Vince Coleman

April 18, 1985: Vince Coleman steals two bags in his MLB debut

If you’re going to steal 110 bases as a rookie, you don’t have any time to waste. So when Tito Landrum and Willie McGee both went down with injuries, Vince Coleman made sure to make the most of his opportunity.

Coleman had been attracting headlines for two years, ever since setting a new professional baseball record for stolen bases with 145 in the South Atlantic League in 1983. He added 101 more stolen bases for the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate in Louisville in 1984, and impressed the Cardinals so much that director of player personnel Lee Thomas[1] and then-general manager Joe McDonald[2] each compared Coleman to Lou Brock before he ever stepped foot in a major league game.

“You talk about a man with a future,” Herzog said following a spring training game in which Coleman had two hits, including a two-run triple. “If the circumstances were right, we could take him and put him out there and he’d probably be Rookie of the Year.”[3]

Just a few days into the 1985 season, the circumstances were right. When Landrum pulled an abdominal muscle, Herzog planned to go with just 24 players until relief pitcher Jeff Lahti could return from the disabled list.[4] However, after McGee went down with a strained muscle in his left thigh, Herzog found himself with just 23 available players, including four outfielders.

Coleman was just 3-for-22 at Louisville, but the Cardinals were in need of a spark after winning two of their first seven games. New Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill called Coleman up to St. Louis and into his office for a meeting. He wanted his speedy new outfielder to understand that once the Cardinals got healthy again, he shouldn’t be disappointed when he returned to the minor leagues for additional seasoning.

“Look Vince,” he said. “You’ve had a nice spring, but I want you to realize, right now, that you’re only going to be with us for about a week and then you’ll be sent to Louisville.”

“Yes, Mr. Maxvill, I understand,” Coleman replied politely, “but I want you to know that I’m going to be here the whole year.”

Maxvill smiled and praised Coleman’s confidence before pointing out once again that once McGee returned from injury, Coleman would be back in the minors.

“Yes, Mr. Maxvill, I understand,” Coleman said again, “but I want you to know I’m going to be here the whole year.”[5]

Coleman arrived in time for the Cardinals’ 2-1 loss to the Expos on April 17, 1985, but Herzog didn’t use him. Instead, Coleman debut made his debut the following day as the Cardinals’ center fielder and leadoff hitter.

The Expos opened the game playing the same style of baseball that the Cardinals had popularized en route to the 1982 World Series championship. Tim Raines led off with a single, then stole second before Herm Winningham singled him home.

In the Cardinals’ half of the first, Coleman wasted no time, hitting the first pitch he saw to Expos shortstop Hubie Brooks, who threw him out.

“Sure, I was nervous, but only when I batted the first time,” Coleman said after the game. “Once I got that out of the way, I was all right and I was ready to go.”[6]

An RBI double by Vance Law made it 2-0 Expos by the time Coleman came up in the third. Ozzie Smith led off the inning with a single and Cardinals pitcher Kurt Kepshire laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance him to second base. Coleman singled into left field to advance Smith to third, then stole second before Terry Pendleton walked. Tom Herr hit a sacrifice fly to Winningham in center field to score Smith and cut the Expos’ lead to 2-1.

That proved to be the closest St. Louis would get. After retiring Dan Driessen for the first out of the fourth inning, Kepshire allowed singles to Brooks and Tim Wallach. Law singled to score Brooks, and Mike Fitzgerald broke the game open with a two-run double. With two outs and Ken Dayley now pitching for the Cardinals, Winningham added an RBI single to give the Expos a 6-1 lead.

Rogers held the Cardinals to just five hits in a complete-game effort and even tacked on an insurance run in the eighth inning with an RBI single off Andy Hassler.

“I mixed in all of my pitches over the nine innings,” Rogers said. “The last couple of innings I used the forkball as a change-up.”[7]

Rogers did walk four batters in the game, including Coleman in the sixth. Coleman then stole second base before Pendleton struck out and Herr flied out to end the inning.

While the 7-1 loss dropped the Cardinals to 2-6 on the young season, Coleman drew rave reviews for his performance.

“He gets a great jump and his acceleration is unreal,” Expos coach Russ Nixon said. “He’s faster than Brock, although Lou made base stealing a science. Once Coleman gets it all together, the throw is going to have to be perfect if you’re going to get him at all.”[8]

Said Herzog, “George Kissell has helped with most of the young Cardinal players for over 40 years and he said that Coleman works harder than any player he has handled. Now that’s a great compliment.”[9]

That hard work paid off for Coleman and the Cardinals in 1985. True to Coleman’s predictions, he stayed in the big leagues the remainder of the season. Herzog’s spring training prediction about Coleman’s potential for winning the Rookie of the Year Award also came true, as Coleman stole 110 bases and captured the prize over Tom Browning of the Reds and Mariano Duncan of the Dodgers. His spark helped the Cardinals reverse their fortunes and capture the National League pennant.

“He’s explosive,” Ozzie Smith said after seeing the rookie’s debut. “He’s going to be a good one.”[10]

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[1] Rick Hummel, “Redbirds High On Coleman,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 4, 1984.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Birds Complete Hendrick-Tudor Deal With Bucs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1984.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Kepshire Optimistic On Cards’ Pitchers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 13, 1985: E4.

[4] Tom Wheatley, “Coleman Express Arrives At Busch,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 18, 1985: D1.

[5] Doug Feldmann, Fleeter Than Birds: The 1985 St. Louis Cardinals and Small Ball’s Last Hurrah, Jefferson, N.C.; McFarland & Company, Inc., 44-45.

[6] Neal Russo, “Expos Give Cards The Business,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 19, 1985: D1.

[7] Brian Kappler, “Rogers goes route as Expos win,” Montreal Gazette, April 19, 1985: D1.

[8] Neal Russo, “Expos Give Cards The Business,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 19, 1985: D1.

[9] Neal Russo, “Expos Give Cards The Business,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 19, 1985: D1.

[10] Neal Russo, “Expos Give Cards The Business,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 19, 1985: D1.