Put at ease by management and welcomed by teammates, including those he might replace, Ray Lankford quickly felt at home with the Cardinals and delivered a stellar performance in his big-league debut.
Twenty-five years ago, on Aug. 21, 1990, Lankford, 23, went 2-for-4 with a RBI, a run scored and a stolen base against future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz of the Braves in his first game with the Cardinals.
Batting sixth and starting in center field, Lankford singled in his first at-bat _ a soft line drive to center in the second inning _ and swiped second base.
In the eighth, Lankford doubled into the right-field corner off Smoltz with two outs, driving in Todd Zeile from second, and scored on a single by Rex Hudler.
“I did a little bit of everything,” Lankford said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m happy. I couldn’t have asked for much more.” Boxscore
Lankford was selected by the Cardinals in the third round of the 1987 amateur draft. He and another well-regarded Cardinals outfield prospect, Bernard Gilkey, became friends and were road roommates with the 1990 Class AAA Louisville farm club.
With Willie McGee eligible to become a free agent after the 1990 season, speculation was rampant that Lankford would replace McGee as the St. Louis center fielder in 1991.
“When he plays hard, he’s awesome,” Gilkey said of Lankford to Mike Eisenbath of the Post-Dispatch. “… He reminds me of Kal Daniels of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he plays better defense and he runs better (than Daniels). His style is like Daniels and he’s built like Willie Mays.”
One of the few to cast doubts about Lankford was Whitey Herzog. After abruptly quitting as Cardinals manager in July 1990, Herzog remained with the club as a vice president.
“You can talk about prospects all you want, but if you and I are hitting .270 at Louisville … those aren’t good credentials to take Willie McGee’s job,” a cranky Herzog said of Lankford to Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch.
Herzog was sent in August to scout Cardinals prospects. The Post-Dispatch’s Dan O’Neill reported that Herzog said in a Louisville radio interview that his opinions on Cardinals prospects “might not be the same” as those of director of player development Ted Simmons. Herzog concluded Lankford could benefit from another season at Class AAA.
No war zone
Disregarding Herzog’s advice, the Cardinals called up Lankford on Aug. 20, 1990. He was batting .260 for Louisville, but he had a .362 on-base percentage, with 25 doubles, 72 RBI, 30 stolen bases, 72 walks and 123 hits in 132 games.
After reporting to Busch Stadium on Aug. 21, Lankford met with Simmons, manager Joe Torre and instructor George Kissell in Torre’s office.
“Teddy told him he wasn’t going to Vietnam,” Torre related. “This isn’t war here. Just go out and have a good time.”
Torre met with the Cardinals’ starting outfielders _ McGee, Vince Coleman and Milt Thompson _ and explained to them he would start Lankford in center and move McGee to right, putting Thompson (who was batting .219) on the bench.
Torre admitted he wanted Lankford to play center “in the event McGee’s not here next year. We want to get him used to the bigger outfield here (at Busch Stadium).”
One of the first to greet Lankford in the clubhouse was Thompson. “I just have to keep my head up and keep working hard,” Thompson said to the Post-Dispatch.
McGee and Coleman also were friendly to Lankford.
“Willie and Vince are both great players and I’m not here to take any jobs away,” Lankford said.
McGee said he hadn’t played right field since attending Diablo Valley College in California.
Asked his reaction to being moved from center to right, McGee said, “I’m the employee. I do what I’m told.”
Lankford batted .400 (6-for-15) in his first four games for the Cardinals.
“We’ll baby Lankford a little bit, but we want to get a good read on him so we know what to expect,” Torre said.
Bernie Miklasz, Post-Dispatch columnist, endorsed the decision to play Lankford.
“The Cardinals need to turn Lankford loose, let him flail away at big-league pitching,” Miklasz wrote. “… Lankford can’t be held back. Stunting his progress at this stage is counterproductive.”
On Aug. 29, 1990, the Cardinals traded McGee to the Athletics for outfielder Felix Jose, infielder Stan Royer and minor-league pitcher Daryl Green.
In 39 games with the 1990 Cardinals, Lankford hit .286 with 10 doubles, eight stolen bases and a .353 on-base percentage.
After getting the chance to see Lankford, Gilkey and Jose play in the big leagues in September 1990, the Cardinals made that trio their regular outfield in 1991.
Previously: Ray Lankford did what Mays, Mantle could not