I was no fan of Whitey Herzog’s when he was The Enemy in the middle and late 1980s. Man, did I hate those Cardinal teams, probably more than I hated the Bobby Cox Braves of the late ’90s and early 2000s, Durocher’s Cubs, Leyland’s Pirates or Charlie Manuel’s Phillies of recent vintage.
That’s a lot of hate, I tell you what.
The White Rat was the implacable face of those teams. Vince Coleman may have possessed the legs that could outrace every one of Gary Carter’s frustrating throws (if not a mechanical tarpaulin roller); Tommy Herr may have been the pre-eminent pain in the Mets’ ass; and Terry Pendleton may have become a brand name at Roger McDowell’s expense, but it was Herzog who came off as one goddamn smug son of a bitch in the opposing dugout. Ooh, did I truly despise him.
Thus, I regret to note that I loved Whitey Herzog’s Hall of Fame speech Sunday. It brimmed with the humility and awe appropriate for someone whose major league playing career was confined to spare outfield duty on second-division clubs yet whose managerial résumé eventually encompassed six division titles, three pennants and the 1982 World Series championship, all compiled across eighteen busy seasons. Didn’t like him when he was lefty-rightying the Mets to death in 1985 and 1987 and couldn’t stand him when he was demanding Howard Johnson’s bat be checked for cork, but loved him on Sunday.
Loved that speech. Loved that Herzog remembered his first minor league manager, future Mets coach Vern Hoscheit — just like HoJo (still) and Herzog, come to think of it — taking him to Sunday dinner in McAlester, Okla., before a game and permitting the young Rat to order a beer because Herzog was German and “by the time I was five…I had drank more beer than milk.
“Luckily, I got four hits that night.”
Loved Whitey’s sober scouting report on Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog: “I was able to get nine years. Wasn’t a very good player, but I did get nine years in the big leagues and there was only sixteen teams and 50-something minor leagues, and I got my pension. I was the kind of player everyone wanted; when they got me, they didn’t know what the hell to do with me.”
And I really loved that he generously recalled his friendship with someone who hasn’t been around for a very long time — Casey Stengel. It was a mentor-protégé relationship that commenced when Herzog was just another Yankee minor leaguer who had no chance of making the big club (Herzog’s theory as to why he drew special attention in Spring Training is Stengel assumed this kid was the grandson of early 20th century Giant Buck Herzog and Whitey never corrected the misconception) and continued for the rest of the Ol’ Perfesser’s life. Their bond was particularly strong during those days in St. Petersburg when the just-retired Stengel was a very special guest and Whitey was finally getting his shot in a New York uniform as Wes Westrum’s third base coach.
“Casey told me so many things that became valuable to me,” Whitey said at Cooperstown. “He said, ‘You’re going to be a manager. You’ve got to learn how to handle the press. When I managed the Mets, you got a bad team, here is how you handle the press.’ He said, ‘You’re very nice to them.’ And then he said, ‘You feed them and you drink with them and you stay up all night with them having a few pops. Put them to bed about 4:30 and by the time their deadline comes, they won’t even put the score of the game in.’
“Well, that was the way to handle the Mets, I’ll tell you that.”
Herzog indeed impressed the press (which wasn’t Westrum’s forte) but never got the chance to handle the Mets himself, though he did have a hand in the development of the 1969 world champs. After 1966, his single season on the Met coaching lines, he was reassigned to the Met minor league system. As recounted by the Times’ Richard Sandomir — aided by an interview with ranking Mets Herzogologist/Numerologist Jon Springer — the Rat’s touch was all over the talent-laden rosters of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Herzog proudly recalled for Anthony McCarron of the News how Gil Hodges thanked him with the firmest of handshakes in the midst of the Mets’ World Series celebration for all he did to get the Mets to the mountaintop.
“’For three years now,’” Herzog quoted Hodges, “every time I called you about what I need, you have sent me the right player.’ Believe me, that went right to my heart.”
Herzog was viewed by many in the Mets sphere as a future manager, and when tragedy forced an untimely choice to be made, after Hodges died in 1972, he was considered by his acolytes in the press the logical candidate. But the man making the decision was M. Donald Grant, someone whom time would reveal wasn’t always on the same page as logic. The Shea manager’s office instead went to Yogi Berra. A year later Whitey Herzog went to Texas and was off soon enough on his Hall of Fame journey in Kansas City.
NEW YORK N.L. doesn’t show up on Herzog’s plaque because all his managing took place elsewhere — Rats, one is tempted to say; Rats that the guy who did us in a couple of times couldn’t have been the one to steer the ship away from the iceberg it didn’t have to head toward as the ’70s unfolded. When he was farm director, Herzog didn’t want to trade Amos Otis or Nolan Ryan. His advice went unheeded. Who knows where the Mets would have gone had Grant listened to him or, better yet, gotten the hell out of the way? Then again, a decade after he left New York, Herzog took a liking to Neil Allen and was more than happy to rid himself of Keith Hernandez to bring him to Busch Stadium. These things have a way of working out sometimes.
I don’t know that anybody gets particularly excited when a manager is inducted into the Hall of Fame, but I’m glad it happened for Herzog if just to hear the speech and find the chance to contemplate the qualities that made those who held the job he never did so Amazin’ly memorable:
• Stengel knowing exactly what he was doing when he knew there was nothing he could do with the pieces expansion dealt him;
• Hodges instilling professionalism and pride in the clubhouse when there were finally players on the premises who could play;
• Berra remaining unflappable until the storm that swirled all around him swirled itself out;
• Bobby Valentine managing full games while his opponents were stuck in whatever inning it happened to be;
• And Davey Johnson deciding it was time for his team to win big, and so they did.
That’s a little simplistic for Davey, who dueled Whitey to a 2-2 tie in their concomitant quest for N.L. East titles (the pair later teamed up to run a celebrity fishing camp — fishing with celebrities, not for celebrities). As Herzog said Sunday, without Hall of Famers like Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter and George Brett executing the moves he made, “I’d probably be back in Illinois digging ditches or something.” You can’t be a genius without the players to back it up. The only manager who ever seemed capable of motivating his charges by merely pointing out the necessity of winning precisely enough games (32) to clinch a playoff spot was the original sabermetrician, recently deceased Cleveland Indians skipper Lou Brown — and he was peeling off pieces of a cardboard dress when he said it.
Still, what do we think of when think of Davey Johnson now that he’s on the cusp of his ridiculously delayed induction into the Mets Hall of Fame? We think of the declaration he put forth before the start of the 1986 season: we’re not just going to win, we’re going to dominate. 108 dominating wins later, Davey Johnson was proven a prophet. It was a bit like Joe Namath guaranteeing the Super Bowl except with seven months’ lead time and delivering on his pledge nearly every day.
Johnson was never put on the same strategic pedestal as Herzog (he acknowledged he relished alternating Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell in the outfield in one highly bizarre game because it was similar to something Whitey had done the year before) but he was no push-button manager, either. The “we’re going to dominate” theme wasn’t just bluster. Marty Noble, when he spoke to our AMAZIN’ ALL-STAR MONDAY group earlier this month, said he thought Johnson’s greatest attribute as Mets manager was making his players believe they could do anything. It wasn’t that bashful a collection of athletes to begin with, so embellish their determination with Davey’s confidence and, well, no wonder they plundered their division by 21½ games.
A signature element of Davey’s first season as Met manager, in 1984, was that he used a computer. That was particularly exotic in a year when the sport was just as happy to bask in the reflected sepia glow of The Natural as it was to hint that any of its masterminds was technologically ahead of the curve. A computer? In his office? To help him manage a baseball game? Who was this guy who swaggered so much that nobody needed to use that now overused phrase to describe his style? Davey Johnson wasn’t pushing buttons so much as he was producing keystrokes — and 90 wins from a perennial cellar-dweller.
Yet his brain combined with his gut to create a state-of-the-art operating system, as Noble pointed out when asked to share a couple of memories of Davey. The one I liked most came from the game in which the Mets passed the Phillies to take first place on the first day of summer in ’84. Bill Campbell was pitching for Philadelphia in the bottom of the seventh. Ron Hodges had just tied the score and now there were two on. Davey called on Rusty Staub to face Campbell even though Rusty had literally not gotten a hit off this reliever in eight years. From July 19, 1976 through April 22, 1984, Staub could not touch Campbell: 0-for-14 with a few walks.
Yet Davey sends up Rusty and Rusty singles in two runs and the Mets win and they’re in first place. Afterwards, reporters ask Davey what the deal was with that. You’d figure the manager with the computer would be highly cognizant that Staub never hit Campbell and would look elsewhere down his bench for alternatives. Instead, according to Noble, Johnson saw it this way:
“I figured Rusty was due.”
The induction of Davey Johnson into the Mets’ Hall is comically overdue, just as it is for his cohort for the occasion, Frank Cashen, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. Herzog said in Cooperstown that fellow Cardinal legend and Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter, after having to endure a long wait to be elected by the Veterans’ Committee, greeted his selection with, “It’s about time. Should have happened twenty years ago.” Whitey was more gracious than that on his own big day: “You know, any time is a good time when you receive an award like this.”
I’ll buy that in general terms. Johnson should have been a Mets Hall of Famer at least a decade ago, but then again, the Mets Hall of Fame should have been up and running as an active entity between 2002 and 2010. Old story. It won’t, in the spirit of Whitey’s words, lessen one bit the thrill of attending Mets Hall of Fame Day at Citi Field this Sunday, August 1.
I sincerely hope every FAFIF reader who appreciates the Mets picking up the pace where acknowledgement of their history is concerned will be in attendance this Sunday — not just in appreciation of Johnson, Cashen, Strawberry and Gooden, but for ourselves. We deserve this.
• If you’ve got the scratch, there’s a super-sounding luncheon with the four Hall of Famers to be and several of their generational MHOF peers on Saturday at Citi Field. The tag is $300 for season ticket holders, $325 for everybody else (a bit out of my league, alas). It includes a ticket to the July 31 game and proceeds benefit the Mets Foundation. More information here.
• I don’t much worry about what other teams do when it comes to honoring their greats, but Ed Leyro of Studious Metsimus sharply observed upon his visit to Dodger Stadium that Gil Hodges’s number 14 is mysteriously doing time on the back of Jamey Carroll. It’s bad enough it was allowed to linger all over Mike Scioscia in 1988, but Uncle Jamey? I hate Uncle Jamey! Anyway, a good look here by Ed at Gil’s two-team greatness, both from a Dodger first base and Met managerial perspective. To borrow from Gil’s Met colleague’s assessment of induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, any time would be a good time to award Gil Hodges his rightful place upstate…and despite his being passed over too many time, it may not be too late to maintain a realistic glimmer of hope that it will happen.
Thanks to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for transcribing Herzog’s speech.