LOS ANGELES -- For nearly 30 years, some Los Angeles Dodgers fans have been bitter that Tommy Lasorda let Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark with first base open. The man on deck saw it differently.
Andy Van Slyke was only 24 years old then and he remembers that postseason as if it were “vapor, here one minute, then gone,” but he had enough mindfulness to surmise that particularly situation clearly. It was the ninth inning in Game 6 of the 1985 National League Championship Series and, even if Lasorda walked Clark, Van Slyke knew he wouldn’t have gotten to hit. Van Slyke had mashed a three-run home run off Neidenfuer the season before and left-handed reliever Jerry Reuss was getting warm in the bullpen.
“I was dejected, because I knew if Reuss came in the game, I would not have had an opportunity to hit there. Tito Landrum would have pinch hit,” Van Slyke said. “In one sense, you could say I’m the reason Jack Clark hit that home run. Ha ha.”
The St. Louis Cardinals have always had the Chicago Cubs. That rivalry, which divides the state of Illinois and a large swath of the adjoining states, dates back about 139 years, when the teams were known as the Brown Stockings and the White Stockings. The Los Angeles Dodgers have always had the San Francisco Giants. Their rivalry goes back about 125 years, when they were the only two professional teams in New York.
But just below those regional rivalries, the Cardinals and Dodgers, two of the strongest organizations in the National League, have tended to get in each other's way just as they have in recent seasons. In 2009, the Dodgers swept the Cardinals out of the National League Division Series; in 2012, the Cardinals outlasted the Dodgers for the wild card; Last season, the Cardinals beat the Dodgers in six games to capture the National League Championship Series.
“That makes the rivalry -- two quality organizations with great baseball fan bases, historically and in the present day,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.
Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke was born a little less than a year after Clark’s fateful home run. Before his first birthday, his dad had been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a deal that brought All-Star catcher Tony Pena to St. Louis, but Andy Van Slyke kept his offseason home in suburban St. Louis and Scott attended John Burroughs High in West St. Louis County. The Dodgers drafted him from there in the 14th round of the 2005 draft.
For the second year in a row, he’ll have the opportunity to sleep in his own bed during the postseason.
“The only thing I didn’t like was figuring out tickets,” Scott Van Slyke said. “I think we finally decided we’re only going to give them to immediate family.”
A year ago, Van Slyke barely played in the postseason. He pinch ran in one game and played a few innings in the outfield as a replacement for Andre Ethier, who was hobbled by an ankle injury. Van Slyke never got an at-bat. His role expanded considerably this season despite the Dodgers’ glut of well-paid outfielders. Mattingly used Van Slyke virtually every time the Dodgers faced a left-handed starting pitcher, and Van Slyke thrived. He hit .297, smashed 11 home runs and had a .910 OPS. Not bad for a guy who had been taken off the team’s 40-man roster and not invited to spring training two seasons ago. Andy Van Slyke, who was the sixth overall pick the year he was drafted by St. Louis, watched his son’s climb back to the organization’s good graces with pride. Andy Van Slyke is now the Seattle Mariners' first-base coach.
“When a player, even if it’s not your son, goes through what Scott went through, you have immense respect for it. Having been personally attached to it, it’s more meaningful to me,” Andy said. “Not every player could do that. It takes a special kind of will.”
If Scott Van Slyke is to impact this series and punish his hometown team, it’s probably not going to happen until the latter innings. The Cardinals don’t have a left-handed starting pitcher. They do have three left-handed relievers, if Kevin Siegrist makes the postseason roster, so Van Slyke’s role figures to be reduced to pinch-hitting duties.
“I’ll just hit in the cage, watch video and be ready, same as all year,” Scott Van Slyke said.
It’s October. Players have to stay ready. Whether the opportunity ever arises is sometimes beyond their control. Van Slyke’s dad could testify to that.