Archive for Sunday, July 28, 2002

Smith to join baseball’s elite today

Cards’ ‘Wizard of Oz’ to be 22nd shortstop inducted to Hall of Fame

July 28, 2002


— Ozzie Smith says he's done his last backflip.


"You never know what will happen when you get in front of people and start thanking the ones that have helped you along the way and see the look on their faces," the 47-year-old Smith said as he contemplated his induction today into the Baseball Hall of Fame. "How I will react to that, I don't know."

Smith, the 22nd shortstop to make the Hall, moved with his family from Mobile, Ala., to the tough Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts when Ozzie was 6. It was there that he learned to play baseball in his uniquely acrobatic way.

"It didn't become serious to me until I became a junior in high school," said Smith, who refined the position of shortstop during his 19-year major league career and make people appreciate the art of defense. "There were little things that I did when I was about 11, little games that I played that were helping enhance my skills and my hand and eye coordination."

Despite his gifted hands, people were always telling Smith he was too small. He struggled to get noticed. Eddie Murray, a power-hitting classmate at Lock High who would go on to play with Baltimore, was drafted after graduation, while Smith was overlooked and enrolled at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo on a partial scholarship.

"When I decided to go to college, I had to do some soul searching and realized that baseball was what I loved doing more than anything else," Smith said. "I played with Eddie Murray, and when the scouts came, that's who they were coming to see."

Even in college, Smith was second string and made the lineup only after the starter broke a leg. Taught to switch-hit by college coach Berdy Harr, Smith was drafted in his junior year in the eighth round by Detroit. The Tigers offered him $4,500; he asked for another $500, was turned down, and stayed in school.

After being noticed in the instructional league by Alvin Dark, Smith signed with San Diego in 1977 for $5,000, played 68 games in Walla Walla, Wash., and hit .303.

The next season, Smith was the Padres' starting shortstop. He stole 40 bases and his glove work helped him finish second to Bob Horner in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. If people hadn't yet taken note, they did after teammate Gene Tenace made a simple request.

"We weren't very good as a team at that time in San Diego," said Smith, who won 13 straight NL Gold Glove awards and holds five major league fielding records, including 8,375 assists and 1,590 double plays. "We had to create an atmosphere of excitement for the fans. Gene said a backflip would be a great thing to do on Fan Appreciation Day. I was a little reluctant to do it because I didn't want to be labeled as a hot dog, but the fans got so excited."

A ritual was born.

In 1980, Smith had 933 chances and set a major league record of 621 assists, breaking the mark of 601 set in 1924 by Pittsburgh's Glenn Wright. His 5.75 balls reached per game dwarfed the league average of 4.30.

But after an embarrassing contract squabble arose, the Padres became worried they might lose Smith to free agency. So San Diego traded him to St. Louis for Garry Templeton in February 1982.

Smith was not known for his offense he batted just .262 for his career, with 2,460 hits, 28 homers and 793 RBIs. But his magic glove made an immediate impact on the field and at the gate as attendance at Busch Stadium surged along with the Cardinals, who won the World Series in his first year with the team.

Smith was never known for his bat, but he did have his moments. In the 1985 National League playoffs, he hit a game-winning home run in the ninth inning of Game 5. It was the first left-handed homer of his career. The Cards then won Game 6 to reach the World Series.

In 1987, he again was instrumental in the Cardinals' World Series run. He hit .303 with 43 stolen bases, 75 RBIs and 104 runs scored and finished second in the MVP balloting to Andre Dawson of the Cubs.

Smith continued his strong play into the 1990s. His eight errors in 1991 set an NL record for fewest in a season by a shortstop. Despite playing with a slightly torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder the last decade of his career he calls that his greatest achievement the "Wizard of Oz" led the NL in fielding seven times.

Smith was named on nearly 92 percent of the ballots, becoming just the 37th player to be elected in his first try.

"Going in on the first ballot means there was no doubt about being a Hall of Famer," said Smith, who will be accompanied by more than 100 family members and friends on his special day. "It's very special."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.