WWWD?

This is Willie McGee, 1982 World Series. Willie McGee could fly, he was a terrific baserunner and hitter and a quality outfielder. He could kill you with a double in the gap and he could kill you stealing a base. He was a splendid ballplayer who played for the right man at the right time on the right turf in the right city.

Who can we credit for this? Whitey Herzog. I’ve written about him before and believe his career can teach us something once again.
Herzog had a career as a big league ballplayer but made his mark on the game in procurement, development and management (on field and off). He was with the Mets in the scouting and development department when that team was adding a Hall of Fame arm at about a once-a-year pace in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
When he took over in St. Louis, Herzog spent most of his first season as manager in the minor leagues, looking at his own team’s prospects and checking out other minor leaguers and fringe big league players. The result was some exceptionally lopsided deals, most famous being Bob Sykes to the Yankees for Willie McGee.
But the key player for me in the career of Whitey Herzog has always been Lonnie Smith. Whitey acquired him for a tired arm and an also-ran (well, a little more than that) and many baseball people felt the Cardinals had gone crazy. Smith had a terrific bat and could run like mad, but he was also a nightmare in the outfield. He fell down a lot and was on every baseball blooper episode of the 80′s. Thing was, he was so used to falling down that Lonnie became good at recovering and because of it the number of runs that it cost his team was far less than the visual evidence implied.
And that was Whitey. Joaquin Andujar goes a little mental when he doesn’t pitch? Well, let’s have him pitch every 4th day. Lonnie Smith falls down a lot? Well, let’s make sure the CF (McGee) is a jackrabbit and can backup the play. Got a bunch of punch-and-judy hitters all over the roster? Well, let’s make sure they can run so that pressure can be placed on the other team’s defense and also make sure we have a #4 hitter with “hair on his ass” (Jack Clark) who can drive in all those rabbits.
Whitey Herzog’s brilliance came from the belief that talent was in fact plentiful and that the key was being better than the other guy at two things: evaluating talent and using incomplete players in roles where they could succeed and making certain that said player’s weaknesses were addressed by other roster players. He did it all the time. I don’t think he had 5 guys who had 90mph fastballs but they could throw slop up there (remember Danny Cox?) and be successful.
Whitey never got too attached to any one player, the only one I remember him being upset about leaving was Jack Clark. But he had a terrific bunch of men playing hard for the Cardinals all through the 1980′s and many of them were acquired for 10 cents on the dollar and cashed in millions after Whitey applied their skills to his concept of “team.” He was brilliant.
The ideas of Whitey Herzog can be applied to a team like the Oilers in an “accidentally accomplished” manner. I don’t think anyone in the Oilers front office can hold Whitey’s jockstrap but there are absolutely good things happening on this hockey team. Can they sustain it? Who knows. For now, let’s make a list of things that are breaking right for the club this season:
  1. Dustin Penner has emerged as a real talent. Not a guy who you can play in a role, but a guy who you can build a line around and someone who can impact a hockey game when needed; that’s a helluva deal.
  2. Lubomir Visnovsky is a beauty player and is healthy. His partner (Smid) is improving and might have another gear.
  3. Shawn Horcoff looks healthy again and he’s playing well. Making a difference.
  4. Sam Gagner is improving, just slightly in the boxcars but quite a bit in those secondary areas. This is a vital development for the Oilers, one of these kids has to emerge eventually as someone the team can count on to outplay that other team’s best players. He’s not there yet but he is developing. At age 20, Gagner looks like he might be someone.
  5. Ryan Stone looks like a player.
  6. Ryan Potulny may be good enough to play a role even when everyone returns.
  7. Gilbert Brule can score goals.
  8. Jeff Deslauriers has had success at the NHL level.
Anything else? It’s important to remember that not all of these developments will stick. Deslauriers’ SP could slide into the ocean, Brule could stop scoring or Dustin Penner might regress. But it’s also true that some of the negatives right now (Hemsky’s injury, O’Sullivan’s play) will likely turnaround too and that a new list of positives will emerge next season.
The Oilers still have holes and they still have those putrid contracts and they still have a management team that lacks the gumption of Whitey Herzog when it comes to making change. But there are things that make you believe this team can contend soon. The Sam Gagner development is a key item for this team moving forward, as it appears that Andrew Cogliano is not destined to join him on the next “Weight-Smyth-Marchant” run for these Edmonton Oilers.
I wish Whitey knew about hockey, or had a cousin who grew up in Canada.

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