a better all-around player when he's playing centerfield."
"You have to concentrate all game. Every day," says Van Slyke. "That didn't happen to me until I became a Pirate. The reason is Jim Leyland." Leyland and Thrift persuaded Barry Bonds to move to left so Van Slyke could play center. "I've got a lot of that confidence back now," says Van Slyke. "You can't be tentative at this level. I want to be the man. I'll never doubt myself again."
"Andy Van Slyke should have been Most Valuable Player in the National League last year."
—Whitey Herzog, 1989
If you took 30 years and several inches of waistline off Herzog and darkened his flattop a tad, you would be looking at a dead ringer for Van Slyke. Herzog the manager has one of the finest eyes for talent in the game; Herzog the player was a borderline major leaguer, a player who looked as though he would hit better than he ever did. And he was a centerfielder. This was the scouting report on centerfielder Herzog: good defensive outfielder, good speed, great hands, barely adequate as a hitter. Could it be that when Herzog watched Andy Van Slyke, he saw Whitey Herzog? "I was a good defensive player maybe," says Herzog, "but I never was no Andy Van Slyke. Never."
After Slick arrived in Pittsburgh, he told his father that Leyland had talked more to him in a week than Herzog had in four years. That was the way Slick saw it then. "Now I can appreciate how much I had learned about the game. I have great respect for Whitey Herzog," says Van Slyke, who's wearing a Whitey Herzog T-shirt.
"Andy Van Slyke is a helluva player and a helluva person," says Herzog. "I suppose we kept expecting more than he was ready to give, and we just ran out of patience."
Van Slyke and the Pirates haggled over contract lockout language before he finally signed on Feb. 18 of this year—a $5.5 million deal for three years. They should be the finest three years of his career. And maybe, just maybe, he and Lauri will move out from under Herzog's considerable shadow and leave St. Louis behind. Why did they stay there so long anyway? "The schools," says Slick. "The principal here is an outstanding man. That's important. Believe me, I know."
Van Slyke has donated two pitching machines to Maryville College, just 10 minutes from his house. He doesn't like to say he donated the machines since he uses them more than anybody. He grabs a bat, stands in, thinks Tudor, thinks Fernando, and hits 150 simulated lefthanded pitches in a row. Once he hits lefthanded pitching, there won't be anything in baseball that Slick can't do. He just can't do it for the Cardinals.
The Pirates don't usually call Van Slyke Slick. Instead, because of his intense nature, they've taken to calling him Norman, as in Bates. But the Pirates know one thing, even if it doesn't have quite the same ring to it: Norman can play.