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The stolen base should come back, but probably won't

Jon Hamm and Cardinals legends Willie McGee and Red Schoendienst speculate on a return to the kind of kinetic action that made 1980s baseball more of an eclectic experience than today's game. It's far from a sure thing.

Major league stolen-base leader Dee Gordon.
Major league stolen-base leader Dee Gordon.
Scott Cunningham

ST. LOUIS -- The 1985 St. Louis Cardinals stole 314 bases.

To put this in perspective, just two teams in the past 18 years, the 1996 Rockies and the 2007 Mets, cleared 200 stolen bases, and in each case, just barely. The Kansas City Royals led baseball in stolen bases last year with 153. The Dodgers are tops in 2014, with 116, making even the 2013 standard a difficult one to reach.

For those who didn't see Whitey Herzog's Cardinals play, these numbers might be surprising. But no one who ever did will forget those Cardinals. So while hand-wringing about the pace of games is the common lament these days, with the implicit theory that people will gradually lose interest in baseball should games fail to return to some unspecified, shorter average timeframe, the answer to rejuvenating the game could be strategic, not chronological. I'm largely skeptical of all baseball doomsaying, while quite supportive of ideas like enforcing the rules on between-pitch delays, but I'm also in favor of another way to increase the enjoyment of the game.

Bring back the stolen base. Bring back the triple. Bring back Whiteyball. Or just give Willie McGee a team.

"If I ever did manage, I'd love to have eight speedsters that can switch-hit," McGee told me Saturday afternoon, a few hours after a ceremony inducting him into the Cardinals Hall of Fame. "With a great pitching staff, that can catch the ball. And one power hitter. One Jack Clark. That would be fun."

That's what those 1980s Cardinals teams exemplified: fun. Fun for the players. Fun for the fans. Fun for neutrals, for everybody other than the teams tasked with stopping them.

"That was great -- the situation couldn't have been better for players like me at the time," McGee said of those Cardinals teams. "And a number of other guys on the team, I would imagine. We just played our game -- you'd go out there, and just play the game as it comes to you. You'd get on base, you'd assess the situation, and you'd do what's natural.

"Whitey, what was great about him, with the people we had on the field, were able to do a few things. And he just let us play ... just hustle, be aggressive, show up on time, was his motto. And he demanded we'd be aggressive, take the extra base."

Herzog demanded everybody take that extra base. I'll never forget those three huge, three-digit numbers in a row on my Vince Coleman baseball cards -- 110, 107, 109 stolen bases beginning in his rookie year of 1985. But unlike the Lou Brock Cardinals, where he was often the only player in double figures in steals, everybody ran on that 1985 Cardinals team. Willie McGee stole 56 bases. Andy Van Slyke stole 34. Ozzie Smith stole 31, as did Tommy Herr, who got caught three times all season. Part-timer Lonnie Smith stole 12, and so on down the line. Pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who reached base 15 times all season, stole three bases and was caught just once. No pitcher has stolen more in all the years since.

"To me, no matter how you look at it, I don't care what business you're in, you can't beat speed,"  the Cardinals' eternal player, coach and manager Red Schoendienst, a 1989 Hall of Fame inductee, told me on Friday afternoon. "If you're traveling -- when we were traveling, we went on the train. And then, we went on the airplane --" Schoendienst flew his hand across the space between us, making a whooshing sound. "Everything is speed. And I knew -- I could run. I weighed only 160 pounds. I could run good, and I could steal bases. And in those days, we were told when to run.

Lou Brock

Hall of Famer Lou Brock lights out for second base. (Getty Images)

"So when I became manager, I had Lou Brock. And I told him, 'I know it's easier for you to steal a base when you can steal it -- not when the manager gives you a sign.' That makes it a little different. When I had Lou, the only sign I'll give you is when I don't want you to steal, and that was only if we were winning by six, eight runs in the eighth inning."

You'll notice I repeatedly invoke the caught stealings as well, because it isn't as if those 314 steals came at a prohibitive cost. The 1985 Cardinals were successful 76.6 percent of the time they ran, well ahead of the 68.4 percent league average that season, and north of the break-even rate of the play in recent seasons as well. Those Cardinals didn't do it by carefully choosing their spots. The rules Schoendienst had for Brock, Herzog had for everybody. McGee argues that doing it any other way would have decreased their success rate.

"Now they've got the clocks, where they time the pitcher, the time to home, they time the catcher, so that dictates whether they run or not," McGee said. "We didn't have that -- which I'm glad we didn't -- because that didn't give us much to think about. So we're always in the mode of getting a jump. It's not [that] this pitcher, this catcher's fast, so you're not running. Because then you'd have a letdown ... All of a sudden, you've got to turn it back on this next pitch, this next time, and it's hard to do in sports. You get into a rhythm, and that's it. You don't need nothing else to distract you, you know what I'm saying?"

I did. I remembered those Cardinals like everybody else, line drives into the corners, into the gaps, running around those Busch Stadium bases. Vince Coleman's first home run was of the inside-the-park variety. Notice that one came not at old Busch, but at the Launching Pad -- Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. And that's where the argument against another team like the Cardinals coming along begins to fall apart. There was a perfectly rational reason for stolen bases to regress over much of the subsequent three decades -- offensive levels jumped dramatically. In 1985, 3,602 home runs were hit in the major leagues, and the league's OPS was .714. In 1996, 4,962 home runs were hit, and the league OPS was .767. By 2006, the homer-intensive approach led to 5,386 home runs league-wide, with a .768 OPS.

"You'd see managers waiting for the three-run homer," Schoendienst said, smiling. "Sometimes, even with only one guy on base."

Those numbers have come down considerably. In 2010, home runs dropped to 4,613, with a .728 league OPS. Home runs, at 4,661 last year, are on pace to finish shy of 4,300 in 2014, and the league OPS entering Monday's games was lower than 1985, just .703. "Well, I don't know," McGee said, when I asked if this decline in runs scored would lead to the kind of run manufacturing his Cardinals rode to 101 wins. "It depends on the park. It depends on a lot of things. What I liked about our era was, you had a range of ways to play. You had L.A. -- power and pitching. When they came to our park, it was so big, they had a tougher time -- it was based around athleticism and speed.

"Not that they weren't athletic ... but it'd be hot out here, we'd hit the ball in the gaps and run, and by the fourth or fifth inning, they'd be gasping for air, and we're just getting going. So it [was] just a good contrast of teams. You know, the Mets, slugging, pitching. Astros, speed, Montreal, speed, athleticism. That's what I liked about the game -- matchups, different matchups. It seems like it got to the point where every game is a slugfest, kind of. But it's starting to seem like it's getting back that way, a little bit."

It's not really happening in St. Louis, where the Cardinals last led the majors in steals in 1988, and Yadier Molina was the career active leader in stolen bases until recently surpassed by Jon Jay, who has 43 -- or  14 fewer than Dee Gordon has this season alone. Nor would it make much sense there now, where home runs and triples are roughly as easy to come by. "You know, I don't know if that's ever going to happen again," Cardinals superfan Jon Hamm, who grew up on Willie McGee's Cardinals, said when I asked him about a return to Whiteyball on Monday. "Never is a long time ... I think the big difference is, they don't build stadiums like that anymore, for speed teams. Old Busch was like playing at the Grand Canyon. The ball would roll around in the corners, and all of our guys would circle the bases. And it's just a different game now. The fences are moved in, and it's way more important to hit the ball over the fence than it is to take second base, or third base.

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve, American League stolen base leader. (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

"I mean, watching Vince Coleman get over 100 stolen bases -- that's never gonna happen again. The Reds have a guy like that -- [Billy] Hamilton -- that guy can steal first, he's so fast. But it's not the way strategy plays out anymore, which hey -- it is what it is."

Hamm isn't the only one who thinks this way -- McGee and Schoendienst both cited the changed stadiums as a reason the 1985 Cardinals' type of baseball wouldn't soon return. Nor would this be the kind of thing that would speed up games; even with the scarcer run environment, games are up over three hours this season. But allow me to posit that for those who are inclined to think baseball games are too long, the antidote to monochromatic baseball, or at any rate, an antidote, is the reemergence of Whiteyball. It doesn't have to be every team, but it ought to be some team. The numbers sure support some team trying it, and I haven't heard anybody complain about how long it took to watch the 1980s Cardinals play, with all the pitchouts and other efforts made to curb their running game.

"The crowd knows you're going," McGee said. "Just like everybody in the crowd knew Barry Bonds would swing the bat if you threw him a strike. That's the fun of it. It's the competition once you get to first base. Now, it's you, and the pitcher. It's you, trying to get the best jump you can off of that pitcher. And that's where all your focus is at that moment."

That is, your eyes are not on the plate, not on outfielders with their backs pressed against the wall waiting to catch the big wallop, but on the possibility of a kind of continuous, free-flowing action that people who complain the game is too static have overlooked. McGee knows it, too. "That's what you don't see too much nowadays," he said with what seemed like a hint of sadness.