In 1987, the Cardinals made a trade with the Pirates that stunned fans of both teams. Whether one believes the deal helped or hurt the Cardinals is a matter of perspective.
On April 1, 1987, the Pirates traded catcher Tony Pena, a four-time all-star, to the Cardinals for outfielder Andy Van Slyke, catcher Mike LaValliere and pitcher Mike Dunne.
The deal brought immediate results for the Cardinals. Though he had a subpar regular season, Pena helped the Cardinals win the 1987 National League East Division championship. Inspired by his first exposure to postseason baseball, Pena was a key part of St. Louis’ march to the pennant and a berth in the World Series.
After two more seasons with St. Louis, Pena became a free agent and signed with the Red Sox.
Van Slyke, LaValliere and Dunne all blossomed into top producers for the 1987 Pirates. Van Slyke and LaValliere played integral roles in helping Pittsburgh emerge from a last-place team in 1986 to win three consecutive NL East titles (1990-92).
Informed of the trade made by general managers Dal Maxvill of the Cardinals and Syd Thrift of the Pirates, Pena and Pirates manager Jim Leyland cried.
“My heart’s bleeding,” Pena said to the Associated Press. “I made my life with this ballclub.”
Said Leyland, who approved of the deal: “We’ve traded the best and most durable catcher in baseball.”
Pena, 29, was a three-time winner of the Gold Glove Award and popular with Pirates fans. In an editorial, the Pittsburgh Press wrote,
If Pirates fans could cast a mold of their prototype baseball player, it would come out looking a lot like Tony Pena. He plays baseball the way they like to see it played _ with zest, verve and abandon.
Reaction to the trade largely was negative in Pittsburgh. Wrote columnist Bruce Keidan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
Sorely in need of a starting pitcher, a first-rate shortstop and a right-handed power hitter, the Pirates conspired to give away an all-star catcher without obtaining any of the three.
Said Thrift: “How am I going to explain to my 82-year-old mother when the fans boo me?”
Adding to the despair of many Pirates fans was the reaction to the trade by the Cardinals.
“In Tony Pena, we are getting one of the premier players in the game,” Maxvill said to the Associated Press.
Added manager Whitey Herzog: “When you get a ballplayer of that caliber, you’ve done something. We are really happy. We paid a good price to get him, but it was worth it.”
The Cardinals had entered the 1986 season with Mike Heath as their starting catcher. He couldn’t hit (.205 in 65 games) and the Cardinals dealt him to the Tigers in August that season.
Herzog figured to utilize a platoon of LaValliere and Steve Lake at catcher in 1987, but the thought of having two slow-footed, light-hitting catchers concerned him. Thrift, looking to lift a team that had finished 64-98 in 1986, dangled Pena as trade bait.
“This is a move we believe will benefit the Pirates … Van Slyke has the capability and physical tools to become an outstanding, complete player,” Thrift told the Post-Gazette.
It soon became evident the trade may not have been as lopsided as initially thought.
Post-Gazette columnist John Steigerwald wrote,
Who got the better of the deal depends on which Tony Pena the Cardinals got … Chances are the Cardinals got the same two Tony Penas that have played here, the hot one and the cold one.
If you think the Pirates were robbed, it might make you feel better to know that longtime Cardinals announcer Jack Buck told me yesterday that he thinks Andy Van Slyke is the best defensive outfielder in the National League and that he is as exciting in right field as Pena is behind the plate.
In interviews immediately after the trade was made, Van Slyke and LaValliere provided insights into how they expected to contribute to the Pirates.
“I felt that this (1987) was my year to blossom,” Van Slyke told the Post-Gazette. “This was my year to do the things everybody anticipated me doing in St. Louis. But I can do it here. Sure I can.”
Said LaValliere: “I pride myself an awful lot on my defense … That’s probably my strongest point _ working with my pitchers … With the Cardinals, I knew who I had to kick in the butt and who I had to burp. I’ll have a crash course here.”
Pirates players bought into the trade. Said outfielder Mike Diaz: “The team isn’t made up of one player … We got two starters (Van Slyke and LaValliere) for the price of one.”
In retrospect, the Pirates got three starters for the price of one.
Dunne, 24, earned a spot in the rotation of the 1987 Pirates, posting a 13-6 record and 3.03 ERA in 23 games.
LaValliere, 27, earned a Gold Glove Award in 1987, finishing second in the NL in fielding among catchers, with a .992 percentage. He went on to a seven-year career with Pittsburgh.
Van Slyke, 27, opened the 1987 season in right field for Pittsburgh, with Barry Bonds in center and Bobby Bonilla in left. (During the season, Van Slyke was shifted to center, with Bonds moved to left and Bonilla to right). Van Slyke had the stellar season he expected in ’87, batting .293 with a .359 on-base percentage, 36 doubles, 11 triples, 21 home runs and 82 RBI.
In eight years with Pittsburgh, Van Slyke hit .283 with an on-base percentage of .353. He won a Gold Glove Award in five consecutive seasons (1988-92).
The Cardinals had made the deal, in part, because they believed rookie Jim Lindeman was ready to become an everyday right fielder. But he wasn’t as talented as Van Slyke. (A year later, to plug the gap in right field, the Cardinals traded their productive second baseman, Tom Herr, to the Twins for outfielder Tom Brunansky).
Pena batted .214 with 5 home runs and 44 RBI for St. Louis in 1987. He hit much better in the postseason (.381 in the NL Championship Series against the Giants, and .409 in the World Series against the Twins).
Pena was better in 1988 (.263, 10 homers, 51 RBI) and in 1989 (.259, 4 homers, 37 RBI, with an all-star berth) for St. Louis. He also ranked first in fielding among NL catchers in both seasons (.994 in ’88 and .997 in ’89).
But the loss of Van Slyke ended up being a high cost for the Cardinals to pay.