The St. Louis Cardinals, who had Kansas City down three games to one in last year's World Series and then performed the baseball equivalent of inviting the cat into the canary's cage, are still a powerful team. Maybe not powerful in the sense of having a lineup filled with home-run hitters, but a high-powered team when it comes to playing that special brand of baseball known as ``turfball.'' That's the game as it's played on artificial grass, and few if any other managers can match Whitey Herzog at tailoring a club to this kind of field.
One key to success on a synthetic carpet is speed -- both on the basepaths to take advantage of balls that rocket into the gaps between outfielders, and in the field to cut down on the number of such opportunities for the opposition. Infielders with quickness and strong arms also are essential, since the faster artificial surface enables them to play deeper than they would on grass.
In St. Louis, with two industrial vacuum cleaners patrolling the middle of the diamond in the persons of shortstop Ozzie Smith and second baseman Tommy Herr, most ground balls quickly become routine outs.
While first baseman Jack Clark is a converted outfielder more noted for his bat than his glove, this is not a position that requires the ultimate in fielding skills. If a man can catch foul popups near the stands and occasionally dig throws out of the dirt (provided he also hits with power), he can generally avoid unemployment lines.
Third base, where Terry Pendleton appeared in 149 games last season, demands more protection. While Pendleton has always had the necessary tools in the field, and his 69 runs driven in last year were satisfactory, the Cardinals are hoping for more than a .240 batting average in 1986.
Testing the range of the Redbird outfielders is usually an exercise in futility. National League MVP Willie McGee, Rookie-of-the-Year Vince Coleman, and Andy Van Slyke all can fly.
Coleman stole 110 bases last season, McGee 56, and Van Slyke 34. With players like these stretching singles into doubles, it's no wonder St. Louis led the league in runs scored last season.
Pitching is also a traditional key to success on either real or artificial grass. And the Cardinal pitching in 1986, while continuing to be more than adequate, will have a slightly different look. Traded to the Oakland A's during baseball's winter meetings was 21-game winner Joaquin Andujar, who will never be mistaken for Manners the Butler.
It was Andujar, you may remember, who got so upset with the umpires during the World Series. He was so furious they wouldn't give him the low strike that he eventually tried to rearrange the facial features of umpire Don Denkinger. For that, Joaquin drew a fine and a 10-day suspension from the commissioner's office, the suspension to be served at the start of the current season.
Herzog claims that Andujar's behavior had nothing to do with his departure and that he was traded only because the Cards needed a replacement for catcher Darrell Porter, who was released. In return for Andujar, Oakland gave up two catchers: Mike Heath, a seven-year veteran who will work regularly, plus Tim Conroy.
Explained Herzog, whose team won 101 of 162 regular-season games last year: ``Heath was the only proven catcher we could get without disturbing either our infield or our outfield. Anyway, I still feel we have enough team balance, bench strength, and pitching depth to be able to afford the loss of Andujar.''
The pitching depth that Herzog refers to consists of starters John Tudor (21-8), Danny Cox (18-9), Kurt Kepshire (10-9), and Ken Dayley, who is returning to the front-line rotation after a year in the bullpen.
If Kepshire continues to improve and Dayley finds regular work more to his liking, Andujar and his 21 victories shouldn't be missed. But if they don't, all the catching in the world won't get St. Louis another division title.
The bullpen will again be by committee, with no outstanding stopper available, but with enough depth and overall talent to handle any kind of workload.
If you believe in the positive influence of managers, the Cardinals are universally acclaimed to have one of the best in the White Rat, alias Herzog, who has a profile right off a United States Marine poster.
Whitey would appear to be the first modern-day manager to fully comprehend how team speed, plus an exceptional defense in a large ballpark, can turn a good pitching staff into four Walter Johnsons. Herzog is also a man with an alarm clock in his head when it comes to knowing just when to wake up his bullpen.