Slick can play. That's the first thing to know about Slick. Slick can play. Slick is Whitey Herzog's nickname for Andy Van Slyke, formerly one of Herzog's St. Louis Cardinals, now the estimable 28-year-old centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. One would assume that Herzog, the Cardinals' manager, called him Slick with good reason. Van Slyke's wife, Lauri, knows plenty of good reasons. "So cocky, so cool and arrogant, so full of pride," she says.
From across the kitchen table at the Van Slyke home in Chesterfield, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, Slick curls up the corners of his mouth like the Cheshire cat, or the Vicomte de Valmont, or Nuke LaLoosh. He raises one eyebrow in agreement.
"Yes," he says to her. "If you don't think that way, great things will never happen to you."
Lauri already knows this. She and Andy have been together for, what is it now, 12 years? They have three sons—A.J., Scott and Jared, the baby. Jared came in with the New Year, and on this afternoon he's being held securely in Van Slyke's strong hands. Jared wouldn't be any safer with Allstate. Slick has great hands. "And wheels, arm strength and power," he says. "Yep. Was God-gifted with the tools."
True. Slick can play the outfield. And what Slick does best is go get it. In 1988 he led National League outfielders in putouts (406) and total chances (422) and was fifth in fielding percentage (.991). He had 12 assists and only four errors in 152 games in centerfield. Two plays from last year will tell you about Van Slyke's season. Against the Cardinals in their home opener, he raced in to shallow center, dived flat out and stole a sure hit from Vince Coleman. During the last week of the regular season, in Pittsburgh, with one out in the top of the ninth and the Pirates leading 3-2 and needing to beat the Cardinals to clinch second place in the National League East, St. Louis second baseman Luis Alicea lifted a fly to centerfield. Jose Oquendo tagged at third. Slick moved back a few steps, ran in with an educated, ballplayer's stutter-step, caught the ball and threw Oquendo out at the plate for the double play.
Watching with special interest from the dugout on both those plays was Herzog, who knew as well as anyone that Van Slyke, as he trotted off the field after that final out of that final-week victory, was carrying some fabulous stats in his pocket, stats that at season's end would read: .288 batting average, 25 home runs, 15 triples, 100 RBIs, 101 runs and, for good measure, 30 steals.
"With Andy Van Slyke, what you see is what you get. He'll never be more than a .270 hitter with 60 or 70 RBIs."
—Whitey Herzog, 1986
Slick can play. Slick can play just about anything. The first time he went bowling, Van Slyke rolled a 200. He had a 36-inch vertical jump at age 17 and can still shoot the eyes out of the basket. At 6'2", he can dunk with authority. He plays golf four or five times a year and the last time out shot an 84. He picked up racquetball in two minutes, and you don't want to see him on the tennis court if you've got an ego to preserve. Slick would probably be a whiz at Nintendo, but he lets A.J. take care of that. "I can get the princess in Super Mario Brothers," says A.J. evenly. No doubt. A.J. is five years old.
Like son, like father. Ask the mother. Andy met Lauri nearly 12 years ago, when he was playing summer league basketball games in Utica, N.Y. Lauri Griffiths was a local beauty who had come to a game to meet Ron Evans, a young man who just happened to be Van Slyke's biggest athletic rival. "I threw in five long jumpers in a row," says Slick. "Lauri yawned. She looked the other way." After the game Andy walked straight up to Lauri and asked her for some gum—"Actually, I asked for some of her Juicy Fruit," he says. She turned and left. That night Andy found her and told her that she was going to a Doobie Brothers concert with him—and told her to inform her parents. The 16-year-old Van Slyke didn't have a driver's license. He drove anyway. What is it Lauri says now? "So cocky, so cool and arrogant...."
And why not? Last season Van Slyke won a Gold Glove and was named an All-Star outfielder in the National League, meaning that for one season he was judged a better centerfielder than Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds. Read that sentence again in 10 years. Slick understands. "Oh, I think Eric is on another level," he says. "It's just a matter of experience and concentration level, which will come for Eric."