Los Angeles — If anyone can explain what makes a defending champion like the St. Louis Cardinals go from peerage to steerage in just one season, he would probably be offered a contract similar to Dave Winfield's 10-year deal with the New York Yankees.
Of course the Cardinals haven't really been that bad. And despite playing like a .500 ballclub, they're still in contention - largely because nobody else in their division has been much better. But they certainly haven't looked anything like the team that rolled to a 92-70 record a year ago, swept Atlanta in the playoffs, and defeated Milwaukee in the World Series.
Although Manager Whitey Herzog won't buy any of the following reasons for the team's slump, except the spotty pitching explanation, certain facts do exist.
St. Louis lost 13 of 19 games recently when outfielder Lonnie Smith, last year's MVP runnerup to Atlanta's Dale Murphy, took himself out of the lineup for almost three weeks while he went to a drug rehabilitation center.
Herzog was unable to rest shortstop Ozzie Smith occasionally, the way he usually does, because second baseman Tommy Herr was injured and Mike Ramsey (Smith's replacement) had to fill in for Herr.
For nearly a month, because of injuries, the Cardinals have been without the solid bat of reserve outfielder Dane Iorg, who is an expert at coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter and driving in runs.
And the once-proud pitching staff, meaning both starters and bullpen, has sunk to the point where only two teams in the entire National League (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) rank behind it. Herzog, in fact, became so concerned about his mound corps that a few weeks ago he traded former NL MVP first baseman Keith Hernandez to the New York Mets for relief pitcher Neil Allen, whom Whitey has since turned into a successful starter.
''Except for our pitching, which hasn't been too good, I don't think we can alibi about any of those other things,'' Herzog told me during last week's Los Angeles-St. Louis series at Dodger Stadium. ''What happened to Lonnie Smith is like an illness. What happened to Herr and Iorg were unfortunate injuries, but the kind of problem that all big league teams have to learn to live with. Still it's not September yet, it's only July, so we have plenty of time to come back.''
Shortshop Ozzie Smith, who has the ability to field ice cubes and not make an error, has his own theory about the Cardinals' slump.
''Baseball is a peculiar game,'' Ozzie explained. ''The breaks you get one year, you don't get the next. So far we haven't played with the same consistency that we did in 1982, and that's probably the chief reason we haven't done as well. But we also haven't hit and run as much, won as many games on the road, or gotten the good pitching that we had last year.
''Fortunately we're still in the race,'' Smith continued. ''There is still plenty of time for us to come back - time for our pitchers to get things turned around. There is no feeling of blame on this club because everybody is hustling. But I think there might be some frustration.''
Smith, who is generally considered as the best defensive shortstop in either league but who was hitting under .200 at the time of his selection to the All-Star squad, does not consider himself a liability at the plate.
''Like everyone else, I'm conscious of all the statistics that are a part of baseball,'' Ozzie said. ''A player can hit .300, and have almost no runs-batted-in, and somebody is going to call him a great hitter, but that doesn't make him a great hitter in my book.
''I've never thought of myself as a poor hitter,'' he continued. ''I'm aggressive, I swing at good pitches, I don't strike out very often, and I get a lot of walks. If I were stronger - you know, a home run threat - the outfielders wouldn't move in as much against me and I'd get the fall-in hits that most outfielders playing deep can't come up fast enough to catch. But as long as I give hitting everything I've got, I feel I can go home after a game and not feel sorry for myself.''
Getting back to the Cardinals' subpar overall performance so far, former manager and current coach Red Schoendienst claims that the difference between this year and last, aside from spotty pitching, has been the club's inability to hit in the clutch.
''We're got some good hitters on this team with good averages, only too often this season they've come up with runners on second and third base, with two men out, and left them there,'' Schoendienst said. ''There is nothing you can do about a situation like that except wait while it straightens itself out, only sometimes it lasts a whole season. If that happens to us, we're not going to make the playoffs. But I prefer to think that in the second half of the season, we'll perform the way we were supposed to play in the first half.''