Whitey Herzog will become the second-oldest living Hall of Famer to turn 90 on Tuesday. Giants great Willie Mays turned 90 in May.
Appearing as an observer, instructor and savant at the Cardinals’ Fantasy Camp at Jupiter, Florida, this week, Herzog, laughing, said, “I’ve never been 90 before. Everybody says, ‘You don’t look 90. You look good.’ My answer to that is, ‘I don’t feel as good as I look.’”
Later on, the man who shepherded the Cardinals to the 1982 World Series title and two other National League pennants said he actually felt good except for some circulatory trouble in his right leg. His brain as sharp as ever, he lacked for no opinions in nearly an hour telephone conversation with the Post-Dispatch on Friday night.
First, he lamented how hard it was to find good pitchers among the campers. “It’s terrible,” Herzog said. “But I always say when you come down here you realize how damn hard it is to play ball.”
Then, Herzog launched into a sharp discussion about how damn hard it is these days for him to watch ball.
“The state of the game in baseball is about as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Herzog began. “It’s all strikeouts and home runs and a high number of pitches.”
And too many four-hour games, he said, especially during the postseason. “And then, the commissioner (Rob Manfred), who’s never worn a jockstrap, has all these rules … and the way every manager is using his bullpen now … out of 54 outs every night, you’ve got about 22 strikeouts between the two teams and 10 walks. So you’ve got 32 guys every night that don’t hit the baseball,” said Herzog.
“(Manfred) keeps talking about the three-batter rule for pitchers. Stupid. And then the 10th inning rule (with a runner at second base). Stupid. Seven-inning doubleheaders. Stupid.
“None of that is going to shorten the games at all, until we can lower the amount of pitches that they throw. I watch every game at home. I generally don’t go to bed until 11 at night when I’m watching the West Coast games and when the teams throw 340 to 360 pitches every night, there’s no way you can shorten the games.
“I sit and watch an 0-2 pitch — a perfect pitch on the black — (the umpires) never ring anybody up. It’s always a ball.
“And now the count is two strikes and a ball but the power pitchers can’t throw a ball three inches off the outside of the plate where a hitter might get himself out. They can’t pitch three inches off the inside corner. They’re two feet or a foot-and-a-half out of the strike zone. Now, its 3-2. Then the batter fouls off a pitch and fouls off another one and the announcer says, ‘We’ve got a quality at-bat’ when the hitter should have been on the bench after three pitches if they ring him up and call the pitch on the ‘black.’
“It’s not a very good game or product to watch anymore. It’s something that’s really serious. I don’t understand how we got like this.
“In the old days — and I’m not trying to talk like an old-timer — a nine-inning game was 265 pitches on the average for two teams. That game lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes. In games that I managed, 285 to 300 pitches were a three-hour game. Most of those games were high-scoring games like 9-8 or 7-6. Now, they’re 1-1, like that Cardinals playoff game against the Dodgers, and they’re going four hours.
“What would you do?”
Before waiting to hear an answer, Herzog said, “If they call more strikes, there will be more swinging and there probably will be less strikeouts if the hitters know they have to swing at some of those pitches that have been called balls.”
The skipper then turned his attention to the the basics. “There’s no fundamentals” he said. “There’s no manufacturing of runs. Very few people go from first to third on a ground ball hit to right field past the first baseman. The Cardinals did it as well as anybody in the league.”
Although the fundamentals are lacking, there is no dearth of information in today’s game and Herzog said, “Analytics are a wonderful thing — up to a point. But when you start putting into scouting that a guy has to be 6-2 and 180 and he has to be capable of hitting 25 home runs, how do Ozzie Smith and David Eckstein and Tom Lawless and Dustin Pedroia get on the draft list? How about all the guys who are good fielders that know the game and are overachievers but are 5-foot-9?
“And there are a lot more things that go into managing a baseball game than analytics. The people who sit up in the office don’t make out the lineup but they tell you which eight players should be playing. But they don’t know if a guy’s sick or got a hangover or having marital problems.”
Herzog then took a trip in the way-back machine to his first year in professional ball in McAlester, Oklahoma, where Yankees Class D manager Vern Hoscheit was a 27-year-old player-manager. “I remember our first meeting,” Herzog said. “He said that if we were down two runs in the seventh inning, we would take a strike until we got the tying run to the plate. That was in Class D and 1949. What does that teach you? It teaches you that you’re going to have to learn to choke up on the bat and make contact with two strikes.
“How many times today do you see a guy lead off with a double and the next two guys strike out and the next guy pops up and the guy’s still sitting on second base, with no attempt to move him over? They just go up there swinging from their butts and when they get to two strikes, they’ll swing at a curveball in the dirt at least a foot outside.
“It’s all a ‘me’ game now. It’s almost like you can’t put on a ‘take’ sign. So you’re down 6-2 and it’s the seventh inning. A pitcher comes in from the bullpen and walks a guy on four pitches and then he throws two more balls. Then the hitter swings from his heels and pops it up without taking a pitch for a strike. Not only in the seventh inning but the eighth inning and the ninth inning.
“They’re going to hit the ball over the moon. They don’t care what the score is or anything. What did (Hall of Fame manager) Casey Stengel say? He said, ‘I’ve never heard of a hitter who got a raise for striking out.’”
Herzog then recalled a 1980s visit he had from Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial when Herzog took Musial to the new weight room at the park. Herzog said, “We had about $3 million worth of equipment in there and I said, ‘Stan, do you need all this stuff to play baseball?’ He said, ‘All I needed was a rubber ball.’
“All Stan Musial ever had was a rubber ball in his pocket. He’d squeeze that ball all the time with his right hand and left hand. All he’d worry about were his hands and his forearms.”
Some rapid-fire Herzog opinions on other matters:
The Mike Shildt firing: “I would say I was shocked, just like he was.”
On the Cardinals’ bullpen: “(Gio) Gallegos should have been the closer a year ago. It’s awful tough for a young pitcher (Alex Reyes) to learn to close and learn to pitch. You don’t get the opportunity most of the time to pitch out of a jam. You come in at the start of an inning.”
On the labor front: “We may have a shutdown in spring training. But I don’t think that the players, with 40 of them making over $20 million and 100 other players making over $10 million, are going to go on strike.”
The World Series: “We may not have beaten Milwaukee in the World Series in 1982 if they’d had Rollie Fingers but if we were in the same division with Kansas City and Minnesota (World Series conquerors in 1985 and 1987), we’d have beaten their behinds.”
On his life: “I’ll get home on Monday and the big ‘nine-oh’ will come on Tuesday. If I had to walk two blocks, I couldn’t do it without stopping to rest after every 100 steps. What the hell, I get to park in the handicap section.”
The players: “I got to manage four Hall of Famers (Ozzie Smith, George Brett, Bruce Sutter, Ted Simmons). I was fortunate to manage good players. But what if my players didn’t buy in and give themselves up and do the things mentally, fundamentally that we had to do?
“The fans loved it. I still have fans every day that want to shake my hand for giving them exciting baseball for 10 years. At the grocery store, at the gas station, at the bank … everybody who recognizes me remembers the ‘80s.
“I hope I gave you enough to write an article,” Herzog said.
Well … yes. And, not surprisingly, there was much more.
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