MLB Networks’ “Birds of a Different Game” fantastically celebrates a decade of St. Louis Cardinals teams that played a style all their own.
The MLB Network documentary Birds of a Different Game: The ‘80s Cardinals, which debuts Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, makes a convincing case that the Whiteyball St. Louis Cardinals introduced a hyperspeed style of baseball that was, as St. Louis native and narrator John Goodman intones, “totally, completely original.”
Featuring interviews with Whitey Herzog, actor Jon Hamm, and a deck of former Cards, among others, Birds of a Different Game showcases more than just film clips and wistful ex-ballplayers. The documentary crackles with insight on how Herzog assembled a team that featured the fastest fleet of fielders and baserunners that anyone had ever seen on one ballclub.
Herzog “had to have a track team,” former outfielder Andy Van Slyke says of an ’80s lineup that included Ozzie Smith, Lonnie Smith, Willie McGee, and later, Vince Coleman. “I mean, it was a track team, and every once in awhile a baseball game would break out.”
If you think you know everything about those Cardinals teams, you need to see this. If you’re wary of a tired rehash of a bygone era, prepare to be surprised. If you’re a right-now fan with no interest in the past, give Birds of a Different Game a chance. This documentary is way more sprightly, stirring, and revealing than I, for one, expected.
The ex-players interviewed, which include Van Slyke, Ozzie Smith, Keith Hernandez, Tommy Herr, and Ken Oberkfell, are remarkably engaging — a testament to the filmmakers, who got them to relax and spin some fine, often funny tales.
Smith and Herr reveal how the team delighted in ribbing high-strung pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who was afraid of snakes and prone to histrionics when hurt. Herr is especially droll in describing the irreverent bench player reaction to Andujar’s writhing on the field after a line drive struck his knee in Game 3 of the 1982 World Series vs. the Brewers. “We made fun of him about that; he was flopping around like a fish on a bank,” Herr says, grinning at the memory.
Van Slyke adds his two cents on Vince Coleman’s freak 1985 NLCS injury, which occurred when an automated tarp ran over one of the speedster’s legs. “To this day,” Van Slyke says, “I can’t figure how the fastest guy in baseball can get run over by a tarp going two miles per hour.”
Birds of a Different Game takes a good, long look at the Cardinals’ novel style of play, which was heavy on speed and light on long balls. The 1982 Redbirds stole an NL-high 200 bases and hit a league-low 67 homers.
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The 1985 pennant winners stole 314 bases with just 87 homers, second-fewest in the NL. The ’87 team swiped a league-leading 248 bases and hit a league-low 94 home runs. As Hall of Fame sports columnist Rick Hummel remarks, “Every other team played one way, and the Cardinals played a different way.”
The play-it-fast style was the brainchild of Herzog, who remains as blunt as ever at 88. The team he inherited in 1980 was, he told owner August “Gussie” Busch, full of “overpaid prima donnas who are never gonna win.” To change the culture, Herzog made three huge trades in December of 1980, including one that brought reliever supreme Bruce Sutter from the Chicago Cubs, and one that sent fan favorite Ted Simmons to Milwaukee.
Herzog reveals how he pitched the latter trade to Brewers general manager Harry Dalton: “I said, ‘you guys wanna win a pennant? How would you like Ted Simmons, and (Pete) Vuckovich, and (Rollie) Fingers?’”
A year later, Herzog made his most important swap, shipping shortstop Garry Templeton to the Padres for Ozzie Smith. There had been preliminary trade talk before San Diego manager Dick Williams asked Herzog if he was still up for making the deal. “I about fell off the seat,” Herzog says. He then talked Smith, who had a no-trade clause, into coming to St. Louis.
The Cardinals wouldn’t have won the 1982 World Series against the slugging Brewers without Smith, rookie center fielder Willie McGee, and Darrell Porter, the catcher who’d caught flak for replacing the beloved Simmons and batting just .224 and .231 his first two St. Louis seasons. Herr describes the delight his teammates felt when the likable Porter came through with big hits and was named the 1982 World Series MVP.
Pendleton, the third baseman who replaced Oberkfell in 1984, tells a not-to-be-missed tale about Jack Clark’s slightly profane commentary before and after the first baseman slammed his famous three-run homer off the Dodgers’ Tom Niedenfuer in Game 6 of the 1985 NLCS.
To its credit, Birds of a Different Game doesn’t exalt everything about the 1980s Cardinals. It addresses (and shows) Garry Templeton’s infamous finger to the fans in 1981 and broaches, if briefly, the drug issues that surfaced after the 1982 World Championship. And the interviewed ex-players aren’t beyond panning some Herzog moves, or near-moves.
Hernandez finds fault with the manager’s aborted early scheme to move Simmons to first and Hernandez to left field, moves that would have compromised the defense at both positions. John Tudor questions why the manager brought the volatile Andujar into the stressed-out situation that simmered in Game 7 of the 1985 World Series.
The Dominican hurler was bound to erupt — and did — at home-plate umpire Don Denkinger, who’d blown a first-base call that cost the Cardinals the day before.
Beyond all else, Birds of a Different Game illustrates, through film clips and fresh stories, the goosebump thrills that fans felt in watching the 1980s Cardinals. For those who were there, the documentary brings the incandescent plays — in the field, at the plate, on the basepaths — back to life.
For those who missed out on that era, don’t miss out on Birds of a Different Game, a gripping look at a lost style of baseball that favored acceleration, defense and daring over slugging and station-to-station sluggishness.
Hernandez provides the fitting, near-final words, “I would love to be able to put us in the league today and see how we’d do.” How would other teams respond? Chuckling and shaking his head, Hernandez says, “They would have heart attacks.”