In losing their closer and top run producer within a six-day stretch in December 1984, the Cardinals appeared to be a franchise in danger of decline.
With Bruce Sutter (45 saves, 1.54 ERA) and George Hendrick (28 doubles and 69 RBI), the 1984 Cardinals achieved 84 wins and finished 12.5 games behind the champion Cubs in the National League East.
Without Sutter and Hendrick, the 1985 Cardinals achieved 101 wins and clinched the National League pennant.
On Dec. 7, 1984, Sutter, a free agent, signed with the Braves. Five days later, on Dec. 12, the Cardinals dealt Hendrick and minor-league third baseman Steve Barnard to the Pirates for pitcher John Tudor and utility player Brian Harper.
Distraught by the trade of a player who had led the Cardinals in RBI for five consecutive years (1980-84) and in home runs for four seasons in a row (1980-83), second baseman Tommy Herr told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “It’s hard to understand. I think we’ve taken some serious steps backward. … I don’t know why they would trade George, especially to a team in our division. I don’t see how our lineup can withstand the loss of a guy like George.”
Sutter’s departure had created an urgency for the Cardinals to find a pitcher to join ace Joaquin Andujar as starters who could go deep into games. Without Sutter, the Cardinals are “going to have to have our starters go like hell and get us to the eighth inning,” manager Whitey Herzog told The Sporting News.
Hendrick, 35, was deemed expendable because the Cardinals believed they had candidates to replace him.
Cardinals general manager Joe McDonald told United Press International, “We are sorry to give up George Hendrick and wish him well, but young outfielders like Andy Van Slyke and, a little further into the future, Vince Coleman are deserving of their chances and I’m sure they’ll respond in a way St. Louis fans like.”
In his book “You’re Missin’ a Great Game,” Herzog said Hendrick “became one of the most respected players on my team. When I traded him to the Pirates, it was only out of baseball necessity.”
Tudor, 30, had a 12-11 record for the 1984 Pirates. McDonald noted, though, that the left-hander had yielded fewer hits (200) than innings pitched (217) and had 117 strikeouts compared with 56 walks. “What I like about him is his ratio of bases on balls to strikeouts,” said McDonald.
The Pirates, who had finished in last place in the six-team NL East in 1984, were confident Hendrick would produce runs and excite the fan base. “It was a deal that general manager Pete Peterson needed to convince Pittsburgh fans that there is a desire to improve the club,” wrote The Sporting News.
Said Peterson: “I think Hendrick can hit 20 home runs and drive in 80 runs … I rate him as one of the best clutch hitters in the game.”
Pirates third baseman Bill Madlock said Hendrick “will take pressure off our hitters.”
Eight days later, on Dec. 20, the Pirates acquired another run-producing outfielder, Steve Kemp, from the Yankees.
The deals, however, were busts for the Pirates and a boon for the Cardinals.
Tudor was both the winner and the workhorse McDonald and Herzog had hoped he would be for the 1985 Cardinals. After losing seven of his first eight decisions, Tudor won 20 of his last 21. He and Andujar each had 21 wins for the 1985 Cardinals. In 36 starts, Tudor pitched 275 innings and recorded 10 shutouts. His ERA was 1.93.
In his book, Herzog said Tudor “never threw a ball over 85 mph in his life.” Herzog credited a “now-you-see-it changeup” for Tudor’s turnaround.
“John Tudor was the most amazing pitcher I ever saw,” Herzog wrote.
Van Slyke, 24, adequately replaced Hendrick in right field. Van Slyke had 25 doubles and his 13 home runs ranked second on the club.
Coleman, 23, was promoted from the minors in mid-April and became the everyday left fielder, igniting the offense with 170 hits and 110 steals.
First baseman Jack Clark, acquired from the Giants two months after Hendrick was traded, delivered 22 home runs and 87 RBI.
Herzog deftly handled a closer committee of Jeff Lahti, Ken Dayley, Bill Campbell and Neil Allen until rookie Todd Worrell became the stopper in September.
Danny Cox (18 wins) joined Andujar and Tudor in creating a formidable rotation that also included Kurt Kepshire (10 wins) and Bob Forsch (nine wins).
Meanwhile, the Pirates regressed. They were 57-104, finishing 43.5 games behind the 1985 Cardinals. Hendrick hit .230 with two home runs and 25 RBI in 69 games. Kemp hit .250 with two home runs and 21 RBI in 92 games.