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.
"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.