April 1, 1982: Cardinals acquire reliever Jeff Lahti in trade with Reds

Less than a week before the start of the 1982 season, Whitey Herzog found himself with more pitchers than he had roster spots. To alleviate the roster jam, the Cardinals made a trade to acquire a reliever who specialized in getting out of jams.

On April 1, 1982, the Cardinals traded swingman Bob Shirley to the Reds for minor-league right-handers Jeff Lahti and Oscar Brito.

“I didn’t have any idea I would be traded, but I knew that Whitey had a problem because we had 13 pitchers in camp,” Shirley said.[1]

A left-hander from Oklahoma, Shirley came to the Cardinals as part of the trade with the Padres that brought Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace, and Bob Geren to St. Louis for Terry Kennedy, John Littlefield, Al Olmsted, Mike Phillips, Kim Seaman, Steve Swisher, and John Urrea. In his lone season with the Cardinals, Shirley appeared in 28 games, including 11 starts. He went 6-4 with a 4.08 ERA in 79 1/3 innings.

“I have a lot of respect for the Cardinal organization,” Shirley said. “No hard feelings.”[2]

After pitching well in 1981, Shirley struggled in his 18 spring training innings, allowing 14 earned runs on 24 hits.[3]

“You won’t find a better guy than Shirley, but he didn’t throw the ball like I saw him before,” Herzog said. “I probably didn’t pitch him enough. I don’t know.”[4]

“Whitey realized I pitch better the more I pitch,” Shirley said, “but the way he manages, when we face Montreal, a power righthanded club, or Philadelphia, I wouldn’t be in there. I’d sit eight or nine days and be called on to face one hitter, and I failed.”[5]

Shirley’s ability to start or relieve, however, made him valuable. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Reds each wanted Shirley. Cardinals executive Joe McDonald had spoken to the Blue Jays about a possible trade during their spring training game on March 31 but had been unable to come to terms.[6]

“We tried to get him when he was still pitching for San Diego,” Reds president Dick Wagner said. “Our plans are to pitch Shirley in short relief along with Jim Kern, Tom Hume, and Joe Price.”[7]

For Shirley, the trade not only meant he needed to shave his moustache due to the Reds’ policy against facial hair, but also that he would not be pitching against the team against whom he enjoyed the most success. Shirley was 12-7 for his career against the Reds but just 33-58 against the rest of the league.[8]

For the Cardinals, the deal meant that 22-year-old left-hander Dave LaPoint would get his first extended look with the big-league club.

“If we didn’t have LaPoint, we couldn’t do what we did,” Herzog said.[9]

Originally drafted by the Brewers in 1977 out of Glens Falls High School in New York, LaPoint appeared in five games for Milwaukee in 1980 before he came to St. Louis as part of the trade that sent Fingers, Ted Simmons, and Pete Vuckovich to the Brewers.

As a 21-year-old, LaPoint spent most of the 1981 season with Triple-A Springfield, where he went 13-9 with a 3.19 ERA. In September, the Cardinals called him up to the majors, where appeared in three games, including two starts, and went 1-0 with a 4.22 ERA.

“I really wanted to keep LaPoint on the team and we really don’t have any prospects in Triple-A,” Herzog said. “We think Brito and Lahti are both big-league prospects and we need somebody to step in if something happens here.”[10]

A lean, 22-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic, Brito had been in the Reds’ system since he was 17. After going 12-6 with a 3.45 ERA in Double-A in 1980, he struggled at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he went 6-11 with a 4.89 ERA in 1981. In 116 innings, he struck out 91 batters but walked 77.

“This was a big decision for us to make to give up two young prospects like this,” Wagner said. “Brito’s one of the highest-regarded prospects in the game, period. They were very important to us.”[11]

Lahti had been a high school sensation at Hood River Valley High School before continuing his baseball career at Treasure Valley Community College and Portland State University. Along the way, he was drafted by both the Phillies and Giants, but didn’t sign until the Reds made him a fifth-round draft pick in the 1978 June draft. At the time of the trade he was coming off a season with Triple-A Indianapolis in which he posted a 3.42 ERA and struck out 70 batters in 100 innings.

“I can spot a fastball 91 or 92 mph,” Lahti said. “I’ll keep them off-stride with a slider now and then, but when you can move a fastball in and out, you don’t need much else. I don’t go through the order very often.”[12]

Lahti opened the 1982 season with Triple-A Louisville before he was called up to St. Louis in June. It didn’t take long for the excitable reliever to make an impression on teammates. Just a few weeks after he was called up, Lahti covered first base on a successful putout, then turned to throw the ball around the infield. In his excitement, the ball sailed all the way to the center-field wall.

“I try to keep myself pumped up, but I’m not conscious of my actions,” Lahti said. “Maybe it’s my second being. They say there’s two sides to everybody. Maybe that’s my second side. On the mound, I’m a monster.”[13]

As the Cardinals raced toward the National League pennant, Lahti established himself as a valuable member of the bullpen, winning five games and posting a 3.81 ERA over 56 2/3 innings. Lahti made two appearances in the World Series, allowing two earned runs over 1 2/3 innings.

In 1983, Lahti served as the Cardinals’ bridge to closer Bruce Sutter. In 74 innings, he posted a 3.16 ERA. The following year, he threw 84 2/3 innings with a 3.72 ERA.

“It’s too bad somebody can’t think of another statistic for evaluating relievers,” Herzog said. “Then people would know that Lahti is one of the best long relievers in the National League. He’s never going to get many saves. A long reliever never does. He has to do the job in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings and get us to the short man.”[14]

The key to Lahti’s success, Herzog said, was his willingness to challenge hitters.

“Lahti’s my ‘jams’ pitcher,” Herzog said. “When the bases are loaded, I bring Jeff in and he makes ‘em hit the ball. He challenges the daylights out of them. Just comes in and lets it fly. He’s got a lot of guts.

“One statistic I’ve always considered the best for evaluating relievers is how he does against the first hitter he faces, and for a stretch last season Lahti got out the first hitter he faced 17 times in a row.”[15]

Lahti attributed at least some of his success to his perfectionist tendencies.

“I’ve always felt it’s got to be perfect or I’m not going to do it,” he said. “I learned that working my way through college as a carpenter. If a pitcher’s mechanics aren’t right, he won’t get anybody out. It’s like a carpenter building a house. If everything isn’t square, it isn’t going to fit together.”[16]

After the 1985 season, Sutter signed a large free-agent contract with the Braves, leaving the Cardinals without their closer. With the team once again pursuing the National League title, Lahti was shifted into a more prominent role and led the team with 19 saves. Another Oregon native, Ken Dayley, was second on the team with 11.

“The only difference now is that people see the ‘S’ by my name instead of just two-thirds of an inning … no runs, no hits,” Lahti said. “I set the table for Bruce, but the guy who gets the save gets all the recognition. The middle man is a forgotten soldier, but to me, as long as I did my job and we won, that’s all that mattered.”[17]

In Game 5 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, Lahti threw a 1-2-3 ninth inning and earned the win when Ozzie Smith hit his walk-off home run off Tom Niedenfuer. In the World Series against the Royals, Lahti earned the save in a 4-2 Game 2 victory.

The 1985 season proved to be the high point of Lahti’s career. The following spring, he threw just 2 1/3 innings before requiring season-ending shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff. In 1987, his attempt to return was cut short by continued pain. After resting the shoulder throughout the 1987 season, Lahti planned to attempt one more comeback attempt in 1988. However, a week before he was scheduled to leave for spring training, he called Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill and gave him the bad news: his shoulder still hadn’t recovered enough to pitch. He was calling it a career.[18]

“I look at my whole baseball life like something out of a fairy tale,” said Lahti, who purchased an orchard back in Oregon. “When I left Hood River, I wanted to play ball and I wanted to come back here when it was over. I wanted to be able to work for myself and own my own home. That’s what I wanted out of baseball, and I got it.”[19]

Over five major-league seasons, Lahti went 17-11 with a 3.12 ERA and 20 saves.

“It would have been nice to play 10 years, but I had no control over that,” Lahti said. “I got to do it, though. A lot of kids would love to do what I did.”[20]

Brito, the Cardinals’ other acquisition in the trade, never made it to the majors. He pitched two seasons in the Cardinals’ system before continuing his minor-league career with the Orioles through 1985.

Shirley spent one season in Cincinnati, where he made 20 starts in 41 appearances. He went 8-13 with a 3.60 ERA before signing as a free agent with the Yankees.

Shirley pitched five seasons in New York, working primarily as a reliever. Over 11 major-league seasons, he went 67-94 with a 3.82 ERA.


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[1] Earl Lawson, “Reds get Shirley in deal with Cards,” Cincinnati Post, April 1, 1982.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Cards Trade Shirley For Two Youngsters,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1982.

[3] Rick Hummel, “Cards Trade Shirley For Two Youngsters,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1982.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Cards Trade Shirley For Two Youngsters,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1982.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Shirley Hopes To Find Niche With Cincinnati,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 1982.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Cards Trade Shirley For Two Youngsters,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1982.

[7] Earl Lawson, “Reds get Shirley in deal with Cards,” Cincinnati Post, April 1, 1982.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Cards Trade Shirley For Two Youngsters,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1982.

[9] Rick Hummel, “Cards Trade Shirley For Two Youngsters,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1982.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Cards Trade Shirley For Two Youngsters,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 1982.

[11] Tim Sullivan, “Shirley Fills Reds’ Need For Lefty,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 2, 1982.

[12] Arnold Irish, “‘Jam’ Man Works In Obscurity,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 17, 1984.

[13] Mike Smith, “Animated Lahti Gives Cards Lift,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 17, 1982.

[14] Arnold Irish, “‘Jam’ Man Works In Obscurity,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 17, 1984.

[15] Arnold Irish, “‘Jam’ Man Works In Obscurity,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 17, 1984.

[16] Arnold Irish, “‘Jam’ Man Works In Obscurity,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 17, 1984.

[17] Dave Luecking, “Lahti Learned Lessons Well,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 10, 1985.

[18] John Sonderegger, “Ex-Card Lahti Isn’t Bitter Over Career-Ending Injury,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 10, 1988.

[19] John Sonderegger, “Ex-Card Lahti Isn’t Bitter Over Career-Ending Injury,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 10, 1988.

[20] John Sonderegger, “Ex-Card Lahti Isn’t Bitter Over Career-Ending Injury,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 10, 1988.