Harsh, mocking laughter filled the Cardinal locker room at New York's Shea Stadium one day last week. "Hear that?" asked outfielder Andy Van Slyke. It was hard not to. Across the room a clubhouse boy had just switched on one of those prank laughing boxes: HO-HO-HO-HO HEE-HEE-HEE-HEE HA-HA-HA-HA! "That right there," said Van Slyke with a pained smile, "is what everybody was saying about us last season: 'Ha, ha, ha.' "
You remember the Cardinals. When we left them last October, they were kicking and flailing and being led to a soft psychiatric couch. Their World Series hopes and delicate psyche had unraveled like sleeves on a cheap sweater. "It was emotionally draining, having the long season end that way," said second baseman Tommy Herr last week. "It left a real scar on me."
Don't get all misty-eyed just yet. The supposedly beleaguered Redbirds, who came into the season with health and pitching woes, are behaving like their old selves again, running the other teams in the National League East ragged and playing the sharpest baseball in either league. They've regained their composure and civility, and even their sense of humor. For example, when Rookie of the Year outfielder Vince Coleman called the team's $150,000 salary offer "a slap in the face" last month, his teammates left a bottle of Mennen Skin Bracer in his locker.
St. Louis was rolling along so well last week that by Sunday night, after a game in New York and three in Montreal, the Cards' record stood at 7-2, the best in baseball, one game ahead of the second-place Pirates. They had stolen 21 of 23 bases, grounded into three double plays and made only three errors. The retooled St. Louis pitching staff had an ERA of 2.03, best in the majors. The team was hitting only .232, but with speed, defense and pitching, and players like MVP Willie McGee, Jack Clark and Herr, first place isn't an odd place to be.
For what it's worth, the Cardinals didn't even get over the .500 mark last year until May 26. "There's confidence here from the start this time," said Van Slyke. "Nobody talks about it, but you can feel it."
The Mets may have felt some of it in their home opener—the only game of a ballyhooed three-game set with the Cards that didn't get rained out. St. Louis, behind converted reliever Ricky Horton and three of his former bullpen committee mates, outlasted Dwight Gooden and four Met relievers for a 6-2, 13-inning win. "I know now that the Cardinals like to play the Mets as much as the Mets like to play the Cards," said ex-Met turned Cardinal reserve Clint Hurdle, who had a key pinch-hit single. Added St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith, "Both teams are picking up where they left off last year."
That's not exactly true. Over the winter the Cardinals scattered much of last year's team around like birdseed. Nine of the 25 men on their World Series roster were released or traded, including tempestuous pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who was sent to Oakland for catcher Mike Heath and young lefthander Tim Conroy. "I figured Joaquin's days were numbered here," says Herr. "Especially after his World Series trouble. In St. Louis the brewery is number one, and when a player embarrasses the brewery, he's gone."
But the Cardinals lost a source of 21 wins and 269 innings when they gave Andujar his joaquin papers. Pitching became a concern, especially when a series of injuries plagued the staff this spring: Conroy showed up at camp with a sore shoulder and was on the disabled list until last Thursday. Ace reliever Jeff Lahti also had shoulder trouble that's only now clearing up. Worst of all, No. 2 starter Danny Cox, heading out for some fishing in Florida on March 30, chipped a bone in his right ankle when he jumped off a three-foot seawall onto the beach. He was expected back this week.
The Cards seemed beset by such bizarre injuries. World Series hero Tito Landrum aggravated a back strain while getting up from dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Van Slyke took a nasty gash over his left eye while searching under a chair for a piece of his young son's jigsaw puzzle. "I learned not to mess with a La-Z-Boy recliner," he says.
There were also worries about Smith's recovery from a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. He had hurt the shoulder diving back into first base last July, and the throbbing pain had bothered him the rest of the season—not just on throws, either. It became so troublesome that at times Smith had to reach over with his left hand just to tune his car radio. He vetoed surgery, however, fearing that his career might be further jeopardized. "Guys generally don't come back from that operation," says St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog.