Ozzie Smith hit only 28 home runs during his 19-year career, but he was still a first-ballot Hall of Famer because of his flawless defense at shortstop and his pesky instincts on offense.
Smith’s ability to save runs with his glove and score runs with his legs won a lot of baseball games for the St. Louis Cardinals before steroids took over the game. Winning baseball was about defense and pitching then, an attitude that made Smith into a superstar.
He said he sees baseball returning to those simpler times during this year’s All-Star break. Times when a career .262 hitter was among the game’s best players. [...]
“I think that what we have now is we’re finally starting to turn the corner to get back to those prototypical shortstops,” Smith said. “When you look at teams that are winning their divisions, you need look no further than the middle infield.”
Smith said he enjoys watching the young shortstops in Texas and Atlanta as they make a difference for first-place teams. Yunel Escobar has since been traded to Toronto. The Braves received veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez who is known for his glove in return.
The solid middle infield has been invaluable to the Braves this summer.
“I think it’s part of the reason Atlanta for instance is leading the East because they’ve gotten back to the fundamentals of the game,” Smith said. “Playing the game the way the game should be played.”
The right way is about the team and having respect for the game.
“Pitching, catching and hitting. And getting timely hitting, not necessarily hitting the ball out of the ballpark,” Smith said. “I think baseball has done a good job of finally coming up with a deterrent that would get guys from using performance-enhancing drugs, and so the game is getting back to the type of game that we as baseball purists are used to seeing.”
It’s the type of game Smith thrived in. One that saw him snare groundball after groundball on his way to 13 Gold Gloves and one that saw him steal 580 bases.
Smith developed a special style out on the patch of turf between second and third base. He said his quickness and creativity made him a great shortstop.
“Improvisation is the greatest asset that you could have to anything that you do,” Smith said. “A lot of things that happen on the field are improvisational.”
Like an artist at work, Smith just followed the bounce of the ball across the turf canvass every day, creating masterpiece after masterpiece.
It wasn’t all about creativity and impromptu dives, though. Smith worked hard his entire career, especially at the plate. After batting below .250 for much of his first seven seasons, he often batted around .280, becoming a tough out with the bat.
Smith was proud of his progress and hard work that paid off when he hit a career-high .303 in 1987 and finished second in MVP voting.
“Unfortunately, my defensive prowess overshadowed all the things that I may have done offensively,” Smith said. “But my goal was always to be as well rounded a player as I could possibly be. And by the time I retired in 1996 after a 19-year career, I was satisfied that I had become a pretty well rounded player.”
The combination of creativity and hard work made Smith a fan favorite and earned him a spot in Cooperstown. It is also a source of great pride for the old Cardinals shortstop.
“I can honestly say that for 19 years I gave my all every day and hopefully somewhere down the road I had a chance to entertain some people and they enjoyed what they saw,” Smith said.