As he dashed to his position Wednesday night, Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals introduced a new twist to the World Series.
As nearly as the surprised and naked eye could tell, 'twas a forward flip with a full twist that the acrobatic Wizard of Ozzie performed. Most people do this trick with the aid of a trampoline. Smith needed only adrenaline.
When Bruce Sutter threw an old-fashioned fast ball past the final Milwaukee Brewer to end the seventh Series game, 6-3, Smith flipped his lid again.
These Cardinals -- epitomized by a shortstop doing midair flips--are a new kind of baseball team, one that was inconceivable 15 years ago when St. Louis last won a world title. In fact, even a half-dozen seasons ago such a radically novel club was merely a gleam in Whitey Herzog's mischievous, iconoclastic eye.
To some, these Cardinals are almost a sacrilege, a defilement of the traditional aesthetics of the sport. To others, they are the definition of athletic innovation.
Whatever these Cardinals may be, watch them closely, because nothing gets copied like success. Especially the sort of shockingly swift success that is not predicated on wealth or long-term planning, but simply on the implementing of an elementary idea whose time may have come.
As much as any world championship in baseball history, this title stops at the door of one man: Whitey Herzog.
The "White Rat" conceived the style in which these Redbirds play back in his late '70s days with the three-time division champion Kansas City Royals. When he was fired there, he waited for exactly the job offer he wanted.
Herzog wanted a spacious park with an AstroTurf surface. He wanted to be his own general manager, make his own trades, so the team's stamp would be entirely his own. And he wanted an owner who'd spend enough money, and keep his nose far enough from the team's day-to-day operations that, when the moment was propitious, Herzog could throw millions of dollars into the right free-agent grab or the essential multiyear contract.
In St. Louis, he got all he wanted.
The park and the surface were practically duplicates of Kansas City's. He was named general manager, a job he didn't shuck until two winters of wheeling and dealing were done. Owner August A. Busch Jr. was 84. He wanted one more winner and, within reason, hang the cost. Busch's ego, as large as any in baseball, ran to the ceremonial, not the practical. He wanted to ride eight-horse carriages into the World Series, throw out the first ball himself, hear his company's beer jingle played at maximum volume at every opportunity and never be referred to by employes as anything except "Mr. Busch."
"Don't get any champagne on Mr. Busch," Herzog ordered his celebrating players, adding that, in his opinion, Busch was "the greatest man in the world." A small price to pay for having complete control of somebody else's $25 million business.
Now, pray tell, what is this Herzog Idea, how does it differ from similar notions in the past, and how did he work his miracle so quickly?
Whitey's Way is a concept with several parts, none of them entirely new, but the culmination of trends that have been building since the '60s.
First is the notion that speed and raw athletic ability are to be preferred at every position over any other virtue, even if this has considerable cost in other facets of the game, such as power, consistency or sophisticated baseball intelligence.
The result is a bizarre championship baseball team that hit only 67 home runs this season--last in the major leagues. To make the point unmistakable, the Cardinals swept the National League home run leader, Atlanta, in the playoffs, then, in the Series, beat the highest-scoring power team in 29 years.
What we're seeing is a team with a second baseman who's never hit a big league home run. A third baseman with 34 RBI in 137 games. An outfield with a total of 31 homers.
The advantages of speed are known of old. Herzog didn't invent the bunt, the steal, the hit and run, or taking the extra base at every chance. Ty Cobb did all of that. Also, Herzog didn't conceive the all-out running attack with six or seven thieves who steal whether they're ahead or behind. Chuck Tanner did that in Oakland in '76; Herzog just followed suit.
However, Herzog, as clearly as anyone, has understood how team speed in a big park can turn a mediocre pitching staff into a good one. Take away the home run and chase down any ball that stays inside the walls.
Finally, Herzog realizes that a team that hits the ball from middle to top, instead of from middle to bottom like a power team, has the advantage of turning modern pitching theory on its head. Keep the ball low is an adage that has been chiseled in stone since the home run age began. However, a knee-high strike holds no fear for the Cardinals, who hit homers only by accident. The low strike just fuels their game.
Herzog's pitching theories also are thoroughly modern. He thinks a great reliever with a combination of 45 victories and saves is clearly more important than any 20-game winner. "Bruce Sutter is the key," Herzog said Wednesday night.
Herzog also believes that depth of pitching can compensate for lack of quality. The Cardinals have only one great pitcher -- Sutter -- and one good one -- Joaquin Andujar, whose 15 victories this year are three more than he's ever had before. The rest of the Cardinals' staff may, someday, be regarded as the most spectacularly mediocre ever to win a world title. Did any Series winner ever have two of its top four starters -- John Stuper and Dave LaPoint -- with a combined career total of 20 victories?
Cardinals pitchers live by one commandment -- Make 'em hit it, but not out of the park. Forget "stuff," forget strikeouts, forget everything except making decent pitches in good spots. Then, let those speedsters chase the ball.
Want proof? Only one St. Louis pitcher struck out 85 men this year.
Now, perhaps, we can see why Herzog could build his team so quickly. The guys he wanted were exactly the guys he could get, because nobody else thought much of them. What Herzog sought were precisely the baseball commodities that, to his mind, were most undervalued.
The Phillies traded Lonnie Smith cheap because he made goofy mistakes and didn't hit homers in a supposed power position -- left field.
The Yankees were horrified by Willie McGee's penchant for the spectacularly embarrassing mistake in AA ball, so the Cardinals got a .296-hitting center fielder for someone named Bob Sykes.
The San Diego Padres, playing on grass, didn't know what they had in Ozzie Smith. The Cardinals traded a problem, Garry Templeton, and got a solution.
For Sutter, Herzog traded a young bull -- Leon (Bull) Durham. To the White Rat's mind, trading a man who might hit 30 homers for a man who will save or win 35 to 45 games, is tantamount to highway robbery.
The list goes on and on. Signing free-agent Darrell Porter allowed Herzog to trade Ted Simmons and Terry Kennedy -- two hard-hitting catchers. And guess what? Herzog thinks long-ball hitting catchers who are poor on defense are one of the game's most overrated commodities.
Tommy Herr was given the second base job and Ken Oberkfell moved to third because Herzog, alone among managers, wasn't afraid to have an infield with a grand total of 11 -- yes, 11 -- home runs. (The Milwaukee infield had 84.)
If each individual deal or personnel shift wasn't brilliant, they all had one common thread -- the Herzog idea. He was building with a guiding purpose. That made each trade greater than the sum of its parts because each new Cardinal player complemented the others.
To be sure, the Cardinals had their breaks in becoming champions.
They had the split-finger, the Brewers no Fingers.
Milwaukee's No. 4-5-6-7 hitters batted .160 in the Series; in 100 at bats, with 67 men on base, they drove home just five runners.
However, in the main, this Series justified Herzog's notions. The Cardinals' overall speed led to 11 nervous errors by the Brewers, nine stolen bases, 10 infield hits and perhaps a dozen other turf-aided hits. St. Louis' intelligent, if far from overwhelming, pitching held the Brewers to just five homers.
For some fans, the unprepossessing game that the Cardinals play may bear only a faint resemblance to the baseball they have grown up loving. Where is the great slugger? Where is the player who can run, hit, hit with power, field and throw? Has he been replaced by the player who can only run, and, perhaps, do one other thing well, too? Where is the dynamic complete-game starter?
These conventional protests must, perhaps, be swallowed.
When a club built along lines as classic as these Brewers is beaten by a team whose tangible assets are as hard to understand at first glance as these Cardinals, then it's time to reevaluate our preconceptions.
We can be sure that, in the wake of Herzog's lightning transformation of the Cardinals, other teams will study his model. Their luck may not be as good. The man who has a good idea first is the only one who gets to buy cheaply.
For those who find the Cardinals' kind of excellence hard to digest, the words of Archibald MacLeish apply: "What should a man do but love excellence . . . We cheat ourselves in cheating worth of wonder."