The Greatest Teams: 1985


I wince when Cardinals fans speak proudly of the 2006 World Series Championship team. The 2006 Cardinals were an embarrassment, stumbling backwards over their own feet into the playoffs and finding enough fortune in the misfortune of their opposition to squeeze out a championship. That 2006 team played so badly in the Series that Detroit could’ve won the whole thing simply by being able to make a couple of key throws across the diamond.

My hatred for that 2006 championship arises from the fact that I’ve lived long enough to see some real Cardinals teams in all of their true glory. And that’s the purpose of this new series, which highlights some of the truly remarkable Cardinals teams that embodied the spirit of the franchise and made it one of the most respected organizations in sports.

While many younger Cardinals fans consider the 2004 Cardinals a great team – and they certainly were according to team wins and offensive numbers – the greatest Cardinals team of the last 55 years came together in 1985. Probably no team in the history of baseball deserved to win the World Series more than that ’85 club, but we all know that painful story far too well. Despite that final failure, the 1985 Cardinals remain one of the most potent machines ever built for its particular style of play.

At the start of the ’85 season, the Cardinals were picked to finish dead last in the National League East. Their fabled closer, Bruce Sutter, had abandoned the team to take a huge payday in Atlanta, leaving the bullpen in seeming disarray. Question marks surrounded offseason aquisitions like John Tudor and Jack Clark. Nobody really knew what to expect from the first full season of Terry Pendleton at third. Left fielder Lonnie Smith was still battling a drug problem. The team was, in a word, a mess.

But the baseball pundits couldn’t see the chemistry shift in the team that manager Whitey Herzog and GM Dal Maxville constructed around speed and athleticism. This chemical reaction exploded when Lonnie Smith was traded in May to make room for rookie Vince Coleman, who energized the leadoff spot in a way that has never been replicated since. Coleman lit up the basepaths every time he managed to make it to first base, his cocky base-stealing swagger filtering through to the rest of the club. He also gave the outfield additional defense with a sure hand and a strong arm. Just watch this magnificent play from midseason:

(NOTE: Imagine Holliday and Schumaker making that same play. It will never happen in a thousand lifetimes because Holliday and Schumaker are simply not athletic and aggressive enough to do it. That, to me, is the difference between this team and the LaRussa teams.)

With Coleman leading off and stealing 110 bases that year, the rest of the lineup gelled behind him. Willie McGee, batting second, went on to hit .353 and won the MVP award. Second baseman Tommy Herr gorged himself on RBI’s with Coleman and McGee running the bases, and he hit .300 with 110 RBI’s. The everyday lineup was fast, athletic, cocky, and enthusiastic, rooting for each other and erupting out of the dugout after every exciting moment.

The 1985 Cardinals might have been one of the more aggressive teams in the history of modern baseball. Just look at this example from a game in San Diego when the Cards came from behind against Goose Gossage with five runs in the ninth:

Unlike the 2004 Cardinals, the 1985 team was more than a truckload of huge bats. The team had two 20 game winners in Joaquin Andujar and John Tudor, and Danny Cox added another 18 in his second full season. But it was Tudor’s ’85 performance that really cast the spell for the team. Cardinals fans were wailing in agony as Tudor began the season with one win against seven losses. Then he received a call from an old catcher about a mechanical flaw in his delivery. Once corrected, Tudor went on a tear across the National League, going 20-1 the rest of the way and collecting 10 shutouts (TEN SHUTOUTS!!) in one of the most dominating displays of pitching prowess in decades.

Here is Tudor finishing off his tenth shutout:

Really, Tudor would’ve won the Cy Young that year had it not been for the stunning debut of Dwight Gooden and his 24 wins. But Tudor’s ’85 season will never be forgotten, and has deservedly become part of Cardinals legend. Any Cardinals fan alive in late September of 1985 remembers Tudor’s masterful 11-inning shutout of the Mets as the two teams battled at the top of the division. His ’85 performance is the greatest single-season pitching accomplishment since Bob Gibson walked off the mound for the last time. Truly spectacular, dominating stuff.

But the starting pitching was only the start of the story. Replacing Sutter and his 40 saves was the “Bullpen By Committee” Herzog instituted to save games. He settled on a left/right combination of hard throwers Todd Worrell and Ken Dayley to navigate the late innings, and they responded with sub-.300 ERA’s. The two relievers led Herzog to implement one of his crazier managerial maneuvers, as he would send Worrell into the outfield to let Dayley handle a lefty before bringing Worrell back in to pitch. These kinds of stunts in ’85 cemented Herzog’s fame in St. Louis and throughout baseball.

The ’85 Cardinals defined the word “team” in its truest sense. Even though the team had a few stellar performances, contributions came from all quarters on a daily basis. For instance, when Clark went down in September, the Cards acquired Cesar Cedeno to cover the thump Clark provided in the lineup. He responded with a crucial September performance, ripping 6 home runs and driving in 19 with a .434 batting average. Throughout the clubhouse there was a sense of purpose and camaraderie, from the biggest star to the least important bench player.

After winning 101 games against a tough Mets team (98 wins for them), the Cardinals confidently strode into the playoffs and promptly crushed the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games by running all over the place and getting some key destructive power from Clark and a left-handed Ozzie Smith in one of the most memorable playoffs in the history of the franchise:

Entering the World Series, this powerful Cardinals team was picked to win it all. However, a seemingly  minor thing happened during the playoffs – Vince Coleman had his leg crushed by the automatic tarp machine at Busch Stadium and left him unable to play through the Series. Without his dynamic leadoff abilities, the rest of the lineup struggled to generate runs. Still, even without Coleman, the team managed to come within two outs of winning the Series in the sixth game. It was that second-to-last out, when the infamous Don Denkinger blew a crucial call, that opened the door for the Kansas City Royals to snatch the Series away from a more-deserving Cardinals team.

One of the reasons I find the teams managed by Tony LaRussa so troubling is that they don’t play with the spirit and energy I once loved from teams like the 1985 Cardinals. LaRussa prefers veterans, thumpers, and a stoic, “professional” clubhouse that lacks the swagger and aggressiveness that marked Herzog’s best teams. The ’85 club would’ve wiped the floor with any of the teams ever managed by LaRussa. The 1985 Cardinals did not sit on their hands out of respect for the other team when someone on their club did something amazing; they crowded around the plate, stomped and cheered and rubbed the opposition’s face in it. I have never seen gutsy, cock-sure baseball like that from any LaRussa team.

LaRussa has made an argument that the style of baseball featured by the ’85 Cardinals – slap hitting, speed, aggressive baserunning – cannot succeed in today’s baseball. I disagree. A ball slapped over the shortstop’s head is a hit in any decade in the game’s history. Having four or five guys who can do that in succession leads to multiple runs every time. A lineup that features fast runners like Coleman, McGee, Smith, and Andy Van Slyke will always score runs by causing havoc on the bases and mistakes in the opposition. The 1985 team was not just a bunch of jackrabbits, though; they could hit, run, and play unbelievable defense. There was an athleticism on that team that has been mostly missing from LaRussa teams. It’s the reason why Jim Edmonds was so popular in St Louis – he reminded fans of the arrogant and athletic stars of the ’85 team who brought magic with them to the ball park every day.

And if the ’85 team teaches one lesson, it’s this: a baseball team is not a collection of stats or a pursuit of personal glory. The members of the ’85 squad genuinely cared about winning and each other. They fought hard and confronted their opposition with a confidence and aggression rarely matched in baseball history. The ’85 team played the kind of Hard Nine baseball that LaRussa’s teams preach but rarely deliver. It is that kind of dogged determination to win – not home runs, not stats – that truly define the 1985 Cardinals as one of the greatest teams in St. Louis sports history.