Playing ball was Andy's salvation. "Oh, I could see that Andy could play," says Jim. So could Andy. "Oh, my head was big," he says. "All I had to do was show up. Practice? Practice for what?" Andy was a catcher. No one ran on New Hartford High. As a sophomore he hit .430, and the scouts were around from then on. "I thought I was the greatest thing in the world," says Van Slyke. And then one day, at the start of Andy's senior season, the baseball coach, Mike Callan, called him into his office. Callan, a mild-mannered man, was holding a fungo bat. "He just shattered the table in his office with his bat," says Van Slyke. "He used a lot of choice four-letter words. He told me to clean up my act or I'd be kicked off the team. He said that I had a chance not many have. He said I could be a major leaguer. Trouble was, after he told me that, my head swelled up like a balloon."
Still, at the end of Andy's senior year, the Cardinals made him the sixth draft pick in the country. "I viewed it as the sixth draft pick in the entire world," says Van Slyke. The next day he broke his wrist on a freak play at first base in New Hartford High's last game of the season. Jim, who had always had his doubts about baseball as a livelihood, took this as a bad omen.
"Gosh, Ginny and I used to have shouting matches about it," says Jim. "I'd say, 'Gin, he's not going to make it,' and, boy, would she get mad. She'd scream at me, 'Damn you, he is too going to make it! Haven't you got eyes?' "
The way Andy saw it, being a ballplayer would at the very least preclude the need for schooling. He enrolled instead in the College of the St. Louis Cardinals and was shipped to Gastonia of the South Atlantic League in 1980. But he already had big league written all over him. When baseball people said he played the field like DiMaggio, he shrugged. For all he knew, maybe he did. Meanwhile, his off-the-field style was hardly so restrained. "The independence I was seeking was destroying me," says Van Slyke. "I saw too many sunrises." Not only did he close his share of bars but also, a la Bull Durham, he and a few of his teammates actually did hose down the field one night after a bender, in hopes of getting out of a day game. Gastonia played the next day anyway. "The manager made us squeegee the field," says Slick.
Whether in right or center or at third base—"I still think I could have made the big leagues as a catcher," he says—a player like Van Slyke wasn't long for Gastonia. "And thank goodness," says Lauri. Van Slyke moved up to St. Pete in 1981, to Arkansas in '82 and then spent just two months with the AAA Louisville Redbirds in '83. He was hitting .368 when he was called to the head of the class, on the same day the Cardinals traded Keith Hernandez to the New York Mets.
In a pregame introduction on an NBC Game of the Week in 1983, the fresh-out-of-the-minors Van Slyke was introduced by Joe Garagiola as the next Stan Musial. As soon as they went off the air, Slick turned around and pointed to his back. "Look Joe," he said, "it says Van Slyke back there."
But Herzog made his opinion clear from the start: When Slick played rightfield, he was the best rightfielder in the National League. But he didn't play against lefthanded pitching. "I guess I couldn't live up to Whitey's expectations of me," says Van Slyke. "I questioned his judgment in playing Tito Landrum ahead of me [against lefthanders]. But then I thought, Hey, he's Whitey Herzog. I began to doubt me."
Van Slyke says he has never worked harder than he did during the 1986 off-season. "I was possessed," he says. "I knew I'd get there. The second half of the '86 season, I hit .310. Then to be traded....
"On April Fools' Day , Whitey called me in, and I knew, man. I knew. Whitey didn't look me in the eyes that day. He said, 'Slick, you probably know.' Then he said, I appreciate what you did,' and all that stuff, but that meant nothing to me at the time. So much of that loyalty rah-rah stuff was destroyed when I was traded. I called Lauri, and she didn't believe it. She thought it was an April Fools' joke. When I got home, she was bawling. We loved it in St. Louis. We had made friends outside of baseball, and we loved that. But handing the job to Jim Lindeman over me...No, I never understood that."
"Leaving the Cardinals was hard for Andy," says Lauri. "In his heart, he'll always be a Cardinal. Always."