But a Pirate is what he became. Thrift had had his eye on Van Slyke for a while. "Willie McGee had been hurt and Van Slyke was playing center for Whitey," says Thrift. "That's when I saw him and I knew. It's geometric, playing center. You have to know the proper angles. He never wasted a step. I watched him and couldn't believe it. So we worked the deal [Van Slyke, catcher Mike LaValliere and pitcher Mike Dunne for catcher Tony Pena]. I think Van Slyke is a better hitter, a better all-around player when he's playing centerfield."
"You have to concentrate all game. Every day," says Van Slyke. "That didn't happen to me until I became a Pirate. The reason is Jim Leyland." Leyland and Thrift persuaded Barry Bonds to move to left so Van Slyke could play center. "I've got a lot of that confidence back now," says Van Slyke. "You can't be tentative at this level. I want to be the man. I'll never doubt myself again."
"Andy Van Slyke should have been Most Valuable Player in the National League last year."
—Whitey Herzog, 1989
If you took 30 years and several inches of waistline off Herzog and darkened his flattop a tad, you would be looking at a dead ringer for Van Slyke. Herzog the manager has one of the finest eyes for talent in the game; Herzog the player was a borderline major leaguer, a player who looked as though he would hit better than he ever did. And he was a centerfielder. This was the scouting report on centerfielder Herzog: good defensive outfielder, good speed, great hands, barely adequate as a hitter. Could it be that when Herzog watched Andy Van Slyke, he saw Whitey Herzog? "I was a good defensive player maybe," says Herzog, "but I never was no Andy Van Slyke. Never."
After Slick arrived in Pittsburgh, he told his father that Leyland had talked more to him in a week than Herzog had in four years. That was the way Slick saw it then. "Now I can appreciate how much I had learned about the game. I have great respect for Whitey Herzog," says Van Slyke, who's wearing a Whitey Herzog T-shirt.
"Andy Van Slyke is a helluva player and a helluva person," says Herzog. "I suppose we kept expecting more than he was ready to give, and we just ran out of patience."
Van Slyke and the Pirates haggled over contract lockout language before he finally signed on Feb. 18 of this year—a $5.5 million deal for three years. They should be the finest three years of his career. And maybe, just maybe, he and Lauri will move out from under Herzog's considerable shadow and leave St. Louis behind. Why did they stay there so long anyway? "The schools," says Slick. "The principal here is an outstanding man. That's important. Believe me, I know."
Van Slyke has donated two pitching machines to Maryville College, just 10 minutes from his house. He doesn't like to say he donated the machines since he uses them more than anybody. He grabs a bat, stands in, thinks Tudor, thinks Fernando, and hits 150 simulated lefthanded pitches in a row. Once he hits lefthanded pitching, there won't be anything in baseball that Slick can't do. He just can't do it for the Cardinals.
The Pirates don't usually call Van Slyke Slick. Instead, because of his intense nature, they've taken to calling him Norman, as in Bates. But the Pirates know one thing, even if it doesn't have quite the same ring to it: Norman can play.