Cardinals quirkiness: the hitters

One of an occasional series on our favorite—if sometimes obscure—ballplayers.

Catcher: Tom Pagnozzi

Want to know what the best way is to be considered “quirky”? Play on a team that stinks. Okay, the Tom Pagnozzi-era Cardinals weren’t that bad, but they had limited success. Pagnozzi’s first taste of the majors was 53 plate appearances on the 1987 team that went to the World Series, and he was the primary catcher in 1996 when the Redbirds advanced to the NLCS. In between, however, there were few highlights.

Besides 1996, the only years Pagnozzi received more than 300 at-bats were 1991-93, when the team won 84, 83 and 87 games, respectively, and missed out on the playoffs every season. It’s difficult to fault Pagnozzi for coming up short. His offense was far from stellar, but OPS+ marks of 89, 86 and 80 are acceptable for a Gold Glove-winning backstop, as Pagnozzi was in ’91, ’92 and ’94. A team can work with that level of talent.

Unfortunately, these just weren’t great years for St. Louis, as the franchise wrapped up the Whitey Herzog managerial era and welcomed the Joe Torre one. Pagnozzi was a constant presence during this transition, along with Ozzie Smith, but the remaining cast of characters—some of whom you’ll read more about below—wasn’t enough to propel the Cardinals to October glory.

Pagnozzi’s entire 12-year career was spent in St. Louis, where he finished with a .253 batting average, 44 career homers, an on-base percentage a point under .300, an 80 OPS+ and 6.5 bWAR. He made nearly $16 million for his efforts, so I’m sure he’s satisfied with the results.

Tom’s nephew, Matt, had a sip, and then a cup, of coffee with the Redbirds in ’09 and ’10 before splitting a little time with the Rockies and Pirates last season. Unless Matt breaks out, Tom is likely to remain the greatest Pagnozzi catcher in major league history.

First base: Mike Laga

One of my favorite baseball trivia questions is this: Who is the only player ever to hit a ball out of Busch Stadium? Mark McGwire is a popular answer, as are visiting players such as Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds—the obvious big thumpers of the last 25 years. However, the answer is actually Mike Laga. On Sept. 15, 1986, this Cardinals short-term first sacker ripped a foul ball through one of the stadium’s arches and out onto the street.

People have searched for remaining video evidence and at one point found it, but for some reason (probably MLBAM being totally anal), those videos are no longer available. I definitely remember watching this highlight (probably on The George Michael Sports Machine—no, not that George Michael), though my comments below about my memory may leave you skeptical. Trust me, it happened.

Alas, that’s about the biggest blow Laga ever struck. He had only six homers (and a .209 batting average) in that ’86 campaign, but it was his career high for a season, and he recorded only 10 more blasts the rest of his career.

Over nine partial seasons, Laga compiled the equivalent of about two-thirds of a season worth of plate appearances, finishing with a sub-Mendoza Line batting mark of .199 with a .241 on-base percentage and .355 slugging percentage that resulted in a 63 OPS+, not quite what teams are looking for from a first baseman.

He may not have a place among baseball’s immortals in Cooperstown, but Laga will be immortalized because of one spectacular foul ball.

Second base: Luis Alicea and Geronimo Pena

I can never think of Luis Alicea without also thinking of Geronimo Pena, and vice versa. These two second sackers formed a rather odd platoon for the early ’90s Redbirds. Both were switch-hitters, so a strict righty-lefty platoon wasn’t in order. And neither played much at other positions, so it truly was an exclusive second-base job-sharing arrangement.

Alicea tended to earn the bulk of the playing time, posting mediocre triple-slash numbers all the while, finishing his career at .260/.346/.369, which yielded an OPS+ of 88, an acceptable number for a middle infielder 20 years ago.

He was never flashy, but he was often present, which makes Alicea a fairly good representative of the early-’90s Cardinals, teams that seemed to go through the motions year after year while I diligently kept track of their lowly place in the standings on a daily basis.

Actually, the reason Alicea earned the bulk of the starts at the keystone during that time is that Pena was busy inspiring M. Night Shyamalan’s character, Mr. Glass, in Unbreakable. If there’s one thing Pena excelled at, it was niggling, nagging injuries. Think of a body part a baseball player is likely to injure, and Pena probably hurt it at least once during his career.

When he played, Pena demonstrated better power than Alicea, posting a career line of .262/.345/.427 that yielded a 110 OPS+. His Range Factor was right in line with his teammate, too, so one would think those 58 points of slugging would have earned Pena a greater share of playing time. And if he had been healthier, he probably would have. Alas, it was not to be.

Shortstop: Royce Clayton

I have always disliked Royce Clayton, and it’s not even his fault. No, it’s Tony La Russa‘s fault, but Clayton manifested La Russa’s “genius,” and I held it against him.

The 1996 season was La Russa’s and Clayton’s first with the Cardinals. It also was Ozzie Smith’s final season, and you won’t find a bigger fan of The Wizard than yours truly. I dragged my wife to St. Louis for Ozzie’s retirement ceremonies the final weekend of that season. I dragged my wife and our two daughters—a two-year-old and a seven-month-old—to Cooperstown for his Hall of Fame induction. Yes, I’m a fan.

Which explains why I’m not a fan of Clayton, and why I’ve had a distaste for La Russa all of these years, in spite of the many successes the Cardinals’ recently retired manager garnered.

La Russa had decided Smith’s days were all but over, and he supplanted Ozzie with Clayton the bulk of the season. Smith essentially started one game a series, sort of a token way for fans to see the greatest defensive shortstop in the history of the game one last time before the backflipping marvel set down his glove for good.

The irony is that Ozzie posted better batting marks on the year. Smith finished at .282/.358/.370 (OPS+ of 93), while Clayton achieved .277/.321/.371 totals (OPS+ of 83). Everyone could see that Ozzie was still the better player—everyone, that is, but the manager.

Again, none of this was Clayton’s fault; he did his job dutifully. And La Russa probably deserves some credit for leading the team to a division title in his inaugural campaign in St. Louis. Clayton again received his typical two-thirds of the playing time in the postseason, where he did well, batting .346 to Ozzie’s .083 (1-for-12) mark.

In digging up the numbers, I realized things worked out better than I had thought. Maybe La Russa was right, resting a 41-year-old shortstop the bulk of the time while also allowing fans to witness his wizardry and say goodbye and thank you. Maybe. But when your favorite player is told by the smug new boss to take a seat, you don’t take kindly to that.

Third base: Scott Spiezio

Was Scott Spiezio really a third baseman? Well, he made appearances at the hot corner in 11 of his 12 seasons, more years than at any other spot, though he had more appearances at both first base and second base. But the purpose of this article is to tell some stories, so I’m taking a few liberties.

And the story of Spiezio is an interesting one. The son of Ed Spiezio—a third baseman-outfielder for the Cardinals, Padres and White Sox over a nine-year career—Scott grew up playing ball in Morris, Ill. This factoid is significant only because that’s my hometown, too, and I played ball with Spiezio in junior high—one of my more significant brushes with greatness.

Spiezio was drafted by the A’s, won a World Series with the Angels—starting a late Game Six rally with a three-run homer in the seventh inning—and inked his biggest free-agent contract with the Mariners.

While his baseball career was blossoming, Spiezio had an interesting side job as well. He was in the band Sandfrog, formed with some high school buddies, and clips of their music were played often during Angels games. The band never gained commercial success, but this venture gained Spiezio some additional notoriety beyond his performance on the field.

Though his 2002 World Series homer earned him some renown, and his musical aspirations added to his Q score, Spiezio really became a household name—however briefly—with the Cardinals.

What made him so well known? It was his soul patch, that bit of hair directly below the lower lip that some men grow out. Well, Spiezio not only grew it out, he dyed it a bright Cardinals red. It was enough of a hook that at each game, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Busch Stadium fans—including women and children—could be seen sporting stick-on replicas of Spiezio’s red soul patch throughout the ’06 and ’07 seasons.

Spiezio didn’t produce the same postseason heroics with the ’06 Cardinals that he did with the Angels four years prior, but he was part of another World Series champion that fall. And he created a trademark look that endeared him to the St. Louis faithful. Spiezio returned for another part-time job with St. Louis in 2007, but that was his final year in the majors. Still, retiring from the game as a two-time champion sounds like a pretty good way to end a career.

Left field: Tito Landrum

Tito Landrum’s greatest claim to fame, at least as a Cardinal, is that he filled in for Vince Coleman in the 1985 National League Championship Series after Coleman’s leg was injured by Busch Stadium’s automatic tarp machine prior to Game Four. (That calamity sure sucked as a 14th birthday present for me.)

Landrum acquitted himself well during the rest of the playoffs, batting .385 with a home run, five RBI and five runs scored as St. Louis advanced to the World Series but lost to Kansas City in seven games.

I have two enduring images of Landrum burned into my brain, though their veracity is questionable. The first is of Landrum ducking instead of sliding as he approached home plate, which led to him being tagged out by the catcher when a slide would have scored him. My memory told me this event occurred during those ’85 playoffs, but a search of the game logs gave no indication of Landrum being thrown out at home.

My best guess is that it happened earlier that fall as the Redbirds battled for a postseason berth, because I am positive I was mighty ticked at Landrum for taking the lazy approach to scoring and costing his team a run.

The second image was from a family trip to St. Louis during Landrum’s tenure in the Gateway City. While strolling near the ballpark with my family, I spotted a car with a license plate that read TITO 21. (Landrum’s jersey number was 21.) I have no idea if it was Landrum behind the wheel or just a big fan, but why anyone would have a vanity plate dedicated to a player with fewer than 1,000 career at-bats and an 84 OPS+ is beyond me.

Center field: Ray Lankford

The Cardinals have had some impressive center fielders over the last 50 years. In the 1960s, Curt Flood provided seven seasons of Gold Glove defense and made three All-Star teams, not to mention his impact on free agency. The ’70s? Um, let’s just say Jose Cruz manned center field for a few seasons and move on.

The ’80s had Willie McGee, who won an MVP award, played in three World Series, made four All-Star teams, received three Gold Gloves and earned two batting NL batting titles. (The second as a member of the Oakland A’s. It’s true. You can look it up.) The 2000s gave us Jim Edmonds, an eight-time Gold Glove winner and four-time All-Star who somehow seems underrated. He’s a player who should—but probably won’t—receive serious Hall of Fame consideration.

In between McGee and Edmonds was Ray Lankford. Lankford didn’t have “Sleepy” McGee’s batting average or Edmonds’ deadly combination of power and leather, but Lankford was a very solid all-around ballplayer. He came out of the gate to finish third in the 1990 Rookie of the Year balloting, leading the league with 15 triples and swiping 44 bags.

As he moved into his late 20s, Lankford’s power and patience improved while his speed game yo-yo’ed, as he swiped 42 bases in 1992, 11 in 1994 and 35 in 1996. His offensive performance peaked in the 1997-98 seasons, as he batted over .290 both times with 31 homers each year, on-base percentages of .411 and 391, respectively, and slugging marks of .585 and .540, good for OPS+ numbers of 159 and 143 and rWARs of 5.5 and 5.9.

Lankford provided value in an entirely different way in 2001, as he was traded to San Diego on Aug. 2 in return for Woody Williams, who provided the Cards with 11 brilliant starts down the stretch to help propel them to the postseason and stuck around another three years, delivering generally solid performances. And Lankford returned, too, joining Williams on the roster in 2004 in what turned out to be Williams’ last season in a St. Louis uniform and Lankford’s final year, period.

My favorite memory of Lankford was a 1997 game in Cincinnati in which he launched two tape-measure shots down the right-field line, each ball sailing in a majestic arc well into the upper deck—the old “red seats” at Riverfront Stadium. He became the first player ever to hit two such blasts in one game in Cincinnati—and I’m sure I was there to see it.

Right field: Mark Whiten

Mark Whiten makes this list based on a single game—but what a game it was.

On Sept. 7, 1993, Whiten played in the first game of a doubleheader in Cincinnati, a 14-13 slugfest won by the Reds on a two-run triple by Reggie Sanders in the bottom of the ninth. Whiten went 0-for-4 with a walk, run and RBI. Obviously, this isn’t the game I’m talking about.

Coming out for the nightcap, St. Louis jumped ahead, 4-0, in the first thanks to a Whiten grand slam. After Cincy responded with a pair of runs in the bottom of the frame, the score remained 4-2 until the Redbirds scratched across a run in the fifth. It wasn’t until the sixth inning that things really got fun.

Whiten came up in the sixth with two men on following consecutive walks. He proceeded to rope another shot over the fence. Returning to the dish in the seventh, Whiten again smashed a three-run homer. And to top off the evening, he stroked a two-run blast in the ninth inning of this 15-2 blowout. (Come to think of it, this reminds me of Albert Pujols‘ late-game performance in Game Three of this year’s World Series.)

Once all the accounting was done, Whiten had four home runs and 12 RBI in the game, 13 RBI on the day. The single-game RBI total tied the record held by fellow Cardinal “Sunny” Jim Bottomley, and the day’s total equaled Nate Colbert‘s mark.

I was in Cincinnati at the time interviewing for my first real job, and I was able to go to Riverfront on my trip—the day after Whiten’s fireworks. Well, at least I got the job.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com, BaseballLibrary.com, Deadspin.com

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Comments

  1. Paul E said...

    Whiten’s career was strange….SOMEBODY should have just let him bat 7th, gave him 650 PA’s and see what happened. With those tools, he probably would have developed into a 30HR / 80BB / .270 BA

    I remember the Phillies giving up on him..and then he went on and hit like .265 with 25 hr’s. in Seattle or somewhere

  2. douglas h said...

    Of course, every team has a list that looks a bit like this one. Nick Esasky and Paul Householder still leave and breath as the ghost of the 1984 Reds……Vern Rapp’s biggest source of stress.

  3. Greg Simons said...

    I don’t think we’ve had a Reds list yet, Doug.  However, we added a Reds fan to the staff recently, so maybe he’ll put together one.  Or perhaps you’d like to submit a guest article…

  4. Todd said...

    Spiezio had a huge game in the back-and-forth contest in game 2 of the NLCS in ‘06. I think that qualifies for postseason heroics.

  5. Atom said...

    The best Ray Lankford moment had to be this:http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SLN/SLN199104210.shtml

    In the bottom of the 9th inning, tie game. Lankford walks and steals second.  A couple of batters later, a ball is hit to the first baseman.  He throws and gets a force at second, *and Lankford takes off for home*.  The throw beat him to the plate easily…no problem.  Lankford bowled over Darren Daulton, knocking the ball lose.  He picked himself up and stomped on the plate like a gladiator stomping on the chest of a defeated pennant.  Cardinals win 7-6.

    Favorite memory #2 would be Lankford robbing a home run and then hitting one the same inning sometime in 2000.

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