St. Louis Cardinals: Ozzie vs. La Russa? Go with the Wizard!

Ozzie Smith looks on during the Taco Bell All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game at Busch Stadium on July 12, 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Ozzie Smith looks on during the Taco Bell All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game at Busch Stadium on July 12, 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

The former St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith and manager Tony La Russa have been enemies for 24 years; will it ever end?

The Oct. 2 passing of Bob Gibson has left Ozzie Smith, 65, as the greatest living Cardinal.* Tony La Russa, just hired to manage the Chicago White Sox at age 76, ranks as the team’s greatest living ex-manager. Together those two have forged the St. Louis Cardinals’ greatest — if that’s the right word — feud.

La Russa’s hiring by the White Sox raises questions about how the notoriously contentious skipper will manage today’s players. The Hall of Famer knows baseball, no question, but can he keep calm when dealing with difficult personalities? In his younger days, La Russa quarreled with Jose Canseco, Ron Gant, J.D. Drew, Colby Rasmus, Scott Rolen and, most severely, Ozzie Smith.

You don’t have to choose sides in the 24-year Ozzie-La Russa squabble, but if you do, take Ozzie’s side.

The player-manager discord began in 1996 when La Russa, new Cardinals manager, picked newly acquired Royce Clayton, 26, as the team’s starting shortstop. Ozzie, 41, didn’t take it well. “I was told that the position would be earned in spring training,” he said. The old guy was the better spring player,  batting .288 with no errors. Clayton hit .190 with eight errors. But after 14 years, 13 All-Star appearances, and 11 Gold Gloves in St. Louis, Ozzie was benched.

Was that the right move? Maybe. “Twice to his face I told (Ozzie) that the other guy was a better shortstop on an everyday basis,” La Russa recalled. Ben Godar of wrote in 2019 that the benching of the former star “was exactly what the Cardinals needed,” that it established a “whatever is best for the club” commitment to winning that propelled the Redbirds into the playoffs for the first time since 1987.

But the Ozzie-La Russa rift isn’t really about what happened in 1996. Lots of old players get benched and get furious, but eventually they let it go. Ozzie never let it go, and neither did La Russa. The player accused his manager of lying and cowardice. The manager had every reason to be enraged about that, but he never turned the page.

Nine years later he blocked Ozzie from appearing as a spring-training instructor, saying, “He’s not welcome.” La Russa also said, “When my time is up, they can welcome him with open arms, but I don’t want to be anywhere that he is.”

There are no winners in this feud. Both Ozzie and La Russa have been obstinate, unforgiving, and childish. But the manager wielded the power. He was the boss for 15 years after Ozzie retired. The Wizard could and maybe should have made a peace offering, but he didn’t have the keys to the clubhouse. La Russa did. And he kept the Cards legend locked out.

Ozzie may not be Mother Teresa but it’s La Russa who carries grudges like a tram carries coal. It should come as no surprise that Tony L is close friends with Bob Knight, the embittered ex-college basketball coach who said of his former Indiana University bosses, “I hope they’re all dead.” La Russa has raged against many former players, including one of his favorites.

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When Jim Edmonds joined the Cubs in 2008 he said he wanted Chicago fans to view him as one of their own, not a former Cardinal. An angry La Russa responded that St. Louis fans should honor Edmonds’ request and “treat him like he never played here” when Edmonds returned to Busch Stadium in a Cubs uniform. Edmonds called the manager’s comments “the most asinine I’ve ever heard.”

Like President Nixon, who compiled an infamous “enemies list,” La Russa has his litany of bugbears, which includes Astros manager Dusty Baker, sabermetricians, modern players (as of 2005) who place winning “third or fourth on their list behind making money and having security and all that other BS” (as told in Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August) and Colin Kaepernick, who was “disrespectful,” he said, in kneeling for the National Anthem in protest of police violence against people of color.

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La Russa is singing a new tune after his hire as White Sox manager, saying he supports players protesting racial injustice and has no problem with bat flips and personal player expression as long as it’s “sincere.” Maybe that’s true. Maybe he’s mellowed, and I wish him well. I hope he and Ozzie make peace one day. But for now, I’m a much bigger fan and supporter of the great Ozzie Smith, a worthy successor to the incomparable Gibson as the greatest living Cardinal.

*Don’t even start with Albert Pujols being the GLC (greatest living Cardinal). He’s an Angel, and has been for the past nine years. When he retires, and only then, can we consider his GLC status.