Whitey Herzog does not regret much. His is an almost idyllic existence now: He spends his mornings watching the sun rise over fishing ponds, and spends his evenings bidding farewell to the sun as it sets over the golf course.
Now that the man's retired, it's almost impossible to get hold of him. Interviews must be set up during the few moments he comes home and trades in his fishing rod for a golf club. But things have been this way for decades, even when Herzog was managing the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series during the 1980s. The man is a happy slave to a bucolic routine, at ease being at ease.
Maybe that's why there are few men more affable than Whitey Herzog, few men more giddy at the prospect of talking about the game. Sixty-seven-year-old Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog--bats left, throws left, lifetime batting average of .257--has been around baseball ever since the St. Louis Browns played near his hometown of New Athens, Illinois. He has held every position in the game, from player to scout to manager to coach to general manager. He created a form of speed-over-power baseball--no homers, lots of singles and stolen bases--that fans lovingly referred to as "Whiteyball." He played for the best of them, New York Yankee Casey Stengel, and managed the worst of them, the Texas Rangers.
He knows more about the game than just about anyone, and is happy to remind you. When you do finally reach him at home, his voice sounds like a smile, a cold beer, and a flattop. And he still lives up to his reputation as a sportswriter's best friend, offering up keeper quotes the way Rangers pitchers offer up run-producing hits.
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"Baseball," The White Rat likes to say, "was very good to me after I quit trying to play it." Or, on the subject of the state of major-league pitching: "Shit, I've seen pitchers throw a goddamned fastball down the middle to Mark McGwire with two outs in the first inning and nobody on. Why would you do that? A base on balls is not as bad as a home run." Or, when asked about succeeding Ted Williams as manager of the Texas Rangers in 1972: "Ted Williams couldn't manage a meat market."
No wonder columnist Thomas Boswell once wrote of Herzog: "He seems to have a better time than everybody else." That's because he doesn't care what you think about him. Never has. Maybe that's why, during his first press conference in Arlington 27 years ago, Herzog said of his team: "This is the worst excuse for a big-league ball club I ever saw." He wasn't a liar.
That's why Whitey Herzog can write a book titled You're Missin' a Great Game, then spend the better part of 300 pages telling the reader why the game ain't what it used to be. That's why a man who hasn't managed a game since July 1990--when he resigned from the Cardinals out of frustration, sick to death of watching his team quit on him--writes a book nine years later lamenting all that's wrong with the game (i.e., owners, agents, players, and, well, fans) while proposing myriad rule changes, one of which is having the World Series on a neutral field (Good Lord). That's why Roger Maris' old pal can insist that last year's home-run chase was nothing but a Band-Aid on the bleeding wound that is professional baseball.
The White Rat adores baseball enough to hate it right now. His is the acrimony of a jilted lover.
"I have turned off a lot of games," he says. "That's one of the advantages I have right now. I'm a fan, and I try to tune in and watch the games. I tore my Achilles tendon two years ago, and I was watching as many as four games a day. But I turn a lot of them off too. I get upset at times: the long counts, the bases on balls, three-run leads and two walks, shit like that. To me, that's poor major-league baseball. If you play baseball at the major-league level and you got a three-run lead, if you make the team you're playing earn what they get, your chances of winning are pretty good. But when you give it to 'em, like happens so many times today, that's what turns me off."
Herzog's complaints are not brand-new. They arise whenever more than two people who care about the game get together over a warm beer and a cold dog to lament what's become of their beloved pastime. Games are too damned long. Pitching ain't what it used to be. Smaller-market teams with nominal payrolls will never be able to compete against franchises willing to spend more than $60 million on dead-armed free agents. The draft doesn't work when players don't have to sign with the team that picked them.
Then you've got players who don't respect the game, don't listen to managers, don't do anything besides fill their bank accounts with wasted potential and empty promises. Oh, yeah. And the home run does nothing but distract fans from the poor quality of the pitching. Interleague play is nothing but a chintzy, meaningless gimmick that strips the World Series of its consequence.
And the list goes on. The game, according to Whitey Herzog, is on the brink of disaster. It will eventually pay for its "long chain of screw-ups." It will go broke, lose its fans forever, disappear like a home-run ball over the left-field wall at Fenway Park...or like Fenway itself, which is due for destruction soon enough.
To see how screwed-up the sport has become, look no further than the Rangers, who have one of the highest payrolls--more than $75 million--and the league's highest earned-run average among its starting rotation, which sits (hell, which stands on its tip-toes) at a breathtaking 7.00 at press time, meaning the Rangers would need to score eight runs a game just to win by one. And the Rangers' starting five--Aaron Sele, Rick Helling, John Burkett, Mike Morgan, and Mark Clark--account for almost $16.5 million of the payroll.
The lot of them ain't worth 54 bucks and a ham, especially when the Oakland A's, with a payroll nearly a third of the Rangers', are only 2.5 games out of first in the American League West--despite a six-game losing streak.
There will come a time when owner Tom Hicks will be forced to either spend $100 million or blow apart the entire franchise. Either way, fans will suffer: Ticket prices will increase once more, or the season will end by April 2.
"You go out in the streets of Dallas and ask someone, 'You a Rangers fan?'" Herzog suggests. "They might say, 'Oh, yeah, I go to 30 games a year.' You ask them, 'I would like for you to name me 30 pitchers in the big leagues,' and I bet they couldn't do it--and there are probably 330, 340 pitchers in the big leagues today. Now, that's saying something. It's hard for most fans today, because when you have pitchers with 5 and 6 ERAs starting on every team..." He pauses, then begins again. "Let's put it this way, I managed 15 years, and I only had one pitcher stay in my rotation with an ERA over 5. Now, every team has at least a couple of guys like that. At least."
Whitey Herzog never forgets a player, never forgets the joy and disappointment of every second spent in pro ball. Ask him, if you dare, about the terrible call that cost his Cards the World Series in 1985. He carries with him not only the baggage of world titles and Manager of the Year awards, but also the sort of dissatisfaction not much written about in mythmaking bios. Whitey's more than just another cranky old-timer set out to pasture; his book is too funny, too true, to be written off as the irascible ramblings of an old coot.
You're Missin' a Great Game, which he insists he wrote during his injury time off, is both tell-all and tell-off. The only thing missing is stories about the old Rangers; that gets a mere two pages among the 300. Perhaps those years are better left buried. Herzog does have one regret, after all--the year he spent under the Arlington sun.
Mention that period to him, and he chuckles slightly, the way a man does when he still can't believe the memory. Herzog's single season (and not even that) with Texas was nothing but one long, sad punch line. His best pitcher at the beginning of the 1973 season was Dick Bosman, the man currently in charge of the Rangers' dead battery of hurlers. During his tenure with Texas, Bosman went 10-15.
That 1973 Rangers team was as talented as any high school team in East Texas. Too bad for Herzog he was fielding his boys in the pros, where only outfielder Jeff Burroughs and shortstop Toby Harrah would go on to have all-star careers.
But by then, Herzog was long gone. He was fired by owner Bob Short on September 7, 1973. Herzog was shocked when Short cut him loose; he was sure things were looking up for his young franchise. He'd gotten rid of his pitching staff two months after the season started. Now, he had on his roster a future 19-game winner named Jim Bibby, who would throw the team's first no-hitter in July, and high school wonder David Clyde, who had not yet traded his fastball for a highball glass.
But Bob Short, a man who lived up to his name, wanted a winning team to fill Arlington Stadium--or, barring that, a few good gimmicks to draw the crowds. That meant giving away pantyhose during one promotion and keeping David Clyde in the starting rotation, even though it would ruin his promising career.
The Rangers went 57-105 in 1973, and Herzog got the blame and the boot. Short, who made all his money in the trucking business, had the best gimmick of all: new manager Billy Martin, just fired from the Detroit Tigers.
"Short bought the Washington Senators and hired Ted Williams thinking he'd draw people," Herzog recalls. "He was always tryin' to make a fast buck. The David Clyde situation, giving away pantyhose--all the shit that he did. David Clyde--it was a fiasco. But Short had no plan when it came to building a club for years to come. One Sunday morning, I was in the dugout, and Short told me Martin had gotten fired and said, 'I'd fire my grandmother to hire Billy Martin,' and I said to myself, 'Uh-oh, granny. Your ass is gone.' I always felt bad about the Texas situation, because I never felt I had been given a fair chance."
After leaving Texas, Herzog landed in Kansas City with his old pal Joe Burke, ex-Rangers GM. There, he managed a young player named George Brett and turned around another struggling franchise. Then he landed with the California Angels, then went to St. Louis, where, in 1982, his Cards won a world championship. Three years later, his team back in the World Series, Herzog garnered Manager of the Year accolades.
His stint with the Rangers? Just a speck of dirt in the rearview mirror. "Texas was the first time I failed," Herzog says, as though embarrassed by what happened 26 years ago. Fortunately for him, Texas would also be the last time he failed.
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