Finding Talent Others have Overlooked

This is Whitey Herzog. I’ve been thinking about him quite a bit lately, mostly because he had such an incredible impact on a middling team 30 years ago.

The late 1970′s St. Louis Cardinals were a pretty good club (better than the Oilers) but they hadn’t won anything in over a decade when Dorrel Norman Elvert arrived. The Cards won the ’67 pennant and WS and then the ’68 pennant before becoming a team that contended but could not win.

What did Whitey do? Well he took over the Cardinals in mid-season (he was the team’s 3rd manager in 1980) and guided them to a 38-35 record before doing something so unusual it’s still remembered by fans who lived through the era.

Herzog gave the manager’s job to old hand Red Schoendienst (who had managed the club for many years previous, including the pennants and WS above) and went on a minor league tour looking for players. On August 26, 1980 Whitey Herzog went walk-about through America’s heartland finding gems in the St. Louis system and others and during the winter and beyond he brought them to St. Louis. Some took a year to acquire (Willie McGee came over in a trade with the Yankees winter 1981) but they were mostly jackrabbits and pitchers who could throw strikes and damned if Whitey didn’t win three pennants in the 1980′s (along with the 1982 WS).

I like Steve Tambellini. He appears intelligent, measures his words before speaking, has taken his time putting his stamp on the team. The addition of Patrick O’Sullivan at the deadline, the hiring of the Quinn-Renney tandem for coaching, the vision to believe his own good luck and not over-think the Magnum PS selection. The acquisition of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin at a very dear price (both amount and term) is one I’m willing to give him, what with the need to make a grumpy coach happy being one of his daily tasks.

I’m even willing to understand his thinking in the Dany Heatley trade. Get the guy, that’s a Whitey Herzog bullet point if there ever was one and Dorrel went the extra mile with his cleanup hitters too (certainly Jack Clark, although Keith Hernandez and John Mayberry wouldn’t agree). I also believe Herzog would have decided on which young center (Gagner-Cogliano) to keep, looked to find a role at another position for the lesser and then sent him out for value if that idea didn’t work as a solution.

I don’t really believe all this “anti-Edmonton” talk that’s going around, to me it’s just piling on and navel-gazing. I’m okay with waiting on Heatley because Tambellini’s an intelligent man and he must think this guy will give his go-ahead and some point or he wouldn’t be going in this direction.

The only real issue I have with Steve Tambellini is that he needs to establish control in this organization, the way Herzog did one day in late August of 1980. He needs address needs and use cap room to do it, but it’s way more than that in today’s NHL. A major priority is to find the gems, they are out there (the Caps traded a kid named Sami Lepisto just the other day and he’s a hidden gem I’d bet) and the Oilers need to get some of it. Drafting isn’t enough, any fool can see that just by looking at the number of undrafted players making an impact at the NHL level. The Oilers need to make some bets on college free agents, and not the shallow end of the pool either.

In watching the draft a week ago I felt the Oilers were continuing a recent run of smart (if not top drawer) decisions that at least delayed the “draft for need” picks until the third round. I don’t think they got max value on the goalie but would be willing to forget it (and the Heatley trade too) if the Oilers looked like a team that was going to aggressively pursue procurement via college free agents, undrafted juniors turning 20 and quality players in Europe. The Oilers can turn this thing around, but only if they use all of the avenues available to them.

I hate the phrase “think outside the box” but in this case it seems fitting. Scott Howson in Columbus, Cliff Fletcher’s kid in Minnesota, these are men who are trying to shake middling and make summer leaps in a winter game.

I wish we had some of that, and maybe we do. It would be nice to see a sign.

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