"Eric Davis is an unbelievable baseball player," says Pirate manager Jim Leyland. "And Kirk Gibson was incredible last year. But the best all-around performance in the National League last year came from Andy Van Slyke."
"Andy Van Slyke is a throwback to the old-fashioned player," says Syd Thrift, former Pirate general manager and the man who brought Slick to Pittsburgh. "Just a bear-down, clutch player. There's no stat for runners held—runners that don't dare try to run on him. And when he's the runner, he goes from home to third better than anyone in the National League. He takes pregame outfield practice even in 100° August heat. You know anybody else who does that? Then he makes it all look so easy."
Which is not to say that he'll ease up. "That Gold Glove is the only trophy of mine you'll see out," says Van Slyke. "I can get better. I will get better."
"All that's left for him to do is to hit lefthanded pitching just a little bit better," says Leyland. "Some guys' athletic ability won't allow them to do it. But time does it when you're talking about an athlete like Andy Van Slyke. Time and hard work. He'll do it. No doubt in my mind. He'll do it."
"Slick, when you go home, that's as close as you 're gonna get to the Hall of Fame."
—Whitey Herzog, 1983
Slick grew up as Andy, in New Hartford, N.Y., just outside Utica, 30 miles as the crow flies from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Andy was younger brother to Matt, older brother to Patrice and Mary, and the son of Ginny and Jim Van Slyke.
On winter days Andy and Matt would play basketball with two balls—one of the balls was kept in the house to stay warm so that when the other one got too cold to bounce well, the boys wouldn't have to stop playing. "The competition between Matt and Andy was always very keen," says Jim, 59. "And I always thought Matt was even a better athlete than Andy."
"My father is a scholar," says Andy. "He wasn't all that much on ballplaying, as I remember." Indeed, asked when the ambidextrous Andy (throws right, eats left, writes right, golfs both ways) became a lefthanded hitter, Jim says. "God only knows. I don't." Jim is a Colgate man, a former principal, first for six years at Perry Junior High, then at New Hartford High until 1985. One need not ask where the Van Slyke children matriculated during this time. Jim is now the town justice of New Hartford.
"So Andy doesn't think I was much of an athlete, does he?" asks Jim. In fact, the elder Van Slyke had been a pitcher, once upon a time, good enough to be offered contracts by both the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians. He preferred instead to take a scholarship to Colgate. "To tell you the truth, I guess I was just chicken," says Jim. "My older brother Bill had thrown his arm out in Class D ball. So I don't think I had the confidence. And that's what you need if you're going to play ball."
Andy, the principal's son, never had confidence when it came to school. Even now he says, "I liked school. I liked it closed." There were reasons for his disaffection. As a two-year-old, he had an ear infection so severe it caused a partial hearing loss in his right ear. On top of that, Andy had dyslexia, a reading disorder. But his father was the principal. "My father was a very strong disciplinarian," says Andy. "I remember once I got into a fight with this guy, and after I beat him up, I got suspended and the other kid didn't." Says Jim, "He had to know the rules."