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35 years ago: The day the tarp ate Vince Coleman

35 years ago: The day the tarp ate Vince Coleman

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Editor's note: On Oct. 12, 1985, Cardinals outfielder Vince Coleman gets his shoe caught in an automated tarp at Busch Stadium before the start of a game in the National League Championship series. in 2015, on the 30th anniversary of the event, columnist Benjamin Hochman caught up with Coleman. Here is that original article.

Deprived of a chance to be Mr. October, Vince Coleman went to see Miss October.

“We go to the playoffs in LA, and I was a guest at the Playboy Mansion — I go over to Hugh Hefner’s house,” recalled former Cardinal Coleman, who was injured in the 1985 National League championship series. “He knew exactly who I was. And he said, ‘You’re the guy that the female tarp was looking for!’ ” — as if the tarp had been trying to get her hands on the cool man Coleman.

At this point, all they could do was laugh. The Cardinals’ dazzling rookie suffered perhaps the most inexplicable injury in baseball history.

Thirty years ago this week, before Game 4 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Busch Stadium automatic tarpaulin rose and rolled from the Busch Astroturf, trapping Coleman’s left leg. “Vincent Van Go,” as they called him, stole a preposterous 110 bases in 1985, but the tarp injury ended his season. In the coming days, Ozzie Smith made St. Louis go crazy, Jack Clark made Pedro Guerrero throw his glove to the ground and Don Denkinger made even nuns curse.

The Cardinals defeated the Dodgers, but of course lost the World Series to the Kansas City Royals, and 30 years later, the tarp is as much a part of Cardinals history as Ozzie’s glove or Stan Musial’s harmonica.

“I’d seen a lot of things take athletes out of commission,” said “Tuesdays With Morrie” author Mitch Albom — who covered the 1985 playoffs — on Sunday afternoon. “Injuries, freak accidents, a guy putting his hand through his headlights, cutting off a finger with a steak knife, shooting himself in the leg — literally — but, honestly, that was the first time I’d seen a piece of equipment try to eat a player alive. There was nothing to do but shrug and say, ‘When you think you’ve seen it all ...’ ”

Recently, Coleman visited St. Louis. He’s 54 now. Sitting by himself in a private box during a Cardinals game, he was asked, would St. Louis have won the 1985 World Series if he had played?

“I would like to think so,” he said.

A RUNNING TEAM

9-5 Coleman

Vince Coleman rounds third base in Game 3 of the 1985 National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium. (Post-Dispatch photo by Kevin Manning)

They’re forever zipping around the bases, running through stop signs in our imaginations. The Runnin’ Redbirds. The ’85 Cards. Perhaps the greatest group of talent to wear the birds on the bat.

“At one point, I thought we had an All-Star at every position,” said Coleman, an outfielder and the leadoff hitter. “We had Jack Clark, Tommy Herr and Ozzie and Terry Pendleton — and Willie McGee in the outfield. That was fun in itself, because every night you saw an All-Star performance (by someone). …

And there was Vincent Maurice Coleman, the kid who just couldn’t be confined by the dimensions of the diamond.

“I don’t think there’s been a player like Vince Coleman since Vince Coleman,” said St. Louis native Jason Sklar, age 13 in 1985 and now part of an esteemed comedy duo with his twin brother, Randy. “I can’t imagine how intimidating that was for a pitcher.

“You think about that impact. Right now my son is in a 7-8-year-old league, and for some reason they allow stealing in this league. It’s the weirdest thing in the world. So basically any time anyone gets on first base, in two pitches, they’re on third. And that’s how I felt about Vince Coleman that year. … It was a magical time.”

The 1985 Cardinals stole 314 bases, to this day the most in the National League since 1920. And the team won 101 games, one more than this season’s squad.

Still, St. Louis was stymied by the Dodgers, losing the first two playoff games in LA.

Back at Busch, Vince was Vince. He tallied two hits, stole a base and scored two runs. The Birds won the game and headed into Game 4 on Oct. 13, 1985.

“I’m thinking — here’s the fastest guy on the field, and I’ve never seen a tarp roll faster than my garage door,” Jason Sklar said. “How the hell is Vince Coleman getting caught by a tarp? None of this makes sense.”

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED

Vince Coleman

Vince Coleman was carried from the field on a stretcher after his left leg became entangled in the automatic tarpaulin machine in a freak pregame accident on Oct. 13, 1985. Teammates Terry Pendleton (9) and Cesar Cedeno help him off the field. UPI photo

In the ballpark box that 2015 night, Coleman was asked how many times he was interviewed and not asked about the tarp.

“Never,” he said with a laugh. “If I had a quarter for every time that question has been asked, I’d probably be a millionaire.”

He then began to tell the story, again, still crazy after all these years. The Cardinals were on the field before the game, and Coleman and Pendleton were coming toward the dugout to get bats for batting practice. It began to rain.

“And (coach) Hal Lanier said, ‘I’ll get your bats, you guys stay right here,’ ” Coleman recalled.

“We were positioned between the foul line and the pitcher’s mound. Now the tarp is right where the first base box is. There’s a guy down midway in right field, and you have to hook it up to a truck and drive it out.

“He started doing that, we’re not paying attention, just like you and I talking. It would’ve either gotten me or it would’ve got Terry, because you can’t hear it.

“Next thing I know, it was tugging on my leg, it knocked me down. And you know how they say, ‘When you’re in fear of your life, you don’t feel a thing?’ This thing weighed a ton, and I didn’t feel anything, because I’m thinking it’s going to crush me.”

It was 1,200 pounds, spread over 180 feet.

And the tarp did what seemingly no catcher could do — it kept Vince Coleman from stealing bases.

“You see a lot of different stuff, but that was one of the strangest,” said McGee, during a recent visit to Busch Stadium. “I was right there on the field. I’m just glad he was all right and able to resume his career (in 1986) — because it could’ve been a lot worse. Could’ve been a lot worse.”

At first, the injury was ruled a contusion. He missed that night’s game, and the media had some fun at their TRS-80 Model 100 portable computers. Kevin Horrigan of the Post-Dispatch wrote: “He’d seen the Killer Tarp in action before. Like a Zombie it rises from its grave, a three-foot-wide, 180-foot-long section of the stadium floor that comes up, unrolling a motorized aluminum tube on which the rubberized canvas infield tarp is stored. One night, the Killer Tarp got stuck halfway across the field, forcing postponement of a game. But usually the Killer Tarp is kindly. Not Sunday afternoon.”

And Albom, then writing for the Detroit Free Press, described the fictitious arrest of the tarp for “attempted man-smother.” The tarp finally broke down to the media, admitting: “This ain’t an easy life, you know. How would you feel if every time you came out, people booed?”

A SAD ENDING

Cardinals Vince Coleman 1988

Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals arrives for a press conference prior to the start of the fifth game of the NL Playoffs, Monday, Oct. 14, 1985, St. Louis, Mo. Coleman was injured during a freak accident Sunday when the machine that controls the rain tarp rolled over his left leg. His return to the line up is uncertain at this time. (AP Photo)

But an MRI soon revealed that Coleman’s left tibia was cracked, and his season was done.

The Cardinals won Game 4 and 5 in St. Louis, and in Game 6, the day after the Playboy Mansion visit, Clark’s homer sealed the Cardinals’ victory in the series.

Seemingly everyone in Missour-ee and Missour-uhh knows what happened next.

Up 3-2 in a classic Fall Classic, the Cardinals led Game 6, 1-0, in the bottom of the ninth.

The first batter hit a slow roller to Clark, who tossed the ball to Todd Worrell. As seen in a photo featured in bars across St. Louis, Worrell caught the ball before the runner stepped on first. But Denkinger called him safe.

The Royals went on to win Game 6.

The Royals went on to win Game 7.

“We could’ve won it in six games, if we get the call,” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said at a recent visit to Busch. “But we got shut out again in the seventh. That’s the worst night I ever spent in baseball.”

St. Louisans forever ask “what if” in regard to Coleman in 1985.

He now lives in San Diego but said he watched as many St. Louis games as he could.

He finished his career with 752 stolen bases and played for five other teams.

But, asked if he’d forever consider himself a Cardinal, Coleman said: “Oh, of course. This is where everything started for me. It’s a special privilege to play for the Cardinals. There’s nothing better.

“I’m honored and proud and can easily say — I was part of one of the best baseball teams that have ever been assembled, being on the ’85 team. It was probably the fastest team ever assembled.”

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