The St. Louis Cardinals, first in the National League East, are so well-balanced that some people might figure they don't even need a bench manager -- that once the lineup card is handed to the home plate umpire they simply switch to automatic pilot. Yet St. Louis may in fact have the best helmsman in baseball in Whitey Herzog, whose influence extends well beyond the playing field. Herzog's judgment this season on when to change pitchers; when to shade his infield defensively; and which of his pinch-hitters is just right for certain situations, has been practically infallible. If you didn't know that Whitey once bought a new Edsel, you'd be tempted to mark all A's on his report card.
``Herzog,'' says Manager Gene Mauch of the American League's California Angels, ``is better at assembling the parts of a winning team than anyone in baseball. With the kind of pitching staff, bullpen, team speed, and outstanding depth that the Cardinals have, Whitey can beat you in half a dozen different ways. In fact, St. Louis may be the best team in baseball at coming from behind in the late innings and stealing a game that the opposition thought it had won.''
While such praise might seem odd coming from someone whose connection with the National League is mostly what he reads in the papers, Mauch managed against Herzog for four years (1976-79) in the American League. During that stretch, Whitey's Kansas City Royals finished first three times in the AL West and second once.
Herzog, who for a while also served as the Cardinals' general manager, has either initiated or suggested several trades over the last few years that now look like steals.
For example, outfielder Willie McGee, who has this year's National League batting title wrapped up in a puncture-proof bag, once belonged to the Yankees. When New York failed to protect him after the 1981 season, however, the Cardinals grabbed him in a minor league deal for a player whose name most fans can't remember.
Veteran left-hander John Tudor, barely a .500-plus pitcher last year with Pittsburgh and before that with Boston, is a 20-game winner for the first time in his career. Once again, Herzog saw something others didn't.
Whitey also took a chance with San Francisco's temperamental Jack Clark last winter and saw him become the Cardinals' starting first baseman and cleanup hitter. That is, until Clark went on the disabled list in late August. At that point, Herzog got a replacement by dealing with the Reds for veteran slugger Cesar Cedeno.
Actually, that ``slugger'' part bordered on wishful thinking because Cedeno had reached double figures in home runs only once in the past four years. But once Cesar put on a Cardinal uniform, he suddenly muscled five balls out of the park in 19 days.
St. Louis may also have the 1985 NL Rookie of the Year in outfielder Vince Coleman, who passed the 100 mark in stolen bases more than two weeks ago.
OK, so Herzog isn't Pete Rose, a playing manager who can still hit in the clutch at age 44. But in the trading market, Pete, and nearly everyone else in baseball, could take lessons from Herzog in the art of exchanging costume jewelry for Tiffany diamonds.
Carlton Fisk, a pull hitter whose American League-leading 37 home runs this year are a career high, was asked what might have happened if the Red Sox hadn't allowed him to become a free agent in 1981 -- in other words, if he had continued playing half his games in Fenway Park, with its famed ``Green Monster'' left field wall just 315 feet down the line. Replied Fisk: ``All I can do is speculate. You never know, of course. But if my swing had been grooved in Boston the way it's been this year with Chicago, I have to think I would have put some long-ball numbers on the board that would have equalled Jim Rice's best power years with the Red Sox.''
Fisk, at 37, is trying to become the first catcher ever to lead the American League in home runs.
It's a fact that managers worry more about winning the playoffs than the World Series. Why is this true? Because just getting into the Series is its own reward, but making it to the playoffs doesn't have that same ring -- and no team wants to finish first in a 162-game season and then miss the final rung via a best-of-seven series. Actually the tension used to be greater; from their inception in 1969 through 1984, the playoffs were only best-of-five affairs. This year, however, baseball is switching to a World Series-like best-of-seven format for the playoffs as well, thus giving the stronger overall team a better chance to come back if it falls behind.
Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver, whose Orioles are onlookers this year but have made the playoffs many times in the past, approves of the change. ``Best-of-five was never very fair, because the better team, if it had some breaks go against it early and fell behind two games to none, almost never had enough time to recover,'' he says. ``Now, if the trailing team gets good pitching the rest of the way, it still has a chance to win.''
The Pittsburgh Pirates, taking on water and up for sale in the marketplace, are not that far from turning things around, according to Manager Chuck Tanner. ``Nobody has to tell me our record isn't good and that we're in last place,'' Tanner said. ``But because of some of our new kids [he was referring particularly to shortstop Sam Khalifa and outfielder Mike Brown] we've got a future. When you don't have enough money to buy free agents, you're forced to bring up some of your best minor leaguers a little early, and that's what has happened to us. But at least our kids are getting big league experience. In fact, we work hard with them every day.''
The Associated Press, in a recent series, claimed that at least one-third of major league baseball's 26 teams are in trouble financially. Biggest problem? Salaries, plus the deferred payments that are due 102 current and former players through the year 1996. The No. 1 benefactor in this category is probably veteran pitcher Rick Reuschel of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who will still be drawing a salary in the year 2030, when he's 81.