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April 19, 2009

Prospectus Q&A

Andy Van Slyke

by David Laurila

From unslaked in St. Louis, to popular in Pittsburgh, Andy Van Slyke had quite a ride in his 13 big-league seasons. Originally taken in the first round of the 1979 draft by the Cardinals, he would go on to have his best years with the Pirates, making three All-Star teams and capturing five Gold Gloves and a pair of Silver Slugger awards. Now 48 years old and in his fourth year as the Tigers first-base coach, he had his best seasons in 1988, when he hit .288/.345/.506, and in 1992, when he hit .324/.381/.505. During spring training this year, Van Slyke talked about his time in the game, including the trade to Pittsburgh and his experiences with Barry Bonds.

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David Laurila: What were your expectations when you were drafted?

Andy Van Slyke: Well, obviously to get to the big leagues as quickly as possible, and having only played about four years in the minor leagues, it happened quite rapidly. I didn't really play a whole lot growing up. Growing up in upstate New York, you don't play a lot of baseball, because the weather doesn't permit it. I probably had the least amount of experience, playing baseball, of anybody who was in the big leagues in 1983.

DL: How would you describe the early portion of your playing career?

AVS: It started out sort of frustrating. I never really became an everyday player until maybe the second half of my last year in St. Louis. Willie McGee got hurt, in center field, and I got a chance to play and had a terrific second half. I had felt that I was ready to play everyday, and then I ended up getting traded to Pittsburgh where I got an opportunity to do that for years.

DL: What was it like playing for Whitey Herzog?

AVS: It was actually great. Whitey was a terrific manager, and the vast majority of players liked playing for him. The only frustrating part was that... I guess that we had so much talent that it kind of prohibited me from playing every day. Whitey didn't play me every day, and that was frustrating. After Willie got hurt, and I did get to play... I knew I was ready. I had proven, at least to myself, that I could do it.

DL: What stands out from the 1985 World Series?

AVS: I think that the whole in-state Kansas City versus St. Louis experience was unique to the game. Just getting to the World Series for the first time... having it happen so early in my career, I thought it was going to happen more often that it did, obviously. It only happened once. But that's what you come to Florida for, in February. Individually, you play for a career, but as an organization, and as a team, you play to get to the World Series. Being there was a lot of fun.

DL: The 1985 Cardinals stole over 300 bases. Does that even seem imaginable to you now?

AVS: No, I don't think it will ever happen again. The way you draft players today is different. The game has changed. Not that speed isn't important, because obviously it is, but it was such a unique team in the sense that you had five guys steal over 30 bases, and one guy, Vince Coleman, steal around 110. Willie stole a ridiculous number. Ozzie [Smith] stole about 50. And I think that, just as important, was the success ratio of all of those 300 steals. It was probably as high as it has ever been on a team. It's one thing to try to steal bases, and another to be successful. I think I was thrown out four times, and I believe I stole 34 that year. [Editor's note: Van Slyke was caught stealing six times in 1985.]

DL: Who was the most under-appreciated player on the 1985 Cardinals?

AVS: Well, I don't know if you can say that driving in over 100 runs is overrated, but Tommy Herr had a very quiet season for driving in that many. Of course, given the fact that Coleman and Ozzie Smith were hitting in front of him and stealing all those bases, realistically he probably should have had even more. He got to see a million fastballs, and usually knew what was coming with all that speed on base in front of him. But still, he was most likely [underrated]. We had Jack Clark, Willie McGee was having his MVP season, Vince Coleman was setting a rookie record for stolen bases, so he had about as quiet a 100-RBI season as you can imagine. And 100 RBI back then was not the same as 100 RBI today; 25 years ago it was considered a milestone.

DL: Can you talk a little more about the trade to Pittsburgh on April 1, 1987?

AVS: I was shocked, to be honest with you. Like I said, I was ready to play every day, I'd had a great spring, and I saw the competition I was up against for a starting job, and I thought there was no way I wouldn't be the starting right fielder for St. Louis in 1987. Unfortunately, they had another kid who was having a pretty good spring, Jim Lindeman, who ended up being the right fielder that year. As it turned out, it was great for my career. It was great for me professionally, because I felt that I had something to do with the Pirates' turnaround from some dismal years in the 1980s. I think that I helped to propel them to some success in the 1990s.

DL: How did playing for Jim Leyland compare to playing for Whitey Herzog?

AVS: Their characteristics are very similar, albeit with different personalities. Their knowledge of how to manage a game is as good as anybody who ever managed a game. I would say that Jim is probably a little more personable, in the sense that he talks to his players a little more. Whitey probably used his coaches more to communicate what he was thinking. I think that one thing Jim did for me was to challenge me to be really mentally tough on a daily basis. He challenged me personally. He understands that it is very hard to play every day at the big-league level. It really comes down to your preparation before the game starts, mentally. He just knows that, physically, you're not always going to feel right. He was very, very good at that.

DL: How would you compare Greg Maddux and Mike Scott as pitchers?

AVS: Well, Mike Scott, to me, is the best pitcher to ever pitch in the big leagues. I went 1-for-38 against him. And for some reason, I hit Greg Maddux well. I'm not sure why. I think maybe I just happened to pick up the ball better off Greg Maddux. Mike Scott, when he was at the apex of his career, was actually cheating very well. When he threw that forkball, and he scuffed it all up... he threw 97-98 mph, and then he'd throw a forkball that was in the 90s and I just couldn't hit him.

DL: Were there a lot of guys "cheating very well" in your era?

AVS: I think there was more of it going on back then than there is today. You don't really see guys scuffing balls-you don't see guys with sandpaper-but it was very prevalent when I came to the big leagues. The guys... everybody knew who was doing it. It was just hard to catch them.

DL: Barry Bonds once called you "The great white hope." Does that say as much about society as it does about Bonds?

AVS: Well, he sure did, and I think it says more about Barry's lack of humor and trying to make something funny. I don't think he was really serious. I think he was trying to be funny, and make light of something that he thought existed, but didn't. I mean, at the time Barry was married to a white woman, so I don't really think he had any prejudice toward me at all because of my race. I think that the acceptance of race on a major league baseball team... the acceptance level is much higher, and maybe closest to its purest form, than it is in society itself. You don't gain respect from your teammates, or on the baseball field, because of where you came from or who you are. It's how you prepare yourself and play. That's how you gain acceptance. It doesn't matter what race you are. You're not liked, or disliked, because of your race. You're disliked maybe because you're a jerk. I think that the acceptance of people for who they are is much higher in baseball than it is in society as a whole.

DL: Any final thoughts, perhaps on the current state of the game?

AVS: There are so many issues going on today in the game. Is the World Baseball Classic a good thing? There are steroids. There are so many things to talk about that I don't even know where to begin. I think the state of the game is solid. When the game starts, it still reflects, maybe in a lot of ways, where our society should be going. Unfortunately, those are some of the things our society is going away from. Pure competition leads to your own success or failure. I mean, if Obama was the commissioner right now, he might be trying to spread 25 points of batting average to somebody else so that they can have a better arbitration case. I think that baseball, at its core, is the purest form of capitalism that we have in our society. There is no favoritism. There is nobody pointing with a curve, and that's the way it should be.

Related Content:  The Who

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Bob

Thanks for this interesting interview, David. I followed the Cardinals pretty closely during the 1980s and this brought back some good (and bad--the 1985 WS) memories.

I disagree with Van Slyke's take on the relationship between baseball and society. On the one hand, his comments on Obama are just stupid on several levels. On the other, baseball is far from the "purest form of capitalism." Baseball clubs and Major League Baseball depend on monopoly economies, not competition. Baseball's playing labor force, moreover, is fully unionized and has tremendous power to determine their salaries--quite the opposite, unfortunately, of the vast majority of American workers. And I think Van Slyke still doesn't understand what Bond's "white hope" claim meant, however poorly delivered it may have been.

Nevertheless, I liked the interview. Thanks!

Apr 19, 2009 12:32 PM
rating: 4
 
agentsteel53

what is the Great White Hope thing?

I was born in 1981; growing up I knew that Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke played for the Pirates, but little about their personal beliefs.

a google search reveals little beyond a whole slew of references to this very interview, and the esoteric fact that "www.baseball-analysis.com" is a mirror for BP.

Apr 20, 2009 09:09 AM
rating: 0
 
Bob

Here is a decent description of the phrase's origin and meanings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_White_Hope

David Zirin, in his book, Welcome to the Terror Dome, writes about how Bonds recognized that he similarly elicits the anxiety among racist baseball fans to find a "great white hope" (such as Van Slyke) to counter the success and perceived threat of an angry black man.

Apr 20, 2009 09:50 AM
rating: 0
 
agentsteel53

wonder how many fans of Henry Aaron are turned off by Barry Bonds.

jerks come in all colors.

Apr 20, 2009 10:13 AM
rating: -2
 
David Coonce

Ewww. That last answer was just kind of disgusting and misinformed on about a million levels.

As a kid I really liked Van Slyke and now I like him a lot less.

Apr 19, 2009 14:18 PM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

No need to confuse the player with the man. AKA - One can seperate the man from his politics

Apr 19, 2009 15:37 PM
rating: 0
 
David Coonce

I don't know, man. If somebody I liked - be it a baseball player, actor, politician, etc. said something racist or homophobic or really bigoted, I'm not sure I could just let it go. It's part of their personality. And this comment wasn't just mildly political - it was pretty much Joe the Plumber on steroids right-wing.

It's like the Michael Richards thing - I almost can't enjoy Seinfeld anymore.

Apr 19, 2009 16:08 PM
rating: 2
 
Carewfan29

Yep, it was a very interesting interview until that little gem.

As soon as someone drops a political bomb, I just want to tune out.

Apr 19, 2009 17:14 PM
rating: 2
 
nitetrain

Andy Van YIKES!

Apr 19, 2009 18:28 PM
rating: 5
 
Matt Swartz

Wow, as an economist, I have to say that merely reading Van Slyke's claim that baseball is the "purest form of capitalism" probably took a few years of my life. In between the lack of free entry by new firms, the government sponsorship of stadiums, the monopoly exception, the league's restriction of who can own teams, the collective bargaining agreement, the amateur player draft, the three years of reserve clause, and the existence of the arbitration process, baseball is about the least capitalist industry there is. I honestly think Andy Van Slyke might be less horrified by watching me play baseball than I am reading his thoughts on economics. Wow.

Apr 19, 2009 16:17 PM
rating: 5
 
jnossal

You guys all missed the point. Slyke's remark was not about baseball as a business, but on the interpersonal relationships of the players themselves. He's talking about their worth to each other not being guided by appearance or skin color or class, but production.

For what it is worth, I tend to disagree with the notion that you can neatly compartmentalize aspects of a person's life, disapproving of certain statements while appreciating their other accoomplishments. It's a package deal to me, if a guy is a jerk and loser, I don't want him on my team no matter how many homers he can hit.

Apr 19, 2009 17:12 PM
rating: 6
 
thegeneral13

This is absolutely correct. Van Slyke was referring the to the sport of baseball, not the business of baseball. It was a poor choice of words...I think what he really meant is that baseball is as pure of a meritocracy as you'll find, not that it is capitalistic.

It's still not 100% about merit (e.g. guys who are out of options being kept on the ML roster over better players with options, etc.), but it's pretty pure and that's what he was getting at.

Apr 20, 2009 10:18 AM
rating: 3
 
tmangell

Thanks for the interview with "Slick." He's one of the only major leaguers I ever met, and he's a funny guy. I think his Obama comment was probably tongue-in-cheek, albeit not my political leanings as a progressive. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Apr 19, 2009 19:34 PM
rating: 2
 
David Coonce

I dunno about it being "tounge-in-cheek" - if you google AVS you'll find some articles from his playing days mentioning his love of Rush Limbaugh, etc.

Like I wrote, it's like the Michael Richards thing. I still think Kramer is funny, but it's a little harder to laugh....

Apr 19, 2009 20:34 PM
rating: 0
 
IAPiratesFan

Man, lighten up a little bit. There's plenty of celebrities who say things I don't like or agree with. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy their work. He didn't say anything bigoted, homophobic or racist. I just think that what AVS said was so minor that I doubt anyone who doesn't read BP will even notice it or care....

Apr 20, 2009 14:40 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

I do find it interesting that Van Slyke thinks of baseball as the purest form of capitalism, yet there are so many movements for parity with revenue sharing, additional playoff slots like the wild card, the Rule 5 draft and the reverse W-L order of the amateur draft. The funny thing about capitalism is that you are encouraged to compete, but not allowed to "win" i.e. form a monopoly. If baseball was pure capitalism, wouldn't there be a bunch of Yankee dynasties?

Apr 19, 2009 20:27 PM
rating: 0
 
sunpar

Is there something I'm missing with the Mike Scott/Greg Maddux question. Why are we comparing the two and how can Mike Scott possible come out on top?

Apr 20, 2009 10:58 AM
rating: 0
 
David Laurila

Van Slyke went .026/.098/.026 in 38 ABs vs Scott. Against Maddux he hit .343/.436/.627 in 67 ABs.

Apr 20, 2009 12:28 PM
rating: 0
 
dogsville

I remember and rank Van Slyke, in order of importance, as an excellent ballplayer with a quick wit and conservative views.

Apr 21, 2009 12:08 PM
rating: 0
 
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