1989 St. Louis Cardinals: Whitey Herzog’s Last Contender

Whitey Herzog arrived in St. Louis in 1981, after a mostly dry decade in a great baseball town. Herzog immediately turned the Cardinals around. He won a World Series in 1982, National League pennants in 1985 and 1987 and solidified his Hall of Fame resume. The 1989 St. Louis Cardinals were Whitey’s last full season as a manager and his last contending team.

The Cards came into ’89 with question marks. One of the less desirable aspects of Whitey’s tenure was the tendency to slip under .500 immediately following a pennant run. 1988 had been no different, so St. Louis was looking to get back on their feet. They did it in way all of Herzog’s best teams did—with the running game, hitting the ball in the gaps and getting good pitching.

Midway through an otherwise lost ’88 season, the Cardinals acquired Pedro Guerrero from Los Angeles. At 33-years-old, Guerrero moved to first base and had an excellent year in Busch Stadium. His stat line was a .391 on-base percentage/.477 slugging percentage. His 42 doubles led the league and he drove in 117 runs.

Guerrero was the run producer for a lineup whose ignitors were led by second baseman Jose Oquendo and his .375 OBP. The legendary Ozzie Smith was 34-years-old, but he still stole 29 bags and played a terrific defensive game at shortstop. Vince Coleman continued to be a big-time threat on the base paths, with 65 stolen bases. Milt Thompson, acquired in an offseason deal with Philadelphia, stole 27 more. Tom Brunansky helped out on the power front with a team-leading 20 home runs.

The problems were twofold—patience at the plate was often lacking and the Cardinals ranked seventh in the 12-team National League for walks, something that’s a big deal when you don’t hit for power. Even more important, depth was a major issue.

Centerfielder Willie McGee suffered nagging injuries all year that limited him to 58 games. While the outfield of Coleman, Thompson and Brunansky was good enough, it also meant there were no notable contributions from anyone outside the regular lineup. And St. Louis settled for seventh in the National League in runs scored.

That’s still enough to compete if you have pitching, and fortunately, the Cardinals did. Joe Magrane won 18 games with a 2.91 ERA. Jose DeLeon won 16 more and his ERA was 3.08. Ken Hill pitched pretty well, with a 3.80 ERA, even his 7-15 W-L record showed he took the brunt of the offensive woes. Scott Terry and Ted Power were both respectable at the back end of the rotation and mixing in some relief efforts.

The bullpen depth was even better. Todd Worrell and Ken Dayley shared closer duties in a righty-lefty tag team and combined for 32 saves. Each had an ERA just under 3.00. There was a crew of four relievers who all worked between 60-90 innings and all had ERAs in the 2s or low 3s.

There was Frank DiPino and John Costello. Dan Quisenberry, once a great closer across the state in Kansas City, showed he could still pitch at age 36. And a young 24-year-old named Cris Carpenter with a bright future ahead of him was getting started pulling relief duty.

It all added up to a staff ERA that was fourth-best in the National League.

Prior to 1994, baseball’s alignment had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West, with only the first-place team advancing to the postseason. With no NL Central in existence, St. Louis—along with the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates—were in the NL East. As were that division’s current members in the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). The Miami Marlins were still a few years from existence.

The past four years had seen the Cardinals and Mets take turns winning the division, and the rivals played each other five times in the first part of April. St. Louis grabbed three wins. One of them was a 3-2 walkoff that came in vintage Cardinal fashion. Coleman beat out an infield hit, stole second and was driven in by Guerrero.

St. Louis swept Montreal three straight, winning another exciting walkoff. In this one, DeLeon shut down the Expos and took a scoreless tie into the ninth. Guerrero again stepped up, leading off the ninth with a double and coming around to score.

And before April was through, the Cards swept the defending World Series champion Dodgers and won another 1-0 walkoff in the process. This one went into the 11th inning. Coleman doubled. Guerrero was pitched around this time, with an intentional walk. But Oquendo delivered a two-out hit for the win.

St. Louis was in first place at the end of April, but tougher times were ahead in May. The Cardinals suffered through a brutal 5-14 stretch that included five losses to the Cincinnati Reds (who, along with the Atlanta Braves, were oddly situated in the NL West), a team that was struggling and would soon be sunk by the revelations of Pete Rose’s gambling.

By early June, after losing two of three to the Cubs, St. Louis was staring at a 24-27 record. They were in fourth place and five games behind Chicago, with New York and Montreal nestled in between.

The Cards went north of the border to play the Expos and took three out of four to stop the bleeding. That set up a weekend trip to Wrigley Field. On Friday afternoon, DeLeon tossed a four-hitter for a 1-0 win. Magrane was similarly brilliant on Saturday afternoon, with a six-hitter. Aided by three RBIs from catcher Tony Pena, Magrane won 6-0.

Sunday saw the offenses open up. The Cardinals got five hits from Ozzie and a home run from Brunansky in an epic seventh inning where St. Louis scored eight times. Then they held off a final Chicago charge to win 10-7. Even though the Cubs salvaged Monday’s wraparound finale, the Cardinals were back over .500 and up off the mat. By the All-Star break, St. Louis was 44-39, still in fourth place, but only three games back in a jammed NL East race.

The schedule makers sent the Cardinals on a long road trip out of the break and St. Louis went 6-5 out west. Then they split ten games with the Cubs, Expos and Mets. That was enough to stay afloat and the Cardinals picked up the pace with a solid 18-13 run through August.

When Labor Day arrived, St. Louis was 74-61, up to second place and only 1 ½ games back of Chicago. New York and Montreal were both right in the rearview mirror. And the first full week of September would feature seven consecutive games against these three rivals.

In an early evening start on Labor Day, St. Louis hosted Montreal and gave the ball to DeLeon. He delivered a 4-1 win. The Cards dropped Tuesday night’s game and went on to Queens to face the Mets. In a 2-2 game in the top of the eighth, a New York error set up Guerrero to drive in the winning run in the 3-2 final. St. Louis lost on Thursday in a 13-1 rout. The NL East margin was still 1 ½ when they went to Wrigley.

The Friday opener saw the Cardinals trailing 7-2, when Guerrero took over. He hit a two-run single in the seventh, a three-run jack in the eighth and keyed a complete offensive eruption. St. Louis won 11-8. They were a half-game out. And when DeLeon handed a 2-1 lead to the bullpen in the eighth inning on Saturday, the Cards were on the threshold of first place.

But with two outs, the Cubbies tied the game and then won in extra innings. St. Louis lost again on Sunday, 4-1. It was a big missed opportunity, but they were still only 2 ½ games out.

As it turned out though, that was the last real high point. Three straight losses to the lowly Pirates were devastating and pushed the Cardinals 5 ½ games back. They nudged back to within three when they were again swept by Pittsburgh. The pennant bid was effectively over.

St. Louis wrapped up the season 86-76, settling for third place behind Chicago and New York. The Cards’ record was tied for fifth-best overall in the National League and 11th-best overall in all of baseball. Under the more lenient system of today, they were a borderline playoff team.

Even with the tough ending, it was a good year—a bounceback one. But it would prove to be the end of an era. St. Louis suffered though an awful 1990 season where Herzog stepped down in July. The time of Whitey Ball was over and 1989 was its last contending team.