The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 71-80
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 74: ANDY VAN SLYKE
It was sometime in the summer of 1983 that the Cardinals first identified their top pick from the 1979 amateur draft as the potential third baseman of the future. So they sent Andy Van Slyke to triple-A Louisville to learn the position from manager Jim Fregosi.
Left-hander Rick Horton was on the mound for the Redbirds about 25 games into the experiment. By the sixth inning, he’d been touched for six unearned runs, due mostly to four errors at the hot corner.
Having retrieved the glove he threw in frustration halfway across the diamond, Van Slyke ignored Fregosi’s summons for a conference on the mound. But he could only put off the skipper for so long.
In the huddle, Fregosi hung his arm around Horton while fixing his gaze on Van Slyke.
“Now Ricky,” he said, “I’m going to have to take you out of the game because you can’t keep the ball away from your third baseman.”
The Cardinals drafted Van Slyke because he was an excellent athlete, but expecting him to take to his new position like Brooks Robinson was clearly a stretch. In his 38 games at third base that season, Van Slyke committed 13 errors.
“I did play like Brooks,” Van Slyke told Sports Illustrated. “Mel Brooks.”
Van Slyke played his last game at third base in the big leagues a year later, but never really found a home at one position in St. Louis. He mainly platooned in right field, stood in often for Willie McGee in center, was occasionally moved to left, and got 45 starts at first base. Whether that was a tribute to his versatility or a hindrance to his development is debatable.
During the 101-win, National League championship season of 1985, he was one of five running Redbirds with more than 30 stolen bases. He batted .270 with 13 home runs and 61 RBIs the year after that. Over his four seasons with the Cardinals, Van Slyke played in an average of 130 games per year and was worth 10.2 wins above replacement.
He also established himself as a favorite of both fans and the media for his cool demeanor and quick wit.
Where other players might have clammed up when confronted by reporters, Van Slyke could be counted on to own up to a tough day at the plate: “I couldn’t have driven Miss Daisy home today,” he once said.
Asked the biggest difference between playing at home and on the road, he responded, ”On the road, when you go downstairs for coffee in your underwear, they throw you out of the kitchen.”
It wasn’t until he was shipped to Pittsburgh in exchange for catcher Tony Pena, however, that Van Slyke found a permanent station in center field and became the hitter the Cardinals thought he could be.
Within a year of the trade — which he, at first, didn’t welcome — Van Slyke blasted 25 home runs and had 100 runs batted in, 101 runs scored, and a league-high 15 triples. He went onto win five Gold Glove awards, play in three All-Star Games and finish in the top five of National League MVP balloting twice.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1983-1986
.259 avg. with Cardinals | 10.2 WAR | .989 fielding % in center field
TOP 100 SCORE: 2.45