Who Can It Be Now?
Osborne Earl Smith was born on December 26, 1954, in Mobile, Alabama. His family moved from Alabama to the now well-known South Central Los Angeles when he was 6 years old. According to his biography on Biography.com, he learned how to perform his trademark backflips as a kid by doing flips into piles of sawdust at a local lumberyard.
He attended Locke High School in Los Angeles, which at the time that Ozzie was in attendance had one heck of a baseball program. In a 5-year span, Locke turned out two Hall of Famers -- Ozzie & his teammate Eddie Murray -- and four other major leaguers, including pitcher Larry Demery, Gary Alexander, pitcher Darrell Jackson, and Eddie's younger brother Rich.
As was the case for Alexander, Ozzie was not drafted out of high school. But, where Alexander went to junior college, Ozzie received a partial scholarship and attended baseball powerhouse Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. He was drafted for the first time in 1976 in the 7th round of the June Draft by the Detroit Tigers, but apparently he did not receive a sufficient contract offer to induce him to sign. As a result, he went back to school for his senior year and was drafted in the fourth round of the June Draft in 1977 by the San Diego Padres.
After Ozzie signed with the Padres, they assigned him to Walla Walla in the Northwest League, a Low-A league. He hit well there, got on base, and made consistent contact -- 12 strikeouts in 333 plate appearances is pretty consistent contact. He never again spent any time in the major leagues after 1977.
Instead, he made the major league team directly out of spring training in 1978. The Padres had played Bill Almon at short the previous season and did not have a set third baseman. So, Ozzie's play allowed them to put Almon at third, push Tucker Ashford to the bench, and get better defensive play at shortstop. Ozzie played well enough to finish second in the 1978 Rookie of the Year race behind the Braves' Bob Horner -- even though both had fewer WAR than third-place finisher Don Robinson.
In Smith's four seasons with the Padres, the question was always whether Ozzie hit enough to justify playing him. His glove was never the issue, but a .260 OBP and a .262 SLG in 1979 made the case pretty clearly that Ozzie would have to rely on fielding to make his dollars initially. Even by 1980, however, Ozzie's glovework had gained him enough notoriety in baseball to earn him his first of thirteen consecutive Gold Gloves. He took over the crown of best NL defensive shortstop from Dave Concepcion, and he did not give up the title until Jay Bell beat him out in 1993.
As I said, though, the real question was his bat. He was in the top 5 in outs made in 1978 (4th), 1979 (4th), 1980 (2nd), and 1981 (1st). Perhaps it was just that he was learning how to hit while in the major leagues, but his slash line in San Diego was pretty bad -- .231/.295/.278 and an OPS+ (a normalized rating where the average league hitter is 100) of 66. That's not good. Despite that, his slick fielding led to his first selection to the All-Star team in 1981 as a back up to Dave Concepcion.
By the end of the 1981 season, however, circumstances aligned to end Ozzie's time in San Diego. The biggest issue was actually in St. Louis, where Whitey Herzog and his shortstop, Garry Templeton, had a major falling out -- as in, Herzog challenged Templeton to a fight after a game at Busch Stadium in 1981 when Templeton flipped off St. Louis fans.
The other issue was what turned into a common theme throughout Ozzie's career -- an issue, by the way, which I had forgotten about and which often gets whitewashed out of discussions about Ozzie. That issue was Ozzie's salary demands. As this sarcastic article of "Christmas gifts" for athletes points out, Ozzie was complaining that he could not "make ends meet" on the salary he was making in 1981.
This claim was nothing new. The year prior, in agitating for a better salary, Ozzie and his agent took out a classified ad in the San Diego newspaper in the "part-time help wanted" section. Ozzie even claimed that he might need to take a leave of absence over the summer of 1980 to take a temporary job. In response to the ad, Joan Kroc replied, tongue-in-cheek, that her gardener Luis Torres could have used an assistant at $4.50 an hour. Indeed, as the news story mentions, he received offers to be a nude dancer at $500 a show and an offer to be a pizza delivery man for $3.25 an hour. He was making $72,500 that year (about $196,000 today).
To make up for this, Herzog offered Ozzie $450,000 a year. Herzog added that if Ozzie didn't like St. Louis, Whitey, or the Cardinals at the end of 1982, then he would release Ozzie. If Ozzie liked it, then they would offer him a 3-year deal. He got the three-year deal after helping the Cardinals win the first of two 1980s World Series. Ozzie signed a 3-year, $3.6 million contract.
During his time with the Cardinals, Ozzie became a better hitter as well. I cannot tell you whether that happened because Ozzie left the green grass of San Diego for the fake plastic grass of St. Louis, but those Whitey Herzog-managed teams of the 1980s relied nearly entirely on speed, defense, getting on base, and smart baserunning in terms of stealing bases. In many of those respects, the team was built around Ozzie even though Ozzie tended to hit near the bottom of the order. Ozzie had a slash line of .272/.350/.344 in St. Louis, stealing 433 bases and getting caught just 102 times. He walked 876 times against just 423 strikeouts. He was an All-Star in every year with the Cardinals but one -- 1993 -- though he probably didn't deserve the last three since those were pretty much "goodbye, Ozzie, we love you!" votes from the fans.
Off the field and outside of his continued caterwauling about money, he was an exemplary character. He won the Branch Rickey Award in 1994 for his exceptional community service. He won the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 1989 from Phi Delta Theta as the player who best exhibited the character and integrity of Lou Gehrig on the field and off. He was awarded the Roberto Clemente Award in 1995 for combining his good play and strong work in the community. I'm not sure how all those are necessarily different, but they are consistent in showing Ozzie's community work.
As Ozzie's career went on, he continued playing at a fairly consistently high level -- both offensively and defensively -- with St. Louis. His last three seasons were shortened by a strike, injuries, and manager's decision, however. That last season of 1996 is worth looking at.
Smith got into a disagreement with manager Tony LaRussa, who was in his first year as Cardinals manager, in spring training of that year. Even as recently as February of 2014, Ozzie still seemed to carry a bit of a grudge against LaRussa for the way LaRussa handled the shortstop job that year. I mean, check out this quote: "I've always admired Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. The other guy ... uh, I never really knew him." Okay, Ozzie.
Midway through the 1996 season, Ozzie announced his retirement. Ozzie reportedly thought about going to another team to extend his career, but instead he retired as a Cardinal and signed a personal services agreement with the Cardinals at that point. Sitting behind Royce Clayton apparently told Ozzie that it was time to retire. So, he did.
Mustache Check: Yes, Ozzie is sporting whiskers.
Rabbit Is Rich
I'm belaboring the off-field stuff with Ozzie a bit, but I had completely forgotten how many times Ozzie appeared to be whining about money. But, the real big contract was in 1986. After the 1986 season, Ozzie signed a contract which made him the highest-paid player in the National League for 1988 -- $90,000 more than Mike Schmidt and about $180,000 more than Gary Carter.
Ozzie Smith is the career leader in Defensive Wins Above Replacement at 43.4 (fully 4 wins better than Mark Belanger). He's also the career leader in most Gold Gloves at shortstop with 13, which is 2 better than Omar Vizquel.
Finally, he has the most assists career among shortstops with 8375 -- 360 better than Luis Aparicio. For comparison, Derek Jeter has played 20 seasons at shortstop (1 more than Ozzie) and Jeter is more than 1800 behind Ozzie.
Elvis Andrus has a very, very outside shot at catching Ozzie. Andrus is 25 and has played 6 seasons already. Andrus would have to keep up his current pace of assists until he reaches the age of 44 to catch Smith.
This Is Radio Clash
Ozzie Smith served as a Cardinals broadcaster from 1997 to 1999. No word on whether he advertised for a part-time job in search of more money.
The World According to Garp
Ozzie has written two biographies -- Wizard in 1988 and Ozzie Smith: Road to Cooperstown in 2002 after his election to the Hall of Fame. He also wrote a Jerry-Remy-like book about the Cardinals mascot Fred called, Hello, Fredbird! in 2014.
A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Honestly, I expected this biography to be much more based around Ozzie's fielding exploits and his home run off Tom Niedenfuer back in 1987. I was struck, though, that the first several stories that came up about Ozzie from his playing days through the Google News archives were about his feuds with Tony LaRussa, his apparent exultation at Whitey Herzog being fired in 1990, and still more contract issues in 1991 -- when the AP ran a story about how talks had broken down between Smith and the Cardinals and that he would leave after the 1992 season. He didn't leave obviously, but he was always walking that line.
These days, Ozzie is pretty easy to find. He can be booked through Premiere Speakers Bureau -- the same group that serves as Jim Palmer's speakers' bureau. I can't tell you how much Ozzie charges, though -- the website says that "we are not able to provide this information on the website." But, Ozzie will fly first class from St. Louis to speak to your group, giving either his "Hall of Fame Speech" about perseverance and success or his "Conversation with Ozzie Smith," which is a "light hearted, anecdotal presentation with stories from his childhood as a little leaguer to the present day."
If you're interested in Ozzie for a lower price than his speakers' fee must be, then you can follow him on Twitter (@STLWizard). A quick review of his timeline there shows that he golfs. A lot.
For kids, Ozzie Smith's Sports Academy is in Chesterfield Mall in the St. Louis area is there with batting cage rentals, sports lessons, and summer camps.
Finally, if you're a collector or fan of Ozzie's -- and I apologize to you if I made you upset with this write-up about him -- then feel free to go to Ozzie's personal website. You can listen to Jack Buck call the NLCS homer when you get there, and then you can go to his memorabilia page to buy a signed baseball for $125 (or $150 if you want it signed "Osborne Earl").
Ozzie was a fantastic defensive player who was slightly below average at the plate over his career. The fact that he made the Hall of Fame essentially for his defense tells you what you need to know about him. I believe that his enshrinement was deserved as well.
I also believe that it will be a long time before we see a mostly defensive player enshrined again. Teams these days are more willing to live with defensive lapses at key defensive positions, it seems. Or, more to the point, teams are less willing to live with the players that Ozzie was when he first came up -- great fielding and light hitting.