The St. Louis Cardinals spent most of 1985 outrunning just about everyone and everything on a baseball field. In total, the Redbirds swiped 314 bags (this year, the Rays led the majors with 172 steals), but the centerpiece of the team’s running attack was a rookie outfielder named Vince Coleman, who stole a remarkable 110 bases in 135 attempts, a mark that remains the third highest total in major league history.
Over the first two games of the 1985 NLCS, however, the Los Angeles Dodgers managed to shut down the Cardinals’ speed-based offense, as Mike Scioscia gunned down three of four attempted base stealers, including Coleman. In game three, the Cardinals finally found their legs, using three stolen bases to score four runs and get on the board in the series. Despite the previous night’s victory, however, the Cardinals hopes for the pennant took a major hit before game four, thanks to one of the most bizarre injuries to ever occur on a baseball field.
October 13, 1985 was an overcast day in St. Louis. While the Cardinals were warming up before the game, it started to rain lightly, but nothing serious enough to put the evening’s game in jeopardy. One by one, the St. Louis players made their way back to the clubhouse, and included among them was Coleman. Before exiting the field, however, Coleman turned around to toss his glove to coach Dave Ricketts just as a button was pushed to activate the Busch Stadium automated tarpaulin. At over one-half ton and 180 feet in length, the “killer tarp”, as it would become known, arose from beneath the ground on the first base side of home plate and headed toward Coleman. Before the fleet footed centerfielder realized the impending danger, it was too late. Something had finally caught up to Vince Coleman.
“It kept going. When it hit his ankle, he went down. It went up over his knee. He screamed. He was in extreme pain. It must have been three seconds when a bunch of Cardinals players got there and lifted it off him.” – Los Angeles Dodgers bat boy Howard Hughett quoted by the Associated Press, October 14, 1985
The overriding theme in all of the first hand accounts of the incident was the extent of the pain Coleman expressed in his screams. Cardinals’ third baseman Terry Pendleton stated, “I was just turning around [when] I heard this scream and the thing just swallowed him up,” while part timer Mike Jorgensen ironically figured that the grounds crew hadn’t realized what had happened because of all the screaming.
After the incident, initial examinations revealed no permanent damage, allowing Coleman to joke “I just don’t want to be charged with a caught stealing for this.” After a further examination, however, no one would be laughing. X-rays eventually revealed a small bone fracture in Coleman’s left knee, ending the speedster’s season.
Despite being widely viewed as a major setback, the Cardinals evened up the NLCS with a 12-2 blowout of the Dodgers, thanks in large part to Coleman’s replacement, Tito Landrum, who went 3-4 with three RBIs. St. Louis then went on to finish off the series with two last inning homers by Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark in games five and six. Ironically, just as the Cardinals lost their speed, they found their power, much to the dismay of Tom Niedenfuer, the Dodgers’ reliever who surrendered both game winning blasts.
The Cardinals eventually went on to lose the World Series to the Kansas City Royals in seven games, but not because they lost Vince Coleman. After compiling an .895 OPS in the NLCS, Landrum followed with a .920 OPS in the Fall Classic. Unfortunately for St. Louis, the combination of a bad umpire’s call in game six along with anemic offensive performance (only Landrum had an OPS above .737 in the series) conspired to end their season as runners up.
The 1985 post season was an odyssey for the St. Louis Cardinals. The team encountered improbable victory in game 5 of the NLCS, when Ozzie Smith belted a game winning homer (his first left handed round tripper in 3,009 at bats), but then suffered ignominious defeat when umpire Don Denkinger’s missed call in the ninth inning of game six opened the door for the Royals to win the series. Nothing, however, was more strange than what took place on October 13…the day the most instrumental part of the Cardinals’ running game was rundown himself by a Killer Tarp.