35 years ago this week, the Cardinals finally worked their way over .500. That’s right, a team that won 101 games and went to the World Series didn’t really hit its stride until Memorial Day and floated around .500 for the better part of two months.
The start of the season was actually horrendous. At the beginning of the year, some publications predicted that Whitey Herzog…who had lost closer Bruce Sutter to free agency and wasn’t in charge of the organization any more…would be the first manager fired. A season opening four game losing streak and a 2-6 start didn’t help, but on April 18 with several outfield injuries, the Cardinals called up Vince Coleman.
The precocious 23-year-old had stolen 289 bases in 323 minor league games, and that didn’t stop one he got to the majors. In his first game, against Montreal, Coleman went 1-for-3 with a walk and two stolen bases. With him on the team…well…the heat was on.
With Herzog at the helm, the runnin’ Redbirds had stolen at least 200 bases in each of their last three seasons. But this was different. The intimidatingly aggressive Coleman emboldened everyone else. While he was scorching the National League with a rookie record 110 stolen bases, MVP Willie McGee stole 56. Andy Van Slyke, Tom Herr and Ozzie Smith each stole more than thirty. And the team pilfered a breathtaking 314 stolen bases.
The offense scored a league best 747 runs while hitting just 87 homers, which was 12th among the thirteen N.L. teams. They ran at will, and their timely hitting was exquisite.
While the offense thrilled Cardinal Nation, the pitching was as much a factor in the club’s success. John Tudor started off his Cardinal career with a 1-7 record. But after talking on the phone to his high school catcher, who noticed a mechanical flaw, Tudor won 20 of his next 21. He finished the year 21-8 with a 1.93 ERA. He had fourteen complete games and ten shutouts, giving the club 275 innings.
Joaquin Andujar also won twenty games, going 21-12 with a 3.40 ERA. After the Pittsburgh drug trial, which Andujar was a part of, his pitching disintegrated. He won his twentieth game on August 23rd, at which point he was 20-7 with a 2.75 ERA. After that, he went 1-5 with a 6.22 ERA. Danny Cox was terrific, turning in a consistent 18-9 year with a 2.88 ERA. The bullpen without Sutter? No problem. It was the first bullpen by committee. Seven different pitchers had saves, led by righthander Jeff Lahti with nineteen and lefty Ken Dayley with eleven. In August Todd Worrell was promoted and became the closer for the post-season.
It was the most unexpectedly enjoyable season ever. Newcomer Jack Clark hit 22 homers and drove in 87. McGee was remarkable, hitting .353 with ten homers, 82 RBI and those 56 stolen bags. Tom Herr was forced into the number three spot in the order and drove in 110 runs despite hitting just eight homers. And as the club got going and the St. Louis summer approached, Casey Van Allen of KMOX put the team’s play-by-play highlights to the music of Glen Frey’s hit “The Heat Is On.” It was the soundtrack of the summer in our town, and it was incredible. The entire summer, STL was electric and it was in large part because of Vincent Van Go.
There was a five-game stretch in late April and early May in which Coleman stole seven bases and scored at least one run in each. There was another five-game span in late May and early June where he stole ten bases and scored ten runs. In a crazy 9-8, 14 inning loss at Wrigley Field on August 1, with Coleman at second and McGee at first, the Cardinals executed a double steal. Coleman overslid third and got caught in a rundown between 3rd base and home. At one point, the Cubs didn’t cover and Coleman scampered home as McGee stole third. It’s still the only double-double steal in MLB history.
All wasn’t sunshine and lollipops though. The Cardinals trailed by 4.5 games in the division at the end of April and fell behind by as many as 7.5 on May 19. They reached .500 for good, at 20-20 the next day. From May 20 on, the 1985 Cardinals went a sizzling 81-41. And six of their starting eight players performed at an All-Star level, with only the right field platoon of Andy Van Slyke and Tito Landrum and the catching platoon of Tom Nieto and Darrell Porter not reaching those heights.
Coleman was injured when an automatic tarp rolled up on him before game three of the NLCS. The Cards beat the Dodgers on the strength of iconic homers by Ozzie in game five and Clark in game six. But in the World Series, they hit only .185 with thirteen runs in seven games. They lost a devastating game six that was lowlighted by umpire Don Denkinger’s missed call on leadoff hitter Jorge Orta leading off the ninth inning.
Despite the World Series loss, it was, as Gussie Busch said at the time, a heckuva year. And we’ll never see a rookie come in and make the base-stealing impact Coleman did ever again.