They say you can't fire the whole team, so you have to fire the manager. Nobody told Whitey Herzog.

On Friday he fired his team.

Technically, Herzog resigned. But it amounted to the same thing.

The White Rat got sick and tired of watching the St. Louis Cardinals play baseball in a way that offended his sensibilities and injured his enormous pride, so he quit -- with a flourish of dignified self-recrimination worthy of a disgraced British prime minister.

"I'm totally embarrassed by the way we've played. We've underachieved. I just can't get the team to play," said Herzog. "Anybody can do a better job than me. . . . I am the manager and I take full responsibility."

Translation: They quit on me. Now I'm quitting on them. Get me a new team.

The White Rat shouldn't receive more than about 50 offers -- 25 as general manager and 25 as manager. Some teams will offer him both jobs, a pay raise and team stock.

Whitey Herzog, even with his team in last place, is the most respected mind in baseball. What Earl Weaver was, Herzog is. Honest, funny, tough, smart, just mean enough and with a cat-o'-nine-tails for a tongue. "They say you've never had your butt chewed out until you've been chewed out by me," he has said.

That Herzog would fire his entire club will probably only reinforce the general high opinion of his judgment. Herzog stuck with his team for a more-than-honorable period as it gradually eroded, due to age and tight purse strings. As the Cardinals were losing Jack Clark and Tony Pena to free agency, Herzog begged for replacements. He even asked for the right guys -- Mike Morgan or Bruce Hurst before the '89 season. He got nada. So he won only 86 instead of, maybe, stealing another division pennant.

This year, with Pena gone, Todd Worrell out for the year, Ozzie Smith showing age and others showing signs of complacency and me-firstism, Herzog brought back John Tudor from the boneyard and traded one of his gamers, Tom Brunansky, for large Lee Smith.


Helped by a little bad luck, the face lift failed spectacularly: last place.

Whoever replaces Herzog will inherit almost inevitable improvement. Jose Oquendo, Ozzie Smith, Todd Zeile and Milt Thompson should hit .280. They're batting .229. Jose DeLeon, Bryn Smith and Joe Magrane should be 24-16 with a 2.95 ERA. They're 16-24 with a 3.95 ERA. Frank DiPino, Scott Terry and Ricky Horton have career ERAs of 3.65. This year, 6.15 in 81 relief appearances.

Those 10 guys drove Whitey out of St. Louis. If he wasn't secretly glad to go, he probably will be after he thinks about it for a while. The Cardinals farm system is uninspiring. Since the death of Auggie Busch, who loved Herzog, the hope of free agent cash has been nil. Willie McGee, Pedro Guerrero and Smith are 100 years old. Tudor's dicey comeback is measured on a minute-to-minute basis. Not much future here.

Herzog built the Runnin' Redbirds of the '80s who won three pennants. And he stuck around to watch them lose their morale and start to bicker. Why should he hang around for the last act, like Weaver with the '87 Orioles and Sparky Anderson with the '89 Tigers?

"You didn't want to go through five more years of this aggravation?" Herzog was asked in a phone interview Friday.

"That's part of it," he said. "I just didn't think it looked like it was going to get any better."

"Will you answer the phone if other teams call?"

"I do answer," said Herzog.

"Are you tied to the Cards if you got an offer you wanted?"

"No," said Herzog. "Anything like that you want to write is okay."

Whitey's not in a hurry. He's not even sure he's coming back. But he's definitely the prize free agent of '90.

Reading minds is hard work. Especially when the U.S. Army says it clocked Herzog's IQ at 140. But if you aren't trying to read Herzog's mind these days, then you probably aren't a baseball fan. After all, not many managers fire themselves.

Was Herzog crying alligator tears in his farewell to St. Louis?

No way. He was born in New Athens, Ill., and has managed in Kansas City and St. Louis since 1975. He just finished building his dream house outside St. Louis, 40 miles from his birthplace. His fondest wish, just six months ago, was that his forebodings about the Cardinals would be wrong. Whitey knows you can't predict baseball. Magrane could have won 23. Worrell could have come back at the all-star break. Zeile could have been rookie of the year.

This season has torn him up. His enormous confidence has taken a blow.

Will Herzog -- and this is baseball's universal nightmare -- become George Steinbrenner's general manager and make the Yankees the power of the '90s?

Nobody's laughing. Herzog grew up worshipping the Yankees, wanted to play for the Yankees and, believe it or not, was compared to Mickey Mantle when they came out of high school the same year. Scouts thought Herzog was better. He got the bigger signing bonus. Herzog has been teasing Steinbrenner for 14 years about becoming his manager and George III has been buttering up Whitey, who can be flattered, for 14 years with compliments.

"You're a genius," Steinbrenner once told Herzog. "I can't win with Dave Winfield in right field and you go to the World Series with Jose Oquendo in right field."

But Steinbrenner courted Weaver too and never got him. Whitey, like most free agents, probably will use Steinbrenner to sweeten the pot, then jilt him.

Finally, could Herzog, at 58, stay out of the game permanently?

Probably not.

The Orioles in '89 and the White Sox in '90 are blueprint copies of the Cards of '81 when Herzog rebuilt them around defense, relief pitching, team speed, fundamentals and morale. Herzog may have been far enough ahead of his time that he could rebuild one more contender.

However, Herzog's success has, so far, been a formula. One that has required a big AstroTurf park to work well.

Baseball needs Herzog far more than he needs it. Who else is going to call the Oakland Coliseum "a graveyard with lights" or Candlestick Park "a toilet bowl with the lid up." Who else, on an off day during the World Series, fishes at dawn, then tries to fit in 36 holes of golf? Who else claims his ideal job is "ski instructor."

For years, Herzog has been perhaps the only manager or coach in pro sports who could say, "I manage because it's fun" and make you believe it. And he always swore that when it wasn't fun anymore, he'd dead-flat quit and head to his bass boat and the ski slopes.

Herzog had only four rules. Be on time. Bust your butt. Play smart. And have some laughs while you're at it.

The Cardinals broke the rules.

So Whitey canned 'em.

Good for him.

May he get the team of his dreams. Or a job in Vail.