Speaking as somebody born after the heyday of the “Whiteyball” era of St. Louis Cardinals baseball, the high-flying Cardinals teams of yesteryear have long been a source both of fascination and mild annoyance for me.

On one hand, discourse about the team brings out some of my “Ok Boomer”-iest tendencies. In the build-up to last night’s debut airing of “Birds of a Different Game”, an MLB Network special on the 1980s Cardinals, John Smoltz lamented the team while, as he is inclined to do as a broadcaster, complained about how Kids These Days don’t steal bases enough, with the implication that the only thing keeping modern players from running the bases like Vince Coleman is that they don’t want it enough (I guess I’d rather Smoltz, who barely misses the Baby Boomer cutoff but spiritually fits the mold, complain that millennials aren’t running the bases because they don’t care enough rather than that they, say, aren’t buying houses because of it). But on the other hand, the frantic style of play of the Whiteyball era hasn’t come close to existing in my lifetime. The closest modern parallel on a successful team was the 2014 Kansas City Royals, who stole 153 bases–the 1985 Cardinals stole over double that many. I don’t care if it’s the most efficient style. It looks like it was a blast to watch live.

So with much anticipation, I will watch “Birds of a Different Game” and type out my thoughts on the matter. Unlike previous incarnations of 1980s nostalgia, I’m doing this on a weeknight. Needless to say, spoilers (of the documentary and, obviously, of the baseball results themselves) abound.

  • The documentary opens with some modern establishing shots of St. Louis as narrated by John Goodman, a St. Louisan who I think is still probably most famous for playing the husband on Roseanne but also has a long track record of being in really good movies, too. In addition to his long run of Coen Brothers movies, Goodman was in back-to-back Best Picture Oscar winners earlier last decade. According to Some Guy On IMDB, only nine actors ever have done this, and most of them are really famous.
  • The first two interviews of players are the middle infield combo of the bulk of the decade–Ozzie Smith and Tom Herr. Next up is outfielder Andy Van Slyke. Which…we need to have a frank national (we’ll start regionally and escalate it at a later date) discussion about his glasses. They are simply out of this world.avs
  • “Given the speed that we had on our team, every ground ball was a potential base hit and everything to the gap was two bases, three bases, maybe all the way around…you never knew what was going to happen,” said the next Cardinals player up, Jon Hamm.
  • The next guest is a welcome sight: Keith Hernandez. I’ve already seen Heck of a Year, occasionally sober, and while the 1985 team was definitely the most Whiteyball of the Whiteyball teams, to simply ignore 1982 would be a bizarrely common mistake. I’m going to make a call now that they probably aren’t going to dig too deep into the cocaine use of the 1980s Cardinals. Here’s my favorite document on that matter.
  • I’m sure I’ve heard John Tudor speak before this, but I don’t recall it. I knew John Tudor was from New England, so I guess I should have had some idea of what was coming. His voice falls somewhere between Bernie Sanders and pretty much any male character in The Departed that at least somewhat tried (so anyone but Jack Nicholson, basically).
  • Got some pretty nifty Ozzie Smith highlights in the early going, and surely will going forward. Already angry at those who dare compare the perfectly cromulent but clearly tier below Omar Vizquel to him.
  • An interview with a person I’ve personally met: Doug Feldmann, author of Fleeter Than Birds. I somehow finessed my way into speaking at a SABR chapter meeting, inexplicably after this actual book author, at Favazza’s on The Hill in St. Louis. He was a nice man who knows a lot about the late 1970s-early 1980s and seemed completely disinterested in anything I had to say in projecting the 2018 team. To be fair, knowing what I know now about the first 4 1/2 months of that season, his apathy was fair.
  • The MVP of the 1980s Cardinals was Ozzie Smith. Second place was Gussie Busch’s hat.gussie
  • I completely forgot that Rollie Fingers was briefly a Cardinal. Honestly, the trade the Cardinals made in sending Fingers to the Milwaukee Brewers just sounds weird and confusing from a modern standpoint. They traded franchise hero Ted Simmons and two guys who would become iconic Brewers–Fingers and Pete Vuckovich, for Sixto Lezcano, Lary Sorensen, David Green, and Dave LaPoint. It’s hard to argue with the results. It’s just strange is all.
  • I never heard the story about how Whitey Herzog, upon acquiring Darrell Porter, wanted to move Ted Simmons to first base and Keith Hernandez, probably the best defensive first baseman ever, to left field. That’s just insane.
  • I wasn’t alive in 1981 but I just want to take a moment to stan for Garry Templeton. Dude was hurt and he wasn’t going to make it to first base anyway when he was booed by the home crowd for lack of hustle. Maybe he shouldn’t have given them the finger but I’ve seen this crowd booing random guys for stupid reasons (Yasiel Puig? Manny Machado?) for years and I get it. That said, gotta say–trading him worked out just fine.
  • Look, I get that the Cardinals had the best record in the National League East in 1981, and yes, it sucks they didn’t make the playoffs. But why do I only hear this complaint from the Cardinals when the Cincinnati Reds had an even better record, also didn’t make the playoffs, and didn’t win the World Series literally the next season?
  • Ozzie Smith waived his no-trade clause on December 10, 1981, to move from San Diego, where the weather is always amazing, to St. Louis, where it was surely much colder on that day but also it is five billion degrees on most July days. I’m not entirely sure how he was convinced to do this, but I’m glad he was.
  • “I think pretty much everybody loved Ozzie Smith. He was the guy.” You see, this is why you get Jon Hamm for these specials. For the sort of insight only a unique type of fan can offer.
  • Hearing Keith Hernandez discuss Willie McGee reminds me that while Hernandez is of course the most notable example of a 1980s Cardinal being used on Seinfeld, Willie McGee gets name-checked on one episode by Kramer, reciting all of the boneheaded trades the New York Yankees made over the years. McGee perhaps falls second to Jay Buhner in terms of ex-Yankees who got their revenge through Seinfeld quotes.
  • “We became what I call a blue collar team.” Oh thank God. I’m so sick of sports teams identifying themselves as bougie slices of life for all of the one-percenters in futures trading.
  • Phil Niekro was 43 during the 1982 season. Somehow, he looked like he was 63. I’m not saying he looked like Abe Vigoda in The Godfather–I’m just saying he looked as old as Abe Vigoda in The Godfather.
  • In Game 2 of the 1982 NLCS, Ken Oberkfell hit a walk-off single over the head of Atlanta Braves center fielder Brett Butler, who is surely the most Remember Some Guys guy I will encounter during this program.
  • Dick Enberg notes in a preview of the 1982 World Series that Busch Stadium is not designed for a power-hitting team such as the Milwaukee Brewers. Sixteen years later, Mark McGwire would hit 70 home runs at Busch Stadium. These are simple facts.
  • Through the first game and a half of the 1982 World Series, the Deeply Online, cynical fan in me would have been entertained to no end about Ted Simmons being the guy who kept crushing the Cardinals. But hey, David Green!
  • In 2019 (probably in 2020 as well, but this is to be determined), fans get shamed for not wearing the team’s colors to games, but in 1982, most fans are just wearing whatever they felt like wearing to games. Almost none wore Cardinals replica jerseys. I’ll stop before I go onto a rant about how capitalism has commodified tribalistic sports fandom, but believe me–I could.
  • Wow, my man Feldmann is getting interviewed a lot for this.
  • The Willie McGee Game 3 catch is both not a home run robbery and also a better play than Willie Mays’s catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. Both things can be and are true.
  • We’re like halfway through this documentary and there are still two games left in the 1982 World Series. Starting to get the vibe I got from Supersonic, the documentary about Oasis, a band with which I am obsessed that cover the band from its creation until 1996. The band broke up in 2009.
  • They’re showing a lot of coverage of rain delays and therefore, a lot of shots of tarps. I know what happens in 1985–this feels like whenever you see oranges in a Godfather movie.
  • “That was the first Game 7 I ever attended in person,” says Jon Hamm, who was 11 at the time. Poor thing. Not sure how he survived waiting so long to attend Game 7 of the World Series. I should take this moment to address that I thought Mad Men was terrible.
  • As a January birthday, I do not care for “Keith Hernandez got a big hit in Game 7 of the World Series on his birthday” story. Some of us never got the chance and also were terrible at baseball.
  • Having experienced Whitey Herzog primarily through the prism of his older years, I associate him with his modern, looks like one of Barbie’s potential boyfriends in the Queen of the Prom board game from the 1950s haircut. I’m pretty sure Herzog was inspired by the Stray Cats to keep his hair looking like this.whitey hair
  • “The club strained from off-the-field issues” Oh here we go, the drug talk! Well, it doesn’t go on very long, and frankly this part would be interesting to hear about, but I probably shouldn’t expect it from an MLB Network production.
  • There was only peripheral discussion of the 1985 regular season. Which is why Heck of a Year is an integral primary source for all Whiteyball knowledge.
  • Below is Tom Niedenfuer, a man who absolutely looks like he could be my dad. This man was five years younger than I currently am. I know that life in the 1970s was stressful but did it really age people this badly?niedenfuer
  • “I was watching it at school.” Jon Hamm attended a high school that costs nearly $30,000 a year to attend. Is this the price of watching sports in school? I mean, the Ozzie Smith home run was super cool and all, but I think for that price, public school did me just fine.
  • I don’t understand people who are opposed to the use of replay in sports, but I think the right to go on a documentary and complain about how a bad call screwed you over thirty-five years after the fact is a very powerful and seductive force.
  • For all of the Boomer nostalgia that surrounds Whiteyball, there has never been a more stereotypically millennial action from a baseball person ever than Whitey Herzog, when he wasn’t getting his way in Game 7 of the World Series, complaining to a point where he got kicked out.
  • There are less than five minutes remaining in this documentary and they have not yet discussed the final four years of the 1980s, including the one in which the Cardinals made it to a seventh game of the World Series.
  • Jack Clark finished third in MVP voting in 1987 and this didn’t even get mentioned. How not? Well, it seems they ran out of time. As a former high school debater, I can relate to going a little long and just having to speed through the last third or so of your prepared speech.
  • Look, I can’t pretend this is a great documentary. It certainly isn’t an objective look and it is basically the cinematic equivalent of Pixy Stix. But as a pure nostalgia ride, it certainly has its appeal. Whether you think you’re going to enjoy it or not, that’s pretty much the correct answer.

One thought on “A piece of millennial scum reviews the Whiteyball documentary “Birds of a Different Game”

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