When the history of baseball in the 1980s is written, one club will stand out as a complete anomaly -- a team that was not only different from others, but also a mystery to itself.

Year after year, the St. Louis Cardinals make us scratch our heads. Whatever we foresee from them, we get the opposite. And never more so than this season. No wonder Whitey Herzog claims that his first rule of managing is, "Try not to be too damn smart."

Coming off a 79-83 season, the Cardinals were expected to do zilch. They were dead last in baseball in scoring in 1986. By a lot. A few days into the season, catcher Tony Pena was hit by a pitch and knocked out for a month with a broken left thumb. Then, the Cardinals lost pitching ace John Tudor to a freakish broken leg. Next, Tom Herr missed three weeks. Tudor's replacement, rookie Joe Magrane got rolling (5-1), then got a sore elbow. Some nights, Herzog only had 20 healthy players.

With old Bob Forsch and young Tim Conroy both getting rocked regularly, Herzog's starting staff was a joke -- worse on paper than the Padres, Indians or Orioles. Seriously, what is Byron Lee Tunnell doing in a big league rotation? The man was 5-17 his previous two seasons with the Pirates and 4-11 with a 6.01 earned run average last year for Hawaii.

So what have the Cardinals done? Why, they have the National League's best record (47-29) and have pushed those cursed New York Mets six games behind in the standings. They've also drawn fans to Busch Stadium at a pace (36,446 per date) that could eclipse every attendance record in the sport except those of the Dodgers.

The more you look at St. Louis, in this or any year, the less sense the club makes. In an era of homers, the Cardinals hit almost none. In a period in which teams desperately seek starting pitching, the Cardinals barely appear to care, settling for defense and a deep bullpen instead.

Cardinals starters like Tunnell, Conroy and Greg Mathews simply follow in the tradition of Steve Mura, Dave LaPoint and John Stuper, who may have been 60 percent of the worst rotation ever to win a World Series title. Herzog took the Kansas City Royals to the playoffs three straight years with starters like Al Fitzmorris, Doug Bird, Jim Colborn, Andy Hassler and Rich Gale. What we have here is a man who's repeatedly proved he can finesse the most important figure in the sport -- the starting pitcher.

The Cardinals' style of play seems like a typographical error -- 1890s, not 1980s. It's stolen-base, sacrifice-bunt and hit-and-run baseball. Yet, somehow, they transform one-run theory into big-inning practice. Herzog does everything to give away outs, yet gets runs.

At the moment, in The Year of the Home Run, the Cardinals lead the majors in scoring -- yes, they've gone from 26th to first. Yet, they are next to last in baseball in homers. Could a team that won't hit 100 homers win a world title in a season in which many teams will hit 200?

Almost every year in this decade, the Cardinals have stood logic on its head. This is a team that had the best full-season record in the NL East in '81, yet never made the playoffs -- you can look it up. When these guys are expected to fail, they win the World Series ('82) or come within one out of doing it ('85). But when they're expected to win, they lose. Both of their '80s pennants have been followed by 79-83 seasons.

Don't ask Herzog, the man who deals the Cards, what's going on. He's as bamboozled as the rest. In 1985, his bullpen wasn't supposed to survive the loss of Bruce Sutter, so the Cardinals didn't blow a ninth-inning lead all year until the sixth game of the Series. In 1986, with Joaquin Andujar traded, Cardinals starters were suspect, so they came through dandy (3.37 team ERA), but the hitting took a hike. Big deal. In 1987, it figured the Cardinals wouldn't hit enough to carry their respectable pitching. A lot we know. For the moment, the Cardinals' lineup looks like one of the best of its type in history.

Write out that lineup card, White Rat. Vince Coleman (.290 through Thursday) has 50 steals. Ozzie Smith (.288), who can bunt and steal, is taking so many pitches for Coleman he's on a 100-walk pace. Herr is back where he belongs -- at .300. Jack Clark, who missed 97 games last year (thus turning the Cardinals offense into a bunch of 97-pound weaklings without an enforcer), is off to a season-of-legend start. He has 23 homers and 71 RBI in 74 games -- a 50-homer, 150-RBI pace. Yet he says he's striking out too much (74 times) and has not hit his stride.

The dynamite doesn't stop there. Willie McGee, NL most valuable player in '85 and least valuable player during a much-injured '86, is hitting .292 with 120-RBI potential. Small, round Terry Pendleton is batting .312 and has been kicked out of the team's Punch-and-Judy club for his five homers -- that's a bunch for a Cardinal. The right field platoon of fleet Curt Ford (.331) and versatile Jose Oquendo, who's hitting .321 while subbing for the lame at every position except pitcher and catcher, is giving ridiculously good production. Pena's back (.275) and packs the game's best arm behind the plate; trading Andy Van Slyke for him over the winter looks smart.

The team batting average is .286 and starters Coleman, Herr, McGee, Oquendo, Pendleton and Smith are switch-hitters. Tell somebody that in 50 years and they'll never believe it. Plenty of teams have none. Two is a ton. Six, all legitimate hitters, is inconceivable. When Clark started taking swings left-handed in batting practice this week, Herzog exploded, "Oh, no, not you, too."

When posterity is told that every Cardinals player, except perhaps Clark, is a possible Gold Glove defender, that may be hard to swallow, too. But it's true. Bloops and grounders are futile against St. Louis. Either hit a rocket or take a right turn at first base.

The St. Louis defense underlines just how ungifted the team's starting pitchers are. With what may be the best total defense in history behind them, plus a spacious park, they have allowed more hits per inning than anybody except Montreal. The St. Louis ERA is 4.14, even with the Wizard of Ozzie and Co. on hand. At least the St. Louis hurlers are brainy. They know they can't strike out many (last in the NL), but at least they walk very few (third best) and also avoid their foes' power, allowing the fewest homers.

Nobody questions where the Cardinals get their brains or their style -- it's from that generally styleless and definitely "not too smart" Herzog. This is a guy who, when offered a "lifetime contract" by ancient owner Gussie Busch, asked, "Whose life we talkin' about?" Herzog talks in aphorisms; it just comes natural for him to say, "Two things in baseball don't mean squat -- last year and yesterday. Tomorrow means a lot." He lets you work out the toughies, like, "Wait for the prom, miss the dance."

Perhaps what the Cardinals do best in the Herzog era is forget. They forgot the injustice of the 1981 split season and shocked everybody in 1982. They forgot two dispiriting years and Sutter's defection to win a pennant in 1985. They forgot the humiliation of looking like unsportsmanlike chokers in blowing the 1985 Series. And now they've forgotten that the Mets beat them by 28 1/2 games last year.

"The Mets don't do that much," Herzog will say. "They just hit the long ball and they've got starting pitching. They had a bullpen . . . last year." Get that knife in and turn it, Rat. "Oh, I think everybody hates the Mets," he adds. "They always seem to say the right thing -- to rub people the wrong way."

Herzog teams can be counted on to be tight-knit, extremely cocky and a tad paranoid on the subject of never getting enough credit.

For example, when the 1986 season went down the tubes, the Cardinals hung together and played 10 games over .500 in the second half to finish third. "That was important. We didn't quit," said Clark. Teams that do give up when they're out of the race -- witness the '84, '85 and '86 Orioles -- quickly lose their team character. The more you quit, the better you get at it, until no collective fiber remains.

Herzog's teams are always quick to take up the gauntlet. When the Mets' Howard Johnson popped off on Monday about Danny Cox hitting him with a pitch, the right-hander all but promised to drill Johnson at their next meeting.

"If he wants to start, he knows where to find me," said Cox. "In fact, I'll give him a hand." Of course, the 225-pound Cox is the same fellow who used a Series off day to fly a thousand miles just so he personally could beat the living tar out of a man he thought was wronging his sister.

The Cardinals are as bristly as Herzog's haircut on issues of pride. Ask Pendleton about a stellar defensive play against the Mets this week and he says, "It'll never be on 'This Week in Baseball.' We make plays other teams can't touch, but we're never on that show." Gee, could "TWIB" come out of New York?

No Cardinal ever misses a free shot at New York or the Mets. "The Cubs are our big rival," says Herzog, consigning the Mets to second-class foeship.

To be a Herzog Cardinal is to be a blunt, buck-stops-here type. Herzog confronted Mathews not long ago, chiding the southpaw for letting an 11-8 rookie year go to his head. "You need to pull your belt up tighter, son. You're laggin' behind,' " said Herzog, before sending him to Louisville for a reality check. Mathews is back now, winning, and says shamefacedly, "I was living the {got-it-made} life."

Herzog, however, is also the warmest of managers, especially to players who ride the bench, as he did for eight journeyman seasons in the majors. "Whitey came up to me one day," says Tito Landrum, "and said, 'I should have started you today. You hit the ball hard against this pitcher three of four times the last time you saw him.' I was impressed because the game he was talking about was a year and a half before. Even I hadn't remembered it."

The net result is a team of unusual cohesion, purpose and resiliency. "So many people worry about what they don't have," says Ozzie Smith, the clubhouse leader, "rather than what they do have. When Tudor and Pena and Herr went down, we focused on the weapons we had left."

These days, the scuttlebutt is that the Mets will, sooner or later, run St. Louis down on sheer talent. Herzog lets this impression rest in place. "We're struggling. Our pitching has to get better than it's been. They've got Mr. {Dwight} Gooden back and and we won't have John {Tudor} until August. We have to hold on until then."

The Mets, perhaps a little blithely, buy into this scenario. They won two of three head-to-head games in Shea Stadium this week. In one win, the scoreboard displayed a medley of "Three Stooges" comedy routines, put to a song called "The Curly Shuffle," just before the winning rally.

" 'The Curly Shuffle' might have played a big role tonight," said Mets Manager Davey Johnson, deadpan. "We haven't played {that video} all year and we haven't done very well. I don't know why they took it out {of the scoreboard routine}. That's probably been our problem."

Somewhere hidden in Johnson's joke is an assumption about the Cardinals: that they aren't terribly threatening. Just get that "Curly Shuffle" straightened out, then run 'em down.

A vote of league players would probably agree that the Cardinals, even in first place, are not the NL East's real front-runner at the moment. It's widely presumed that the St. Louis pitching just can't hold up in the midsummer heat and that its hitting already has peaked.

Yes, that's what's expected of the Cardinals. However, the Mets, Expos, Cubs and other clubs should remember that if St. Louis fulfills other people's expectations of it, it'll sure enough be the first time.