Record/Position/Streak: 19-25, 4th in NL Central, W3 (4-6 in last 10)
Scheduled Starters: Friday, Micah Bowie Speigner (0-2, 3.98) vs. Anthony Reyes (0-7, 5.84); Saturday, Levale Speigner (1-0, 6.33) vs. Brad Thompson (2-1, 4.67); Sunday, Matt Chico (3-4, 5.44) vs. Adam Wainwright (4-3, 6.02)
Because of family origins and the like, I spent many summer days over the course of my childhood playing in my grandmother's backyard in Wood River, Illinois, and many summer evenings sitting in the seats at Busch Stadium. It seems like a lifetime ago now, and in a sense it was. It was a different brand of baseball those Cardinals of the early- and mid-80s played. WhiteyBall, they called it -- "essentially smallball writ large." It was skinnier players with elastic bands holding up the opposition's light blue road uniforms, and artificial turf with dirt cutouts near the bases, and speed. Lots and lots of speed, but not so much on the power.
It was a different game back then -- whether better or worse is outside this post's scope -- and the Cardinals serve as an exemplar years later. This year's Cardinals, playing a different style of game in a different style of ballpark, have hit 24 home runs in 44 games, just under a 90-homer pace for the 162-game season. That would be almost precisely half the number of homers the Cardinals bashed last season. Their power outage is humbling now, but such production would be a matter of course for the Cards of my youth.
As unfathomable as it may seem, let us presume for the moment the Cardinals fail to reach 100 long balls for the season. The last time the Cardinals failed to reach the century mark for big flies was 1992. They also failed to reach the mark in 1991. And 1990. And 1989. And 1988. And 1987 (though they came close, with 94, in the year of the rabbit ball.) And 1986. And 1985. And 1984. And 1983. And 1982. And 1981.
That last one's easy, given the work stoppage. But the '81 Cardinals wouldn't have made it to 100 homers in a full season regardless of labor relations. They hit 50 homers in 103 games, so you do the math. Besides, I think the point has been made. They went twelve straight seasons without reaching 100 homers as a team.
But, in case the point wasn't made, they also failed to reach 100 team homers in 1971. And 1972. And 1973. And 1974. And 1975. And 1976. And 1977. And 1978. As a matter of fact, a grand total of three homers -- one in 1979, when they hit exactly 100, and two in 1980, when they hit 101 -- separates the St. Louis Cardinals of spanning essentially an entire generation without hitting 100 homers as a team in any one season. Not even Houston, with the famed, power-suppressing Astrodome, could say the same.
Now, this isn't to imply the Cardinals of back then played a punchless brand of baseball, especially relative to their competition -- or at least not necessarily. When the Herzog-era Cardinals didn't win, they didn't score; however, when they won, they most definitely did score. The Cardinals claimed three pennants (and one World Series title) in the 1980s, and in all three seasons they finished among the top five in the NL in runs scored. In 1985, they led the league; in 1987, they ranked second. They merely did it without the long ball, finishing last, next to last, and last in the NL in homers in the pennant-winning seasons.
Big league baseball's precusor to the offensive explosion of 1993 to the present day was 1987, when everybody claimed the ball was juiced and just about everybody became a longball threat. That season, the Cardinals not only finished last in the NL in homers but were more than doubled by the league leader. The Cards hit 94 homers, whereas the Cubbies hit 209. We can and should consider park effects, but that's still a huge difference. Andre Dawson hit 49 homers that year, better than half St. Louis's total alone. Nevertheless, the Cardinals outscored the Cubs that season, and it wasn't particularly close -- a difference of about a half-run per game.
The WhiteyBall era ended unceremoniously in the middle of 1990, and the Cardinals steadily increased their home run totals from 1993 onward. For the last decade, they've been sort of informally synonymous with the homer, from the Mark McGwire era to the legendary start of Albert Pujols's career. (Pujols is a complete hitter, of course, but it's undeniable the guy is a home run force.) I'd imagine their early season power outage is jarring even for their most dedicated and historically astute fan.
As the St. Louis teams of the 1980s demonstrated, it's not impossible to have a potent offense despite going yard infrequently. Such a team just has to do other things well, which the those Cardinals did -- including, as this article notes, the most important thing, getting on base. In each of the three 1980s pennant-winning years, the Cardinals led the NL in on-base percentage. The current Cardinals . . . well, they're not exactly leading the NL in OBP. They're 13th, which does very little to offset the leage's second-worst slugging percentage. Unlike the Whiteyball teams, they don't run well either, ranking last in the league with 13 stolen bases (against 12 caught stealings) and three triples. They've absolutely cratered offensively, which I suppose means they have nowhere to go but up.
One of the beauties of baseball is that, as one notable 80s-era Cardinal once remarked, the one word that says it all is you-never-know. The Cardinals could mount their offensive climb without a moment's notice. If the Nats could do that -- and they certainly have, leading the NL in runs scored over a two-week span -- then so can the Cardinals. But I guess you've already guessed the next line: Let's hope they wait until after the weekend to turn it around offensively.
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PS: Given the table above, it seems advisable to murder their starters a good bit. Everyone else has been -- or at least everyone up until the Cardinals' just-completed sweep of the Pirates.
PPS: The drinking game sweeping the nation (or at least the Mid-Atlantic portion thereof) is to do a shot every time Bob Carpenter mentions St. Louis or the Cardinals or the St. Louis Cardinals. In light of this weeekend's opponent, perhaps participants should take it easy. We wouldn't want a fleet of ambulances hurrying to Miss Chatter's Saturday "Baseball on the Barn" and there's enough alcohol poisoning in this sordid world of ours.