August 21, 1990: Ray Lankford provides spark in his big-league debut

It didn’t take long for Ray Lankford to demonstrate the blend of speed and power that made him a cornerstone of the Cardinals’ lineup throughout the 1990s.

Batting sixth in his major league debut, Lankford doubled, stole a base, and scored a run in a 7-2 loss to the Braves on August 21, 1990.

Lankford’s big-league opportunity came after first baseman Pedro Guerrero was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained lower back. Though the Cardinals already had Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, and Milt Thompson on the big-league roster, manager Joe Torre didn’t want the team’s top outfield prospect withering on the bench. Instead, he inserted Lankford in center field, moved the three-time Gold Glove Award winner McGee to right, and made Thompson the fourth outfielder.

“I want to give Lankford an opportunity to do well, and center is where he has played,” Torre said. “You want him to be comfortable.”[1]

Before he stepped onto the field for his first game, Lankford met with Torre, director of player development Ted Simmons, and field supervisor for player development George Kissell.

“When the manager talks to you and tells you what he expects, that takes some of the pressure off,” Lankford said. “They said basically to go out and have fun. That helps a lot right there.”[2]

After his meeting in the manager’s office, Cardinals hitting coach Steve Braun visited Lankford’s new locker.

“The good news is you’re in the big leagues,” Braun said. “The bad news is we’re in last place.”[3]

Thompson told Lankford it was good to see him, then asked, “What took you so long to get here?”[4]

Lankford’s debut came against future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who had earned his first all-star appearance the previous year. Smoltz struggled early in the season, winning just one of his first five decisions, and entered the game against the Cardinals with a 9-9 record and a 3.98 ERA.

 The Cardinals had every reason to see what Lankford could do. At 57-65, the Cardinals were 15 ½ games behind the first-place Pirates and on their way to a last-place finish in the National League East. Whitey Herzog had resigned 80 games into the season, and after Red Schoendienst served 24 games as interim manager, the team had named Torre its new manager.

Torre was already making his mark on the team. In addition to inserting Lankford into the lineup, Torre moved Todd Zeile to first base in place of Guerrero and made Tom Pagnozzi the starting catcher.

“I never ask anybody to agree with what I do, just understand that it was my decision to make,” Torre said. “It’s my decision as manager to try to find things out.”[5]

By the time Lankford took his first at-bat, the Cardinals already trailed 3-0. David Justice hit a first-inning RBI single off Joe Magrane and the Braves added two more runs in the second on an RBI single by Mark Lemke and an RBI groundout by Smoltz.

Terry Pendleton flied out to center to lead off the Cardinals’ half of the second, but Lankford followed with his first major league hit, a line-drive single into center field. After Rex Hudler popped out, Lankford picked up his first stolen base, swiping second off Braves catcher Greg Olson. Pagnozzi flied out to center for the final out of the inning.

Home runs by Ron Gant and Andres Thomas helped the Braves extend their lead to 6-0 before Lankford played a key role in the Cardinals’ lone rally in the eighth inning. Following a Zeile double, Lankford hit a two-out double of his own down the right-field line to score the first Cardinal run. Hudler followed with a single up the middle that scored Lankford to cut the Cardinals’ deficit to 6-2.

Zeile and Lankford’s doubles proved the Cardinals’ only extra-base hits of the day. Lemke drove home a run in the top of the ninth to make it 7-2 and Braves reliever Kent Mercker worked around a Craig Wilson single to seal the game in the ninth.

Smoltz improved to 10-9 with the win, holding the Cardinals to two runs despite 10 hits in eight innings.

“For me, this is probably the toughest team to pitch against because they can score runs without getting hits,” Smoltz said.[6]

Magrane took the loss for the Cardinals, allowing four earned runs over seven innings.

Lankford joined Ozzie Smith, Hudler, and Pagnozzi with two apiece.

“Lankford is the future,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote. “He may struggle this season, and probably the next. But that’s part of the growing process. The Cardinals need to turn Lankford loose, let him flail away at big-league pitching.”[7]

In 39 games, Lankford hit .286/.353/.452 with three homers, 12 RBIs, and eight stolen bases. In his first full season in 1991, he led the majors with 15 triples to go along with nine homers, 69 RBIs, and 44 stolen bases. He finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Houston’s Jeff Bagwell and Pittsburgh’s Orlando Merced.

Lankford’s blend of power and speed was a trademark throughout his career. He hit at least 20 homers and stole 20 bases in five different seasons. When he retired following the 2004 season, Lankford ranked third in franchise history in home runs, fourth in walks, fifth in stolen bases, and eighth in RBIs and runs scored.

A key player for the Cardinals throughout the 1990s, Lankford played 13 seasons in St. Louis. In 2001, the Cardinals traded him to San Diego for Woody Williams, but Lankford returned in 2004. He finished with a .272/.364/.477 career batting line to go with 238 homers, 874 RBIs, and 258 stolen bases.

Lankford was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2018.


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[1] Dan O’Neill, “Thompson Knows He’s ‘Odd Man Out,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 22, 1990.

[2] Dan O’Neill, “No ‘War’ Here,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 22, 1990.

[3] Dan O’Neill, “No ‘War’ Here,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 22, 1990.

[4] Dan O’Neill, “No ‘War’ Here,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 22, 1990.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Torre Plays With Cardinals’ Lineup,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 22, 1990.

[6] Joe Strauss, “Braves turn tables on Cardinals 7-2,” Atlanta Constitution, August 22, 1990.

[7] Bernie Miklasz, “For Long Haul: Sign Coleman, Forget McGee,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 22, 1990.

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