The world lies becalmed here beside Tampa Bay. The glassy waters in the yacht basin shine like a rippleless mirror at the edge of Al Lang Stadium. From third base, you could walk 40 paces and shave by your reflection in the briny. The sky's such an unblemished blue that a fly ball is the biggest cloud in sight. This is a land from which problems--reality, you might say--have been banished. Even the legions of old folks here just play softball and fish until, one day, they're gone for good.
The St. Louis Cardinals truly seem contented as they peck in the grass in crimson caps and shoes. It's a hard life the Cardinals lead. They must walk all the way across the street from their hotel--home of the Playboy Club--to get to the ballpark; it's a sad sight, these heart-wrenching goodbyes between ballplayers and bunnies. Tragic news, hereabouts, is learning that the stone crabs are past their peak.
In a setting where every scene has the ripe color and graceful composition of a still life in oils, self-delusion is an easy trap. Case in point, perhaps, high-flying Whitey Herzog and his top-o'-the-mornin' Cardinals, the surprise team that had the third best overall record in baseball last season.
Some think the Cardinals, who now have Ozzie Smith at shortstop and Lonnie Smith in the outfield after Herzog's latest paroxysm of deals, are a World Series threat. Manager and General Manager Herzog has built along the same lines as his three division champs with the Kansas City Royals: intimidating team speed, all-fields gap hitting, far-ranging defense and a deep bullpen.
Others look askance at Herzog's bizarre, self-inflicted starting rotation in which only two men--steady Bob Forsch and unsteady Joaquin Andujar--have ever won 10 games in a season. Such folks suspect that Herzog, in the intoxicating first flush of new power and instant success, has wheeled and dealed the Cardinals from a loser into a winner and now back into a loser again.
Herzog, who was chosen as the National League's manager of the year and executive of the year by UPI last season, has completely made the Cardinals over in his own image. "I've got the hammer," he says of his dual role.
But, the question remains: what hath the White Rat wrought?
It's the unconventional, cocky precariousness of Herzog's master building that makes his club interesting. Both as a team-assembler and a strategist, Herzog is a hip, chatterbox iconoclast.
"On turf, speed is more important than power . . . and, today, the most important factor in the game is relief pitching. If I had a choice between the greatest starter in the game and the greatest reliever, I'd take the reliever," says Herzog, whose first act was to trade for Bruce Sutter. "We held 41 of 42 leads entering the seventh last year. That statistic's the mark of champions."
To Herzog, the old gold standards of the game--homer power and starting pitching--mean little in the NL's turf age. He thumbs his nose at both. The only thing more pathetic than his club's lack of power (only George Hendrick figures to hit 15 homers) is the ludicrous combined career mark--33-37--of third, fourth and fifth starters Andy Rincon, John Martin and Steve Mura.
"We led the majors in scoring one year in K.C. and only hit 60 homers," he says. As for starters, Herzog says, "We were never supposed to have enough pitching with the Royals, but you can always come up with something."
These days, rosy glasses or not, Herzog thinks life just might be perfect. After 20 months in St. Louis he's made trades involving more than 30 players. "You can sit on your butt, like Joe Burke, and watch your team go downhill," says Herzog, taking a shot at the Royals president who fired him, "or you can make some moves." Now, Herzog's Cardinal reclamation project is "pretty well done."
In mid-'80, Herzog took over a fourth-place club that, he said, needed only three things: "Right-handed pitching, left-handed pitching and relief pitching." Now, he adds, "We had six .300 hitters, but we were so slow we needed four hits to score a run." Suddenly, by '81, the Cardinals had the best overall record in the NL East. Yet few noticed. The Cardinals got the quick shuffle in the split season.
Herzog shook hands last week with Reds Manager John McNamara, the other outraged noninvitee to the NL playoffs.
"Well, Mac, what say we play for the (National League) championship today," cracked Herzog. "A hundred dollars on the side."
"That's something we don't even talk about," McNamara said, still bitter.
Herzog isn't good at forgiving and forgetting, either.
"I'm still mad at the commissioner," Herzog says. "I think Hank Peters (Baltimore general manager) would make a good (next) commissioner."
Herzog thinks not even Bowie Kuhn can keep his club out of this year's playoffs. The manager admits to few, if any, question marks in the material provided him by his brilliant general manager.
"Andy Rincon's probably the pitcher we most need to do well," said Herzog before the first spring outing of the rookie, a right-hander with six career wins who's coming off a broken pitching arm in '81. "He might even be our ace."
One hour later, Rincon had: balked, thrown a wild pick-off to third, forgotten to back up a base, and, finally, given up seven consecutive hits. In two innings, he allowed nine runs.
"Might be the best thing that ever happened to him," blustered Herzog.
However, in the next breath, Herzog says he's just conferred with owner Augie Busch about the possibility of one more big trade--"a four-or-five-for-one for a pitcher."
In the same game, Herzog got his first glimpse of his comical new center fielder, Lonnie Smith, of whom the Cardinals scouting reports, according to Herzog, said, "more than adequate defensively . . . but slips once a game."
Smith nearly fielded for the cycle, turning three fly balls into a single, double and triple. One liner nearly undressed him. Another ball he missed twice, once on the way by and again as the carom buzzed past his ear. Finally, a routine two-on, two-out fly hit him in the head and knocked him down.
Thus, Smith put in a bid to be considered the best offensive player in the game, since he plays for the offense in both halves of the inning.
"Some guys just can't play the outfield down here in Florida," ventured Herzog. "(Ex-Met) Don Bosch couldn't."
Many a lifelong baseball man, like Herzog, has had the fantasy of possessing complete control of a ballclub--from putting on the hit-and-run to negotiating contracts to making vast trades. Few have ever been given the chance. Now, Herzog must live with the consequences of being a benevolent dictator. He's got the hammer, but he also gets all the heat.