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Mr. Smith Goes to Cooperstown

When they asked Ozzie Smith last week about the best plays of his career, it was a little like having Picasso pick out a couple of favorite pictures. Where do you start? Still, the slickest-fielding shortstop in the history of the game obliged his questioners.

* On April 20, 1978, in the fourth inning, the Braves' Jeff Burroughs hit a ground ball up the middle; Smith dove to his left, but when the ball hit an infield pebble and caromed hard right, he slammed on the brakes, grabbed the thing bare-handed and threw Burroughs out.

* On August 4, 1986, in the ninth inning, Von Hayes of the Phils looped a fly to shallow left; with the left-fielder lurching toward the infield, Ozzie leaped straight past him and made a mid-air basket catch.

* Two days later, on August 6, Philadelphia's Gary Redus hit an infield single to deep short; naturally, the 5-10, 160-pound Smith flashed to the spot, but instead of throwing to first, he stole a peek at baserunner Ronn Reynolds, then zipped the ball to third, catching Reynolds beyond the bag for the second out of the third inning.

Three sparkling moments from Smith's nineteen-season, 2,500-game career do not begin to tell the story, of course. The story lies in the mastery of a difficult craft at a time when craft is not much honored, in a man's day-by-day, year-by-year devotion to the endangered art of playing shortstop. New York Mets phenom Rey Ordonez notwithstanding, there likely will never be another Ozzie Smith once the 41-year-old retires at the end of the season. He holds major-league records for games played at shortstop (2,474 and counting), assists (at least 8,250), highest fielding percentage and double plays (1,564)--not to mention his unchallenged mark for backflips executed while taking up his post at the start of games. Yes, and Smith is only the sixth shortstop born in this century to play into his fifth decade of life.

If there's justice in the world, the St. Louis Cardinals will erect an Ozzie statue outside of Busch Stadium, right next to the one of Stan Musial. The inscription could read: "Professional."

Baseball fans overawed by home-run power and loud-mouthed boasting (the game's most prominent features in the Nineties) are unlikely to pay much heed to the accomplishments of Osborne Earl Smith--not his thirteen Gold Gloves, not his record twelve starts in the All Star Game, not his season record for the fewest errors in 150 or more games played (eight in 1991). But if the 1995 season belonged to Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. and his iron-man mark, this summer rightly belongs to The Wizard as he makes his farewell tour of National League ballparks. (The Cards' remaining three games at Coors Field are August 20, 21 and 22.)

"Memory," the writer James Barry once said, "is what God gave us so that we might have roses in December," and for Ozzie Smith, December has already arrived. Slowed by age, bothered by the flareup of a decade-old shoulder injury and at odds with new St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa, he started only 16 of his team's first 75 games this year. Instead, he finds himself in the shade of the dugout, looking on as his replacement, 26-year-old Royce Clayton, takes all the ground balls and hears all the murmurs of a hometown crowd torn between its devotion to an aging star and the hard realities of a pennant race in the National League's mediocre Central Division. For Clayton, acquired in the off-season from the San Francisco Giants, the situation cannot be any easier than it is for his famous predecessor: As a kid, Royce plastered his bedroom wall with Ozzie Smith posters, and he owns videotapes of the master's greatest plays --December roses of another sort.

But for a twist of fate, a White Rat and a lunkhead named Templeton, The Wizard of Oz might never have graced St. Louis with his art. As it happened, he came to the club after one of the weirdest standoffs in baseball history--a dispute freighted with bickering and distrust and rooted in the long-held major-league notion that a ton of defensive genius on the infield dirt is not worth six pounds of baseballs hit into the centerfield bleachers.

"When I say that the position is now played more effectively than ever," a ballplayer once said, "it is not to assert that the players of the present are better than those of the past...[but] that the shortstop now makes plays never thought of in former years." The speaker was John Montgomery Ward. The year was 1888. And no one was paying much attention back then, either.

In August 1981, the incumbent at shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals was a glowering head case named Garry Templeton, who could cover some ground and hit with power, but he gave Cards manager Whitey Herzog fits. "I can't win a pennant with that guy," Herzog said. "He doesn't want to play on artificial turf. He doesn't want to play when we go to Montreal. He doesn't want to play in the Astrodome. He doesn't want to play in the rain. The other eighty games, he's all right."

On August 26, the Herzog-Templeton rift came to a head when the moody shortstop saluted booing St. Louis fans with his upraised middle finger and was literally yanked off the field and into the dugout by his angry skipper, suspended and sent off to a hospital for treatment of depression.

Out in San Diego Padres country, 26-year-old Ozzie Smith wanted a change, too, but the controversial trade that eventually brought the game's best-fielding shortstop to St. Louis took more than five months to negotiate. Herzog insisted that the only available shortstop he was interested in was Ivan DeJesus of the Chicago Cubs. Smith's agent asked for a two-year contract with $2 million. Herzog responded by saying he might like to pick up second baseman Rich Dauer, then shift Tom Herr to shortstop. At last, the White Rat averred: "Ozzie is a great fielder and baserunner. I'd like to have him...but no .230 hitter is worth what he's asking."

For once, Whitey didn't mind eating his words. On February 10, 1982, the Templeton-Smith trade finally came off. In October 1982 the St. Louis Cardinals won their first World Series in fifteen years, in large part because Ozzie Smith was the Card who finally filled in St. Louis's three aces--pitching, speed and fielding. The Cardinals returned to the Series in 1985, where they blew a 3-1 lead in games to the Kansas City Royals, and in 1987, when Minnesota knocked them off.

But the Wizard's prowess in the field grew ever deeper and richer, and he turned himself into a pretty fair batter as well: switch hitter, .261 lifetime average, 2,414 hits, 574 stolen bases. In 1987 he hit .303; in 1992, .295. You can be sure the Los Angeles Dodgers won't soon forget him: In game five of the 1985 National League Championship Series, Ozzie hit a Tom Niedenfuhr fastball into the right-field bleachers to win the game; it was the first left-handed homer of his pro career--4,277 at-bats to that point.

In any discussion of Smith, one comparison is unfair--or untenable. The greatest shortstop of all time, Pittsburgh's Honus Wagner, hit .300 or better for 17 of his 21 seasons and averaged 55 stolen bases for five years, amassing 722 of them in all. Honus had 3,430 hits and drove in 1,731 runs. Matchless. But not even the Flying Dutchman had the incredible range of Ozzie Smith. Or the acrobatic skill. Or the arm. Just as John Montgomery Ward said more than a century ago: "The shortstop now makes plays never thought of in former years."

When Ozzie Smith turns up in Philadelphia Tuesday night for his fifteenth and final All Star Game, he will step onto the diamond as the greatest glove ever to play the position. That he is also one of the finest gentlemen in the game doesn't hurt, either: In 1989 he won the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award; in 1994 he received the Branch Rickey Award as the player who personifies "service above self"; last year, he was the Roberto Clemente Award winner for his community work.

In announcing his retirement, a tearful Smith said: "I probably could go somewhere else and, if I pushed it, prove that I could still play. But my goal in my last contract negotiation was to make sure I finished as a St. Louis Cardinal."

That was on June 19, 150 years to the day after Alexander Cartwright crossed the Hudson River with the New York Knickerbockers and the New York Nine to a place called Elysian Fields, in Hoboken, New Jersey. There the Nine beat the Knickerbockers 23-1, in what is acknowledged as the first baseball game in history.

What'll you bet the Knickerbockers could have used Ozzie at short?


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