1991 St. Louis Cardinals: A New Era Begins

The 1991 St. Louis Cardinals marked the start of a new era in the history of this great franchise. The 1980s had been boom times under the leadership of Whitey Herzog. The Cardinals won National League pennants in 1987 and 1985, and they won it all in 1982. They had been a contending team as recently as 1989. But a hard collapse in 1990 led to Herzog’s midseason retirement and to new beginnings.

Joe Torre was the man in charge. While that name carries powerful cache in our own day, in light of Torre’s subsequent tenure with the New York Yankees, in the world of 1991, it was simply a respectable hire. Torre had won a division title with the Atlanta Braves nine years earlier and also managed some disappointing teams. There was no reason to be overly excited, nor particularly upset at his hiring.

One thing didn’t change and it was the reliance of the St. Louis offense on the running game. In this pre-analytics era, stolen bases were still a valued commodity. St. Louis got 44 stolen bases from Ray Lankford. They got 35 more from their legendary shortstop, 36-year-old Ozzie Smith. Felix Jose swiped 20 more bags and the Cardinals were second in the National League in steals.

Jose was also the team’s best overall position player, hitting .305 and keying a lineup that finished fourth in the NL in batting average and fifth in on-base percentage. Ozzie’s OBP was a sparkling .380. Milt Thompson came off the bench, got substantial playing time in the outfield and hit .307 with a .368 OBP. Todd Zeile at third base and Jose Oquendo at second each had OBP’s on the high side of .350.

The lack of power—dead last in the 12-team National League for home runs was no surprise. But slipping to a mediocre seventh in doubles was a bigger problem. The Cardinals suffered from poor years out of first baseman Pedro Guerrero, catcher Tom Pagnozzi and leftfielder Bernard Gilkey. Lankford’s poor overall offensive numbers would make him a key exhibit for the analytics crowd that believed the sport was overvaluing the stolen base.

Consequently, while the Cardinal offense was not bad, it also did not stand out—right in the middle of the NL at sixth in runs scored.

Torre’s starting rotation was reliable, getting 30-plus starts from Bryn Smith, Bob Tewksbury and Ken Hill. Omar Olivarez and Jose DeLeon combined to start 52 more games in rounding out the rotation. The steadiness was valuable, but only DeLeon’s 2.71 ERA really stood out. The rest of the rotation ERAs ranged from 3.25 to 3.85.

Lee Smith was a top closer and saved 47 games with a 2.34 ERA. But the depth in the pen was lacking. While Scott Terry had a nice year, there were up-and-down performances from everyone else. The result was similar to that of the offense—a staff that was not bad, but also did not stand out—right in the middle of the NL at seventh in ERA.

The Cardinals played basically steady baseball in the early part of the season. In the week leading up to Memorial Day, they had a nice spurt in grabbing two of three from defending NL East champion Pittsburgh and two out of three from another one of the regular contenders in the New York Mets. St. Louis reached the holiday with a record of 24-18, good for second place in the East. They were 2 ½ games back of the Pirates, with the Mets and Chicago Cubs also in the mix.

For younger readers, here’s a good place for a reminder that prior to 1994 the leagues were split into just two divisions, an East and a West. The Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates were in the NL East, along with the Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). As to why the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves went west, rather than St. Louis and Chicago, is a question that geography teachers of the era no doubt wondered. But it was what it was.

A home series with the Pirates immediately after the holiday weekend did not go well. The Cardinals were shut out twice and also lost a 9-8 slugfest. Taking two of three from the Mets again helped get St. Louis back on track.

The rest of the first half was more up and down. On the one hand, the Cards lost four of six to the contending Dodgers. On the other hand, St. Louis swept six games from lowly Philadelphia. The Cardinals came into the All-Star break with a record of 44-37. They were in third place, five back of the Pirates, with the Mets nestled in between.

Over in the NL West, the Atlanta Braves were starting a surge that would carry them all the way to the World Series. That surge started right after the All-Star break when they swept St. Louis four straight down south, then came up to Bush Stadium and won another series. The staggering Cardinals fell as many as nine games out. By the end of July, they had chipped the margin back to 7 ½ and had Pittsburgh coming in for a four-game set that would kick off the month of August.

Oquendo keyed a win in Thursday night’s opener, with three hits and a home run. Zeile added three more hits and St. Louis won 6-3. On Friday night, the Cards trailed 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth. Ozzie worked a one-out walk. Gerald Perry singled, setting up runners at the corners. A productive ground ball out from Zeile tied the game. And when Gilkey worked a bases-loaded/full-count walk, St. Louis had a 4-3 win.

More late heroics came on Saturday. Thompson homered in the eighth to tie up the game 5-5, and Zeile homered in the tenth to win it. Even though St. Louis dropped a 2-1 game in the finale, in spite of a good outing from Hill, they had cut the lead back to 5 ½ games and were still very much alive.

But St. Louis gave it back on the return trip to Pittsburgh, losing three out of four. On August 12, they were 7 ½ games back and the Mets were 8 ½ games out. New York came into St. Louis for a series that looked like a preliminary knockout battle.

The bats unloaded in Tuesday night’s opener, with Jose, Zeile, Pagnozzi and Perry all having two-hit nights and leading the way to a 7-4 win. On Wednesday night, St. Louis trailed 4-2 in the eighth. A Thompson walk was followed by singled from Pagnozzi and Oquendo that cut the lead to 4-3. Lankford’s triple gave the Cards a 5-4 lead that stood up. Then on Thursday night, St. Louis got six quality innings from Rheal Cormier, normally a reliever. Ozzie had three hits, while Pagnozzi and Oquendo added two apiece. The 4-1 win completed a needed sweep.

St. Louis would get separation on New York, but they were never able to make a serious push at Pittsburgh over the final month and a half. The division deficit was still seven games on Labor Day. When the Cards went 2-7 on a West Coast road trip out of the holiday and slipped ten games back, it all but rendered useless the four remaining games they had with the Pirates.

The final record was 84-78. That was tied for fourth-best in the National League, so it might have been good enough to sneak into the playoffs by today’s standards. In the world of 1991, it left. St. Louis 14 games back.

It also started a three-year trend under Torre. The Cardinals were always over .500. But they were never anything special. After a losing season in the strike year of 1994 and a slow start in ’95, Torre was fired.

Of course both the team and the manager ended up okay. St. Louis hired Tony LaRussa, who won two more World Series titles for the franchise. Torre’s firing made him available for the Yankee job in 1996, and he promptly won four rings in five years. All’s well that ends well. But the early 1990s in St. Louis were a time when they were simply “okay.”