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New doc on '80s Cards is as fun as they were

@williamfleitch
January 27, 2020

The first baseball team you follow as a kid, the first one you truly dedicate yourself to obsessing over every day for six months of the year, can set the tone for the rest of your baseball fandom moving forward. Baseball just means more to you when you’re a kid:

The first baseball team you follow as a kid, the first one you truly dedicate yourself to obsessing over every day for six months of the year, can set the tone for the rest of your baseball fandom moving forward. Baseball just means more to you when you’re a kid: Every pitch seems like the most important pitch ever thrown, every win is glorious, every loss is tragic, all the players are 15 feet tall. You can never quite recreate the rush of that first team you truly love, that first time you feel so connected to it, to its fans, to its ebbs and flows, to something larger than yourself. It sticks with you forever.

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The first year I ever watched baseball was 1982. I was 7 years old. My father, an electrician who had previously struggled to understand his bookish, already-sorta-nerdy son, out of desperation took him to Busch Stadium in St. Louis on a hot May afternoon. After complaining about the heat and whining about wanting another hot dog, I actually sat and watched the game and the team we were there to see. And it was electrifying. Players were stealing bases all over the place, diving for ground balls, leaping over runners to turn double plays, sprinting out triples in the game. There was a player named Willie (that was almost my name!), and one named Lonnie, and then there was of course the Wizard -- "The Wizard of Oz," I’d seen that movie -- and he played baseball like he had pogo sticks in his shoes and he ran onto the field by doing a back flip and he smiled and waved and 50,000 people roared and this was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. It would have been impossible to resist. I was hooked for life.

Birds of a Different Game: Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET/7 CT, MLB Network

If you had to pick your first-ever baseball team to fall in love with, you really couldn’t do much better than the 1980s St. Louis Cardinals, who are the subject of the fun new documentary “Birds of a Different Game: The '80s Cardinals,” which debuts on MLB Network at 8 p.m. ET/7 CT on Tuesday. They were charismatic, with big personalities like Ozzie Smith and Keith Hernandez and Vince Coleman and Jack Clark. They were led by a crusty old coot named Whitey Herzog, who took over the team -- serving as manager and general manager for two years -- and immediately revamped it, pulling off a series of trades in one long weekend that would make Jerry Dipoto blush. (Herzog is 88 years old and is featured prominently in the documentary, just as ornery and brash today as he was 40 years ago.)

The Cardinals were unlike any team we’ve seen in baseball since, regularly finishing at the bottom of the league in home runs but still reaching three World Series and winning one. They were exhilarating and impossible to take your eyes off of. It’s no wonder I’m addicted to baseball still today. With this as your first team, who wouldn’t be?

The documentary features many of the key figures from those teams, from Herzog to Ozzie to Hernandez to Andy Van Slyke to Terry Pendleton to Tom Herr, who had 110 RBIs for the 1985 team despite hitting only eight homers and who looks like he could go out and play today. (The notable exception is Willie McGee, who still coaches for the Cardinals but is a bit camera-shy. Several key players have passed on in that time as well, like Bob Forsch, Joaquin Andujar and Darrell Porter.) Narrated by John Goodman -- and featuring a funny, deeply informed Jon Hamm, whose passion for those teams is infectious -- the documentary covers the three seasons the Cardinals made the World Series that decade, 1982, '85 and '87. The first half is about Herzog’s construction of the team and that '82 World Series, against Harvey Kuenn’s Milwaukee Brewers, a team built around Robin Yount and Paul Molitor and featuring three players -- Rollie Fingers, Ted Simmons and Pete Vuckovich -- that Herzog himself had traded to them (for a prospect, David Green, who never panned out). That series was an incredible one, a seven-game nail-biter that featured a Game 7 Cardinals comeback, led by Porter, who had been Simmons’ replacement in St. Louis and had suffered in comparison until winning the World Series MVP. (Porter was my favorite player growing up, and the documentary gives him his overdue credit for being a primary reason the Cardinals won that Series without delving into his tragic end.)

The second half looks at the 1985 and 1987 seasons, the emergence of Coleman (and the insane story of the automatic tarp injury that kept him out of the 1985 Fall Classic), the legendary Ozzie home run in the '85 National League Championship Series (and Jack Buck’s immortal “Go Crazy Folks!” call), the terrible Don Denkinger call that cost them the World Series that year, Ozzie’s incredible '87 season that should have won him the MVP and the Metrodome’s mammoth noise in that World Series. The movie hits all the bases.

But while the story will be familiar to any Cardinals fan who followed those teams, the documentary still features great little tidbits and footage that many would have thought were lost. I’d never seen the infamous moment when Garry Templeton gave an obscene gesture to Cardinals fans booing him, leading to Herzog yanking him off the field and ultimately trading him to San Diego ... for Ozzie Smith. Backup catcher Glenn Brummer’s ludicrous walk-off steal of home in August 1982 is here. Andujar, in particular, features prominently, an outsized character who was an incredible pitcher for the Cardinals but whose personality shines brightest; it’s clear how much the rest of the team loved him.

The movie is a pleasant trip down memory lane, bathed in nostalgia and warm feelings, and it’s also remarkable just how different baseball looked then: The Cardinals stole 314 bases in 1985 and hit only 87 home runs … and they won 101 games! It’s far from clear if such strategies would work today -- it seems impossible, actually -- but it’s a gas to watch those long-retired players consider the possibility. It’s clear they had as much fun playing that way as we did watching them.

And if you were around to watch these moments when they happened, the documentary is like watching a newsreel scroll of your own childhood. It was almost overwhelming to see all those players again -- John Tudor, Steve Braun, George Hendrick, Dave LaPoint and John Stuper (who threw a complete game in Game 6 of the 1982 World Series, a game that finished 13-1 and featured two rain delays of two and a half hours, in case you needed another reminder of how much baseball has changed).

This team is as locked in my memory as the 2019 Cardinals are. I thought about that team often while watching the documentary, not for my own sake, but for my son’s. My son, William, is 8 years old, and the '19 Cardinals were the first team he followed on a daily basis, one he checked “Quick Pitch” every morning to see if they won, one he saw in person in the NL Division Series in Atlanta, one he stayed up late to watch deep into October. He’s just a little bit older than I was with that 1982 team. You could see it happen with him, the way my father must have seen it happen with me: You could see him get hooked. He’ll remember that team in 35 years the way I remember that '82 team now. That’s what baseball does. It just takes one team to grab you. It then never lets go.