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A lost tribe wandering in the baseball desert during the late 1970s -- a chronic noncontender suffering from 90-loss seasons, an eroding fan base and a fractious clubhouse -- the St. Louis Cardinals were led to the promised land of playoffs and 3 million attendance in the 1980s by Whitey Herzog.
Arriving midseason in 1980 as manager and adding the GM's job that September, the White Rat assessed his underachieving team and took decisive action, trading away half his roster at the December meetings and continuing to deal the next year while posting the division's best overall record in a strike-shortened split season. A world championship followed in 1982, with two more trips to the World Series in '85 and '87, before Herzog resigned in mid-1990.
Now retired after an early-'90s stint as the California Angels' director of baseball operations, Herzog fishes, golfs, skis and travels, leading a comfortable life in South County. But he still watches plenty of baseball with his satellite dish, and he increasingly dislikes what the television reveals. Kept from his leisure pursuits by an Achilles-tendon injury last year, Herzog decided to share his gloomily dark thoughts on the game -- and shed some light on some potential solutions to its ills -- with a book co-written by journalist Jonathan Pitts: You're Missin' a Great Game (Simon & Schuster, 314 pages, $25).
Returning to find baseball worshiping mammon and moon shots -- a sport corrupted by money and beset by problems both on and off the field -- Herzog fulminates on the page and in person with an anger worthy of an Old Testament patriarch, and he wants to help set the game back on the path of righteousness. You're Missin' a Great Game serves as his commandments.
Herzog, during his abbreviated stint with the Texas Rangers, his three division championships with the Kansas City Royals and his decade-long tenure with the Cardinals, earned a deserved reputation as a no-bullshit, blunt-spoken hard charger, a man willing to tell the truth and take action, whatever the consequences. Bill James, perhaps the most cogent and influential baseball analyst in a game where every fan styles himself an expert, had this to say about Herzog in Bill James's Baseball Guide to Managers from 1870 to Today: "Whitey Herzog's career was a long series of controversies, battles. Poorly chosen words. He spoke frankly. People would often ask him what he thought, and he would tell them, and very often people hated him for that."
You're Missin' a Great Game is unlikely to earn Herzog many new friends. In it, he excoriates players, agents, owners, executives, umpires and even milquetoast TV announcers who refuse to call 'em like they see 'em. He rails against wild cards, interleague play and balanced schedules; he laments the lack of fundamentals and the abundance of home runs; he talks openly about player arrogance, owner stupidity and universal greed. He names names, cites damning evidence and builds a devastating case against baseball as it's misplayed and mismanaged at the millennium's turn. "I'll be honest with you," he confesses in a sure-to-be-quoted summary statement in the book's introduction. "A lot of things about the big-league scene today make me want to throw up."
The book, of course, isn't all bile: Herzog shares fond, illuminating stories of mentors, former team members, past employers and -- especially fascinating to St. Louis fans -- key Cardinal players of the '80s. Even better, Herzog and Pitts don't string these anecdotes together haphazardly but use them illustratively and metaphorically, to make and clarify points.
Less positively, You're Missin' a Great Game indulges in the expected self-glorification and selective memory of any autobiographical work: Herzog's view of the era in which he played is obscured by nostalgia, and his aggressive, speed-over-power style of managing with the Royals and Cards -- Whiteyball -- receives an overvaluation compared to the home-run offense that is today's currency. Nor are all of Herzog's proposals to redress baseball's problems well thought out, and a few -- for instance, a neutral-site World Series stadium that would be alternatively used as a mega-bingo hall -- are downright loopy.
But as an antidote to last year's baseball fever, in which the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa homer race induced a hallucinatory dream of game-wide prosperity and goodwill, You're Missin' a Great Game is strong and necessary, if at times unpleasant, medicine.
In an April interview at the restaurant at Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill. -- a surreal but appropriately evangelical setting, given his missionary zeal -- Herzog, looking fit and still sporting his familiar blond flattop, explains the motivation behind You're Missin' a Great Game: "I wrote the book because I'm concerned about baseball," he says simply. "The issues aren't being discussed. Baseball's in trouble as it now is if they don't change some rules.
"I think the home-run race last year was great for the game, but when you look at all the major-league clubs, per game the attendance was still down 2,000 people (from the high of 31,337 established before the strike that ended the 1994 season and erased the playoffs and World Series). What really should bring everybody to their feet is when you've got the winningest New York team in the history of baseball playing in the World Series, and your ratings are down.