Three prominent Cardinals from the Whitey Herzog era _ Willie McGee, Tom Pagnozzi and, yes, Ozzie Smith _ thrived under Tony La Russa in his first season as St. Louis manager.
Though Smith remains upset with La Russa because the manager reduced his playing time in 1996, relegating him to a reserve role behind shortstop Royce Clayton, what often gets overlooked is that Smith produced a quality final season under La Russa’s management.
In a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, Rick Hummel pointed out that Smith played for all four living Cardinals managers who have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Herzog, Red Schoendienst, Joe Torre and La Russa.
McGee and Pagnozzi played for all four of them as Cardinals, too.
(McGee, Pagnozzi and Smith all joined the Cardinals in the 1980s when Herzog was manager. They were Cardinals in July 1990 when Herzog, who abruptly resigned, was replaced by his coach, Schoendienst, for 24 games. All three played for Torre in August 1990 when he took over for Schoendienst.)
After Torre was fired in 1995, La Russa was hired to manage the Cardinals in 1996.
Pagnozzi and Smith were holdovers from the 1995 Cardinals. McGee, who was traded to the Athletics (managed by La Russa) about a month after Torre became Cardinals manager, signed with St. Louis as a free agent after spending the 1995 season with the Red Sox.
After spring training in 1996, La Russa declared Clayton the starting shortstop. The decision created a rift between La Russa and Smith that has lasted for 18 years. (Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz recently pleaded for a truce between the two Hall of Famers.)
Unlike Smith, McGee and Pagnozzi built respectful relationships with La Russa in 1996.
Like Smith, McGee and Pagnozzi performed well under La Russa’s management that year.
McGee: Team player
_ McGee batted .307 (12 points above his career mark) for the 1996 Cardinals. It was his highest batting average in five years, since he hit .312 for the 1991 Giants. McGee led the 1996 Cardinals in pinch-hitting batting average (.350, 14-for-40).
In October 1996, just before the Cardinals opened the National League postseason (their first appearance in nine years), Jeff Gordon of the Post-Dispatch wrote, “McGee brought a lot more than heritage or aesthetics to the table. He filled in admirably for (Brian) Jordan and (Ron) Gant and proved dangerous as a part-timer coming off the bench.”
Said McGee of La Russa: “Whatever he asks me to do, I do. Pinch-hit, play, whatever … I’m sure he’ll try to put the best team he can out there.”
Pagnozzi: Rises to challenge
_ Pagnozzi produced single-season career highs in home runs (13), slugging percentage (.423) and runs scored (48) for the 1996 Cardinals while elevating his skill as a pitch caller. (St. Louis finished among the top six in the league in ERA.) Pagnozzi batted .270 (17 points above his career mark) in 1996 and especially was effective (.311, 56-for-180) with runners on base.
Describing the celebration after the Cardinals clinched the division title on Sept. 24, 1996, at Pittsburgh, Hummel wrote, “One of the more poignant clubhouse scenes was a tearful Tom Pagnozzi, the Cardinals catcher, hugging manager Tony La Russa, who didn’t seem all that impressed with Pagnozzi early in the season.”
Said Pagnozzi: “We went through a lot. I just thanked him for staying with me and keeping me here. We respect each other and I think I’ve risen to his challenge. To me, this was a great feeling because I was able to go up and look him in the eye and he knows I’m a player. “
Smith: Blinded by pride
_ Smith, who was 41 during the 1996 season, hit .282 (20 points above his career mark) that year. He started 50 games at shortstop and otherwise was used primarily as a pinch hitter. He hit .351 (40-for-114) at home under La Russa’s management.
Wrote Gordon: “La Russa’s unsentimental handling of Smith set the tone for this season. He was here to win, not to massage egos. Those who played had to bust their tails and those who sat were supposed to stay ready.”
“The key is, this is a team sport,” La Russa said. “They’ve got to handle their emotions so that they’re contributing something positive to the club. If the guy on the bench is in the corner and not getting ready to put a piece in later on, I have a problem with that. I’m checking that all the time. My job is not making guys happy. It’s to do what’s best for the team.”