The Wizard of Oz……Thirty Years Ago
Thirty years ago yesterday (February 11th) the history of the St. Louis Cardinals was forever altered. In 1982 the Cardinals completed a trade that sent Garry Templeton, Sixto Lezcano and Luis DeLeon to the San Diego Padres for Ozzie Smith, Steve Mura, and Al Olmsted. Ozzie was just the type of payer that Manager Whitey Herzog had been seeking to complete his transformation of the team. Templeton had fallen out of favor with the fans and organization. Ozzie had his own problems in San Diego and waived his no trade clause to become a Cardinal after a visit from Herzog. This trade would bring one of the most wildly popular players in franchise history to St. Louis and begin his run to the Hall of Fame.
Ozzie was a young player on the rise with the Padres. His defensive skills were starting to make an impact. Ozzie was a non-roster invitee to the San Diego Padres spring training camp. He earned a roster spot and made his major league debut in 1978. Some even claim that his greatest defensive play took place ten games into his rookie season against the Atlanta Braves. It was this early that Ozzie’s revolutionary acrobatic play at shortstop started to reveal itself. It was later that year that the Padre’s promotion director convinced Ozzie to perform the backflip he would do in warm ups (before the fans arrived) when taking the field. It was a tremendous success and would become Ozzie’s signature move for years to come.
Ozzie went on to finish second in the National League balloting for Rookie of the Year in 1978 to Bob Horner. In the 1979 season Ozzie began to earn a reputation as a light-hitting fielder. Ozzie actually finished last in every category of the Triple Crown for players who had enough at bats. This happened as he was entering into contract negotiations in the offseason heading into the 1980 season. The Padres renewed his contract for the same amount ($72,500) as his previous contract. In a brash move Smith’s agent Ed Gotlieb took a classified ad out in the San Diego Union basically seeking a part time job for a San Diego Padres player to supplement his income. To further complicate the issue and drive the parties further apart, Joan Kroc wife of Padre’s owner Ray Kroc publicly responded by offering Smith a job as Assistant Gardener at her estate. I can’t even begin to imagine discussions after that point.
Ozzie continued to dazzle the league with his defensive skills and set the single season record for most assists by a shortstop (621), began his string of Gold Glove Awards, and in 1981 Ozzie made his first appearance as a reserve in the All Star Game. Ozzie had also caught the attention of Redbirds skipper Whitey Herzog.
While Ozzie’s issues with Padre’s management were still roiling the St. Louis Cardinals were growing unhappy with their shortstop. During a game at Busch Stadium on August 26, 1981, Garry Templeton made obscene gestures at fans before being pulled off the field by Herzog. This perfect storm led to a meeting at the 1981 Winter Meetings between Padre’s GM Jack McKeon and Herzog. The Padres needed to upgrade their offense and the Redbirds needed a defensive upgrade for Whitey to move his team forward. The Padres had initially said Ozzie was untouchable, but the tenuous situation between his agent and management made him available. Since Ozzie had a no trade clause and initially had wanted to invoke it, Whitey flew to San Diego to meet with Ozzie and his agent to convince him that the Cardinals needed him (sound familiar??) to win the pennant. After some more negotiations the six-player deal went through and Ozzie became a St. Louis Cardinal.
In order for Ozzie to improve his offensive production and for the shortstop to fit into Whitey’s master plan, Herzog made a deal with Ozzie. It is reminiscent of the deal Lou Brown made with Willie Mayes Hayes in “Major League”. For every fly ball Ozzie hit he owed Whitey a dollar. For every grounder Whitey owed Ozzie a dollar. By the end of the season Ozzie won close to $300 from Whitey and began to show the production that would alter his career. In a nod to the team’s philosophy Herzog would later say of Smith’s contributions that, “If he saved two runs a game on defense, which he did many a night, it seemed to me that was just as valuable to the team as a player who drove in two runs a game on offense.” As Herzog had predicted the Cardinals won the pennant and Smith’s contributions against the Brewers in the World Series secured the Championship. During the offseason following the World Series Ozzie signed a new contract worth one million dollars a year. Smith went on to start his first All Star Game in 1983 and won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove.
Ozzie continued to endear himself to Cardinal fans and become one of the most popular players in the organization’s history. In 1985 he may have solidified his place in Cardinal history with a homerun hit off of Tom Niedenfuer in Game 5 of the NLCS. The hit was Ozzie’s only left handed homerun in 3,009 left-handed at bats. It inspired one of Hall of Fame Announcer Jack Buck’s most famous calls (“Smith corks one into right, down the line! It may go . . . Go crazy, folks, go crazy! It’s a home run, and the Cardinals have won the game, by the score of 3 to 2, on a home run by the Wizard! Go crazy!”). I can still vividly remember lying in the floor in front of our old console television after school watching this and going crazy with Jack and Ozzie. This propelled the Cardinals to the World Series with cross state rivals the Kansas City Royals. We all know how that one ended right Mr. Don Denkinger?
In 1987 Smith contributed to another pennant and World Series birth against the Minnesota Twins. Ozzie’s .303 batting average 43 stolen bases, 75 RBI’s, 104 runs scored, and 40 doubles were good enough to earn him the Silver Slugger Award at shortstop. In addition to winning the Gold Glove Award at shortstop for the eighth consecutive time, Smith posted a career-high on base percentage of .392. Smith was also the leading vote getter in the 1987 All Star Game. Following the 1987 season Ozzie received the largest contract on the National League at $2,340,000.Ozzie continued to rack up Gold Gloves and All Star Appearances for the rest of the decade.
The 1990’s brought a string of changes to the organization. There were two manager changes and a dramatic shift of philosophy from the years of Whitey Ball. Ozzie continued to perform but the years of sacrificing his body were taking their toll. When Tony LaRussa arrived he began to push Smith out. Ozzie did not take this well at all and after being relegated to a platoon situation with Royce Clayton after Spring Training Ozzie couldn’t take anymore. LaRussa reportedly asked Ozzie if he wanted to be traded in Mid May of 1996. Instead of this Ozzie and his agent negotiated a change in his contract in exchange for his announcement of his retirement. Ozzie began his farewell tour after a June announcement of his retirement. This included numerous honors by many teams and a standing ovation at the All Star game in Philadelphia, and culminated with a ceremony at Busch on September 28, 1996 with having his number retired at Busch.
Ozzie was a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 2002 but has let hard feelings with the way his career ended keep him away from the organization. I am truly hopeful that Ozzie is able to put all of this behind him now that LaRussa has retired. Ozzie has a lot to offer the organization and community (which he has been a strong supporter of regardless of his anger). His string of 13 consecutive Gold Glove Awards and 15 All Star appearances was not a fluke. The Cardinals got the best of this trade as Smith’s hitting dramatically improved and injuries forced Templeton’s offense to decline. Ironically, Templeton became a fan favorite in San Diego and was a vital player for the organization for many years eventually joining the coaching staff. Hopefully Ozzie will come back into the fold and help the Redbirds continue to develop and compete. We can definitely use his mentoring and guidance in our current middle infield situation. I hope to see that number 1 jersey on his back sometime soon in a coaching capacity.