With nothing happening on the free agent market, it seems all that is on the minds of St. Louis Cardinals fans these days is who to choose from the candidates for the 2018 class of the team’s hall of fame.
The sentimental favorite this year seems to be Ray Lankford who ranks high in many Cardinals career statistical categories. He hit .273 with St. Louis, stole 250 bases and hit 238 home runs over 13 seasons. Of his 1,701 career games, 1,580 of them came while wearing the Birds on the Bat. He was so highly thought of that, after he was traded in 2001 for pitching help, he was invited back for a victory lap in 2004. Lankford, although he played a few games with the San Diego Padres, was a Redbird through-and-through. He was the best player on the team through some lean years in the early 1990s and was a pillar of the team later in the decade when Mark McGwire was getting all the headlines because of his pursuit of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
The other choices, for a variety of reasons, are less certain.
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If you put the names in front of me and I had to look up the records of the players in contention, I’d guess that first baseman Keith Hernandez would probably be the obvious choice for the other selection. But I can’t rely only on those numbers because baseball is about passion as much as it is about hitting or catching a ball.
When we’re talking about the Cardinals Hall of Fame, we’re talking about the players we want to represent the culture and tradition of the team. Hernandez was a great player. But is he emblematic of what we consider to be the cream of the St. Louis crop?
When I was a little kid, about the same age my son is now, Hernandez was my favorite Cardinals player. He seemed to be the personality of a lot of those late 1970s and early 1980s teams when the Lou Brock and Ted Simmons era was coming to a close and the Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee era was just beginning. Those were some dark days in St. Louis baseball history. The Cardinals hadn’t been in a World Series for a decade and a half. Busch Stadium was frequently host to embarrassingly small crowds and there wasn’t a lot to cheer about. When Hernandez won the co-MVP Award, splitting it with Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979, it was one of the most noteworthy things that happened in St. Louis baseball for some time. Only Lou Brock’s establishment of the all-time stolen base record that season compared.
Hernandez played 10 of his 16-plus years in major league baseball here. And I was thrilled to see it — but I also can’t get past the fact that it should have been something considerably more. Because of his actions, a guy who should have been a Cardinals legend for life ended up playing for the team’s most bitter enemy after he forced the home team to trade him for what little it could get.
For those too young to remember, it created a terrible stir in the summer of 1983 when Whitey Herzog, who then called the shots both on and off the field for St. Louis, shipped the beloved first baseman to the lowly New York Mets for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. Cardinals fans were ready to run the White Rat out of town at the point of pitchforks over the shocking trade. He must have lost his mind to make such a lopsided deal, people said at the time. But it wasn’t a trade designed to acquire talent. As few knew at the time, Herzog had to get rid of Hernandez because he was clubhouse poison. Not only was it discovered that Hernandez had a nasty drug problem, using massive amounts of cocaine to the point that it affected his ability to play baseball, but he also was about to become ensnared in a drug trial in which he named other players that he’d been involved with in deals to acquire drugs. It’s no wonder Whitey had to get rid of him — and fast.
As great as Hernandez was, I can’t get past the fact that he probably should have been better had he spent more time concerning himself with his profession and less time being a party animal. How great might the Cardinals of the mid 1980s have been with Hernandez still in the mix playing Gold Glove defense? It’s hard to say. But what we do know is that he became a central figure of the “pond scum” Mets of the same period, fighting against St. Louis instead of for it when it came to the pursuit of baseball championships. With the Mets, Hernandez was a choir boy compared to the exploits of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. But he still seemed to relish joining the enemy as opposed to being contrite over the circumstances.
While the Cardinals were left to deal with the talent drain forced upon them by Hernandez, he went to New York and seized the opportunity to be a star in the big city. What did he care about the mess he left in St. Louis when he was playing in the Big Apple and appearing on Seinfeld?
Despite the fact that he played the majority of his career here, I haven’t seen Hernandez around Busch Stadium much the past 20 years. I think, because of his actions, that he’s remembered more as a member of the Mets than as a member of the Cardinals. And that’s fine. But I just don’t see how you can put a guy like that in the Cardinals Hall of Fame. No matter how much I admired him when he played here. Garry Templeton was a great Redbirds player. But I don’t expect to see him on the ballot any time soon. I think Hernandez, maybe a little more quietly, made the same bed for himself.
I’d like to see Hernandez come back into the Cardinals fold. But I think he ought to come clean about the circumstances of his departure and apologize to the people who supported him so well for the first 10 years of his career. Somehow, I don’t see that happening. But I think if it did, I’d feel a lot better about his worthiness to be in the Redbirds hall of fame.
My other vote goes to...
Although he had an unfortunate exit from the Cardinals because of his personality clash with then manager Tony La Russa, I think my choice will be Rolen.
Although he also played for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Cincinnati Reds, I believe Rolen had his best days in a Cardinals uniform — and the team wouldn’t have won the 2006 World Series without him. True, Rolen demanded a trade and was somewhat disloyal to the organization that gave him so much. But at least it was because he was so competitive, not because he was a drug fiend.
Next on my list would be Tudor who had one of the most incredible tenures in Redbirds history — although it was far too brief. He was the best pitcher in baseball in 1985, I don’t care what the Cy Young voters said. Isringhausen is a guy who ought to get into the Cardinals hall of fame someday. But he’s unlikely to climb over Rolen and Tudor to do it.
Smith was pretty good. But he spent more time with the Chicago Cubs than the Cardinals and he’s more their guy than ours. Besides, how can you put Smith in the Cardinals hall ahead of Izzy, the all-time St. Louis save leader? Coleman was incredible in his base stealing abilities. But I think he falls a bit short because of his poor batting average for a leadoff man and short time in St. Louis.