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.
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.
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.