Herzog's teams surfed on artificial turf
Royals, Cardinals burned with speed under Hall of Fame skipper
When Whitey Herzog is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, he shouldn't stand on ceremony. Beneath the feet of the White Rat ought to be some artificial surface, plastic grass, Astroturf or whatever you called that awful stuff that lay on too many big league fields in the '70s and '80s.
It was on that stuff that Herzog left the first footprints in a path that now leads from Missouri to a tiny, happy burg in the middle of New York State.
Herzog was the genuine genius of synthetic baseball. The teams he managed were fantastic on plastic, and they weren't too bad when they performed on the stuff that required water, sun, mowing, George Toma and fertilization.
But the Rat made his managerial mark on the man-made stuff that put bounce in a player's step and his bloop base hits, enhanced extra-base-hit totals, introduced rug burns to the game, eliminated most bad hops and fostered others, forced infielders to play deeper, gave rise to the purposely bounced throw, stiffened some players' backs, tortured others' knees and made Willie Wilson and Vince Coleman as dangerous as George Brett and Jack Clark.
Odd -- isn't it? -- that Herzog could appropriately genuflect to the guys who convinced the Royals and Cardinals to install the fake stuff on the floors of their ballparks while one of his fellow Hall of Fame classmates, Andre Dawson, condemns the same product that prematurely aged his legs and cut short his career. One man's treasure is another man's trash.
Herzog inherited phony grass at Royals Stadium when he accepted the challenge of managing Kansas City in 1975, 35 years ago Saturday, and, through his final day as the Cardinals' man in the Busch Stadium dugout, July 5, 1990, he never again managed a home game played on grass. His two Missouri teams were unnatural phenomena.
|TEAM||ON TURF||ON GRASS|
|Royals||261-142 (.648)||149-162 (.480)|
|Cardinals||622-528 (.541)||200-200 (.500)|
|TOTALS||833-670 (.569)||349-362 (.491)|
"Well, when I came to St. Louis, after leaving Kansas City, we had turf there, but the National League had 12 fields, [and] six of them were turf," Herzog said recently. "The multiple-use stadiums, the round ones -- Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, none on the West Coast but Cincinnati and Montreal, of course, and the Astrodome. People used to say 'Well, the reason we could play baseball was because we were in St. Louis, we were on turf and we were a good turf team.' But by the same token, if you check our win-and-loss records for those years, we were also a good team on the road."
The objective for most teams is to clean up at home and play .500 on the road, regardless of the surfaces. Herzog's teams were quite at home on turf, regardless of dateline, and not so much on grass, though his Cardinals teams broke even on grass. Witness these telling figures.
"We could play on grass," Herzog said. "And when we went to Dodger Stadium, it was almost as fast or faster than turf [because the field was sun-baked and the grass was different and kept short]. You went to San Diego ... they kept the grass real short. So really the only grass field at that time that was really different was up at Wrigley Field. I mean you'd have trouble finding Easter eggs on that infield some of the time. I mean that's how high the grass was and that was because their infielders were a little bit slower and they tried to slow the ball down."
George Steinbrenner always kept his options open. As part of that practice, he often sent telegrams, letters, flowers, etc., to baseball men outside his employ. They typically were congratulatory in nature, but they may have served a second purpose in Steinbrenner's often duplicitous mind. The Boss may have been canvassing potential managers or pitching coaches.
When the late George Bamberger was hospitalized following cardiac surgery in 1980, Steinbrenner had flowers sent to his room for days in a row, and Bamberger wondered if he was being courted. "Maybe he wanted me to be one of his pitching coaches," Bamberger said.
Bobby Cox said he received notes and calls, though never a feeler from Steinbrenner. And news seeped out in 1996, that soon after the late Yankees owner had hired Joe Torre as the successor to Buck Showalter, The Boss contacted Showalter, trying essentially to keep the man he had dismissed on retainer in case Torre failed.
And now there is this from soon-to-be Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog, whose Royals teams lost to the Yankees in the ALCS from 1976-78. Herzog recalls receiving a telegram from Steinbrenner in 1987 after his Cardinals had secured the National League pennant. Slick-fielding infielder Jose Oquendo had started 17 games in right field and played right in 20 others for the Cardinals. According to Herzog, The Boss' telegram said in part, "How can you win a pennant with Joe (sic) Oquendo in right field, and I can't win one with Dave Winfield?"
-- Marty Noble
On the surface, the plastic one, little slowed Herzog's teams, not the slide step or throws to first, not strong-armed catchers, not even multiple-run deficits. The running game was their offensive modus operandi. It wasn't unplugged merely because they were in arrears. They were more likely to come from behind with infield singles, stolen bases and ground balls to the right side than they were to catch up by clearing the outfield walls. It wasn't necessarily small ball they played, but rather speed ball. Some called it Whitey Ball.
"It wasn't so much artificial surface as it was the geography of the ball club," Herzog said. "You could make your field fast or slow if you wanted to on grass."
But his fields were fast; they couldn't be altered. They made speed essential. A synthetic lawn was an ally for the Rat's teams, and, more often than not, the enemy of their opponents, even those who were accustomed to playing on plastic.
No question, Herzog was forced to play that sort of offensive game. Outfield defenders and, to a lesser degree, middle infielders, had to be quick and fleet afoot to cover their assignments. And the players who could run down a gapper before it reached the warning track weren't likely to be lumbering sluggers but athletes who looked like they had been borrowed from a 4x400 relay team. The crack of the bat was their starter's pistol.
Other clubs employed one or two players of that ilk. Herzog took that philosophy and, well ... ran with it. He liked the game that way.
"I stepped into a wonderful situation in Kansas City with a good team, a good defensive ball club and a big ballpark," Herzog said. "People think we just started playing our running game in St. Louis. If you'll check, the 4 1/2, five years I was with Kansas City, we used to steal 200 bases a year there. And we had a little bit more power than I had in St. Louis.
NOT IN THE CARDS
"The big thing about what I contributed to the game was that, you know, Oakland was playing the running game. [A's owner] Charlie Finley had [world-class sprinter] Herb Washington and some of those guys could just pinch-run and so forth. When I came to St. Louis, they were 11th or 12th in home runs every year in a 12-team league, and the ballpark was tremendously big, 385 in the gaps, 450 the center, about 350 down the line.
"So I changed the whole concept of the way we tried to play baseball because we couldn't hit a home run. We could neutralize the power of the other team in our ballpark, so I just kind of went with speed, which is the one thing in baseball you can use on both sides of the ball. I mean you can use it on offense, and you can use it on defense.
"So that's the way we put the ball club together. Every year we'd start out trying to beat Roger Maris' record as a team. Some years we did. I think most of the years we beat it, like when we won the World Series, I think, in '82, that we had hit 67 home runs as an example. Milwaukee had hit 221 or 228 or something like that. But we could play pretty well because we played sound baseball, and defensively we could really cut off the balls in the gaps and so forth.
"Baseball will never come back to that," Herzog said with a hint of wistfulness. "I think, eventually, there will be more basestealing again, but it will never come back the way we played it, like Chuck Tanner played it in Oakland, like I tried to play the running game in St. Louis. The fact is all the new ballparks are smaller and most of them are home run ballparks. A lot of them are just a lot different. And to play that kind of baseball again -- the way we played it during my time -- you'd almost need the lines to be 350 to 360, the gaps to be 390 and center field would be 450. And there's just no new ballparks built like that. It would be tough to neutralize the power."
Synthetic turf certainly was more durable than its natural counterpart. But it doesn't last forever, either.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.