Seattle Mariners

John McGrath: Remembering when Cardinals brought speed to a stand-still game

The Mariners’ Nori Aoki is tagged out by the A’s Marcus Semien trying to steal second base last month. Aoki has been caught stealing on seven of his 11 attempts this year.
The Mariners’ Nori Aoki is tagged out by the A’s Marcus Semien trying to steal second base last month. Aoki has been caught stealing on seven of his 11 attempts this year. The Associated Press

The St. Louis Cardinals are visiting Seattle this weekend for a three-game series that includes a 1984 “Turn Back the Clock” promotion on Saturday night.

St. Louis will take the field in powder-blue visitors uniforms, which were as popular during the mid-1980s as thick mustaches and medallions dangling inside the open-collar shirts of men with an abundance of chest hair.

I plead innocent, your honor.

The Cardinals in those days excelled at a style of baseball that has gone the way of dangling medallions. The team played its home games on an artificial surface that seemed to accelerate the speed of a bouncing ball driven into the gap, and even when hitters settled for singles, they were off and running toward second base a moment later.

“Whiteyball,” it was called, a reference to manager Whitey Herzog’s belief that speed and daring were more effective than waiting for a slugger to connect on a three-run homer. Earl Weaver was a bang-bang theorist, and advanced statistics have validated the late Orioles manager’s insistence that outs are too precious to waste on sacrifice bunts and runners caught stealing.

As a consequence, we’re watching a lot of hitters swinging and missing in an attempt to bash the ball over the fence. This produces games such as the Rockies’ 5-3 victory over the Marlins the other night, when all eight runs scored on solo homers — a record.

During their latest agonizing defeat Thursday, the Mariners didn’t set any records — well, except maybe for Most Creative Ways to Frustrate a Manager — they merely showed how four bases-empty homers can put a team in a position to win a game that it’s destined to lose because the hitters failed to do anything else.

Full disclosure: I went to college in Missouri, and after graduation I worked for a few years in a town that was a two-hour drive from Busch Stadium. Such proximity to the baseball fans in St. Louis explains why I had a love-hate thing with the Cardinals.

I loved to hate them.

And yet as I look back, I find myself missing the cool nuances of “Whiteyball.” A cheap seat in the upper deck provided an ideal vantage point for a hit-and-run play. Base runner takes off during the pitcher’s windup ... batter connects on a liner to right-center ... runner ends up on third and possibly scores. There were times when the Cards executed a hit-and-run with such precision, it appeared to be choreographed in cahoots with the opposing fielders.

But it was the stolen base that defined the Cardinals. Notable about their 220 swipes in 1984 is how everybody participated, from outfielders Lonnie Smith (50 steals), Willie McGee (43) and Andy Van Slyke (28), to shortstop Ozzie Smith (35) and third baseman Terry Pendleton (20).

That’s right, the third baseman stole 20 bases. The Mariners’ stolen-base leader last season, center fielder Austin Jackson, had 15.

A disciple of advanced statistics, Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto reconfigured the roster with some offseason acquisitions (Leonys Martin, Nori Aoki) who can run. Dipoto’s idea was steeped more in upgrading the outfield defense than creating chaos for the opposition on the base paths, but hey, it never hurts to try.

In early June, after the Mariners were successful on only 16 of 31 stolen-base attempts — the acceptable success rate has been calculated at something between 66 and 72 percent — manager Scott Servais acknowledged his disappointment in a running game responsible for too many gift-wrapped outs.

“We’ve tried to give it a shot,” he said. “But at some point, when the game tells you something, you have to pay attention to it and look at it. You just can’t keep pushing it down their throat.”

A challenge facing the Mariners, and big league teams in general, is that stealing a base is not entirely predicated on fast feet. Speed helps, obviously, but more essential is a subtle timing mechanism in the brain of the base runner. As the stolen base has been phased out, so has the dedication required to optimize that timing mechanism.

Memorizing the delivery and pick-off move of hundreds of pitchers is not easy or fun. And to be fair, it’s quite possible Rickey Henderson stole 1,406 bases without knowing the names of any of the pitchers he victimized.

But Henderson was a one-in-a-million exception. It was his world when he coaxed a leadoff walk into the equivalent of a double that often was extended into a triple. The rest of us were there strictly as observers.

Henderson made his debut in 1979, Herzog’s final season as manager of a Kansas City team that regarded Willie Wilson as the match-striker of an instant offense. Herzog moved across the state and invigorated the stagnant Cardinals. By 1985, when NL Rookie of the Year Vince Coleman stole 110 bases, they were out of control.

I loathed the Cardinals’ ability to reach base and turn the subsequent mind-game matchup between pitcher and runner into a not-very- fair fight. What had they done to my sport, ma?

What they did, I have come to realize, was put a stand-still sport in motion. A handful of solo homers looks impressive on the late-night “SportsCenter” roundup, but it’s not how to win a game, or salvage something out of a futile road trip, or survive a season.

Here’s to the guys who once wore those powder-blue road uniforms. I am tempted to write that my heart goes out to them, 32 years later, but I know better.

They’d steal it.

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