Q&A with Former Cardinal Tommy Herr

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The St. Louis Cardinals have a rich history when it comes to second basemen. Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch, and Red Schoendienst are each enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Julian Javier played a vital, if sometimes overlooked, role for three World Series teams during the 1960s. Likewise, Tommy Herr won three National League pennants with the fabled “Whiteyball” Cardinals of the 1980s. Playing alongside Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Bruce Sutter, Herr helped fuel an offense centered on the speed of Vince Coleman and Willie McGee, a brand of baseball that all but disappeared during the homer-happy steroid era.

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I caught up with Herr (who lives in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania) in advance of his visit to Memphis this week.

You’ve got a lot of fans in this region of Cardinal country. What are you doing these days?

Right now, I’m rehabbing double-knee replacements, so that’s keeping me busy. I’m between four and five months post-surgery. I had it done right before Christmas. Things are going pretty well. The cumulative effect of playing all those years on turf, and I had a lot of cartilage repair done over the years. It was time to alleviate the arthritis.

I have a few business interests. I have a web site that sells wine accessories: wineracks4U.com. That’s been fun.

Do you follow baseball closely these days?

I watch a lot of games; wouldn’t say I follow it closely. I have some grandkids and I like to play golf. I still have an avid interest in baseball. It’s in my blood; never leaves.

Who are some current players you admire?

There are a lot of players who do it the right way. The game has become so specialized, different from my era. I admire guys like Derek Jeter and Dustin Pedroia, the guys out there playing hard, playing through injuries, doing whatever it takes to help their teams win. Albert Pujols. Not only great players, but great leaders on the field, and good people.

The success you enjoyed in St. Louis helped get your manager, Whitey Herzog, to the Hall of Fame. What stands out in your reflections on those years?

Whitey was a great tactician. He always put his players in situations where they had the best chance to succeed. He utilized his bullpen and got match-ups that were favorable to our team.

You were part of an infield in 1982 that many feel is among the best in the history of the game. Keith Hernandez at first, you at second, Ozzie Smith at short, and Ken Oberkfell at third. What made that foursome so special?

We were solid up the middle, and with Willie McGee in centerfield. On an individual basis, Ozzie and Keith may be the best at their positions, ever. I had really good range at second, and Obie at third was a converted second-baseman. We were good at keeping the ball in front of us, covering the gaps in the infield. Everybody had strong, accurate arms. We were good at catching relays from the outfield and throwing to the right bases. The fundamental part of the game — which you have to execute day in and day out — is what we were good at. We didn’t give extra outs, and we turned a lot of double plays. At that time, most National League stadiums had artificial turf, so we were built for speed and range.

Keith was very athletic and could charge bunts and make plays at third base to get lead runners. And of course, Ozzie’s work ethic was outstanding. Even though he was recognized as the best, he continued to work at it as he aged.

The most famous Tommy Herr stat: 110 RBIs in 1985 with only eight home runs.

Hitting third in that lineup, with Vince Coleman and Wilie McGee in front of me, was key. Willie had an MVP season that year, batted .353. And Vince was a prolific leadoff hitter. When he got on, he got himself into scoring position. I was able to go deep into counts, take pitches, and let those guys get to second base or third base. I was comfortable hitting with two strikes; didn’t strike out a lot. I had more than 20 RBIs on at-bats when I made outs. I had Jack Clark hitting behind me, so I was protected. I knew I was going to get challenged. Pitchers didn’t want to face Jack with multiple hitters on base. I give credit to Whitey. I wasn’t the prototypical number-three hitter.

You were one of five switch-hitters on Cardinal teams that reached the World Series in 1985 and 1987. It seems like switch-hitting is a dying art.

That was one of the most unique features of our teams. To have five solid switch hitters made for an incredible lineup. It must have been a nightmare to manage against us. All five switch-hitters were the same from both sides of the plate. My personal stats were identical from both sides. Some teams would bring in left-handed pitchers. But all switch-hitters are natural right-handed batters.

How old were you when you learned to switch-hit?

I dabbled with it as a kid, playing wiffle-ball in the backyard with my brother. We’d emulate lineups, and bat left-handed when a lefty came up. But it wasn’t until my first year of pro ball in 1975 that I started to seriously experiment with it. Our high school seasons up here were so short, you couldn’t afford to give away at-bats while experimenting. The advantage for me was to utilize my speed. From the day I started it, I was able to make contact. For a year or two, it was kind of ugly; I was just slapping the ball. But after a year or two, I was able to pull the ball more and I became an efficient left-handed batter. My discipline at the plate was better from the left side.

Your son, Aaron, played professional baseball. What is it like being a baseball dad, knowing the challenges of reaching the major leagues?

It’s tougher watching than it is playing, that’s for sure. You commiserate with the trials and tribulations. When I managed in the minor leagues, I had a lot more compassion for the players than some of my peers did, because I understood what it’s like to struggle in the minor leagues, both as a player and as a father. Aaron got really close; back-to-back terrific years in Triple-A. Unfortunately, he just never got that opening above him to get a spot in the major leagues. His problem was finding a comfortable defensive position. I think he was good enough to hit in the big leagues.

My situation was different. I was labeled as a prospect early on. And you tend to get special treatment. Aaron had some struggles early in his career, and a catastrophic knee injury that really set him back. He was first asked to switch-hit, then asked to stick to the right side. So there were some factors that stunted his development. He came very close to being called up by Cincinnati. My advice to him was always to stick to his own business: work on what you need to work on and not worry about what’s going on around you. If you’re good enough to play in the big leagues, someone’s going to recognize it. Aaron’s parlayed his baseball career into a good thing. He’s great with kids. [Aaron played in the Triple-A All-Star Game as a member of the Louisville Bats in 2007. He never reached the majors. Today he runs the baseball program at a multisport training complex in Lancaster.]

Have you visited AutoZone Park here in Memphis?

I have not. I’m really looking forward to getting to Memphis. The Mobil Super Baseball Tour is a great event for fans. They get a chance to win Mobil products. It’s a great promotion for a great product. The tour covers 55 games in 18 different states over four months. It’ll be fun for the fans and me as well.

Tommy Herr will greet fans at the AutoZone store at 4394 Summer Avenue this Saturday (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.) as part of the Mobil Super “Go the Distance” Baseball Tour. He’ll also be at AutoZone Park prior to Saturday’s Redbirds game against Round Rock.

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