07/17/2002 12:17 pm ET
The Wizard of Oz to enter Hall
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- Nothing can prepare someone for the onslaught of attention and constant demands that a new Hall of Famer faces. Dinners, media commitments, appearance after appearance, and very rarely in the same time zone. It can be draining, even for the irrepressible Ozzie Smith.
Smith knows all about preparation -- it was one of the defining traits of his superb Major League career -- but even so, this is a one-time experience. And that's probably for the best.
"It can become very taxing, especially when you're trying to move people around," Smith recently told MLB Radio. "You can only invite 15 people here, you can only invite 20 people here, you can only invite 40 people here. So that type of stuff becomes very tedious. So I'll be glad when this part of it is over with, and who knows what's next?"
"The Wizard" has actually been taking it easy recently, enjoying a self-imposed decompression period for the last few days leading up to his induction.
"It can lose its luster a little bit," Smith said at the All-Star Game in Milwaukee. "I've talked to a lot of people about that. That's why [starting] July 18 I'm just going to shut it down and not do anything but play golf up until the day."
"The day" is July 28 in Cooperstown, N.Y., when Smith will be the only player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Broadcaster Harry Kalas and writer Joe Falls will be honored, but for all practical purposes, the 2002 class is a class of one. And that's appropriate for the man who not only wore No. 1, but was unique in his ability to play shortstop.
You can debate the best all-around player, or the best pure hitter, or the best starting pitcher or reliever who ever played the game. But as to the question of the best defensive shortstop, it begins and ends with one name: Ozzie.
"I would say he defined the position of shortstop," said Rick Hummel, long-time Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Omar Vizquel has come along and whether he plays the same, I don't see enough of him to say. But [Smith] made plays you hadn't seen anybody else make before. Maybe Vizquel's made some since, or [Rey] Ordonez."
Smith has been universally acclaimed in the baseball world. It would be easy for the man known as "The Wizard" to have gotten a big head. There's simply no one in his class when it comes to defense at shortstop.
He amassed 13 Gold Gloves, the most of any shortstop and the most of any National League player in history. He made 15 All-Star teams. He had 2,460 hits. He was the runner-up for the National League's Rookie of the Year award in 1978, and also finished second in the balloting for the 1987 NL MVP. He played on three pennant-winning teams, including the Cardinals' 1982 World Series championship club.
But despite the accolades, and despite the acclaim lavished on him recently, Smith is still a baseball fan. He still gets excited when he meets Hall of Famers -- who are now his peers. And that's one of the great benefits of joining the Cooperstown fraternity: get-togethers with your fellow enshrinees.
"Ozzie met, for the first time, Phil Rizzuto up in Cooperstown in May when we went up for orientation," said Andy Strasberg, Smith's representative and long-time friend. "I grew up in New York and Phil Rizzuto was a special guy to me. Well, I found out [he] was a special guy to Ozzie. Because after the dinner we both went back to our rooms and going back, Ozzie just turned to me and he said, 'Can you believe it? I just had dinner with the Scooter!' He doesn't get into a situation where, you know, 'I'm a star.' He gets thrilled to meet legends of the game that he had never met before."
Smith earned his place among the immortals, his seat at those dinners, due largely to his dedication, professionalism, pride ... and the one trait that people mention again and again -- preparation. He made all those great plays because he was in position to make them. And he was in position to make them because he had studied his pitchers and the hitters they were facing.
"I threw Keith Hernandez a fastball, middle in. He hit a bullet right over my head up the middle. And I'm thinking, 'Well, there's a base hit and an RBI.' And I turn around and Ozzie's standing right there. He's standing in the outfield, on the turf ... And I'm thinking, 'What in the world is he doing there?'"
-- Former teammate |
Rick Horton spent the majority of his seven-year big league career as a pitcher with the Cardinals, and with Smith as his shortstop. He benefited and learned from the experience.
"I can think of one pitch that I threw in the Major Leagues like it was yesterday," said Horton, who now heads up Baseball Chapel in St. Louis. "I threw Keith Hernandez a fastball, middle in. He hit a bullet right over my head up the middle. And I'm thinking, 'Well, there's a base hit and an RBI.' And I turn around and Ozzie's standing right there. He's standing in the outfield, on the turf ... basically, playing shallow center field is what it looked like.
"And I'm thinking, 'What in the world is he doing there?' He knew based on my pitch selection where he was going to [need to] be. He knew based on [the fact that] Hernandez wasn't a fast runner, he could play deep. [It was] just such a natural thing for Ozzie to position himself correctly."
Fellow Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield, who played with Smith in San Diego, didn't see greatness when Smith was a young shortstop with a nice glove. Winfield says that Smith is a self-made Hall of Famer.
"Heck, no," Winfield said. "He didn't know how great he was going to be. Nobody did. It started with defense. He covered all kinds of ground. He learned how to hit. He learned how to steal bases. He covered from the third-base line into center field. He really changed the perspective of what shortstop is all about."
Teammates and observers all note the same thing about Smith: his almost fanatical dedication to being the best at what he did. It has carried over into his post-baseball career.
Smith has worked for the now-defunct CNN/SI television network. He served as the host of This Week in Baseball. Most recently he has done television reporting for FOX Sports. Oh, and he runs the Ozzie Smith Foundation, which does charitable work for children and education, he owns a restaurant and he continues to make time for his family.
Now he's applying that drive to being the same old Ozzie. Despite almost incessant travel, and one obligation after another, he hasn't changed from the person he always was.
"Ozzie has got the most wonderful personality and disposition," Strasberg said. "I have seen him in what I view as very difficult, stressful situations, one in which he would be very tired, getting off a plane, a redeye and making an appearance, and I have never seen him short, curt or disrespectful to anybody. Whether it be a CEO of an organization or someone working in a kitchen of a hotel, a parking lot attendant or a fan on the street. I have spent an enormous amount of time with him and it has never wavered."
It hasn't been an easy year in the Cardinals family. With the deaths of broadcaster Jack Buck and pitcher Darryl Kile, die-hard St. Louis fans have grieved a great deal. And make no mistake, though Smith played four seasons with the San Diego Padres, he is a Cardinal.
Smith's enshrinement should provide a needed dose of celebration and joy.
"In light of all of the things that have happened here lately," Smith told MLB Radio, "with the passing of Jack Buck and then the untimely death of Darryl Kile, I think there will probably be an outpouring of Cardinal fans from all over the country for this. Sometimes it's all part of the healing process and I think they'll use this as an opportunity."
They'll be celebrating a man who was a modern-day great playing for a historic franchise. When you think of great Cardinals, you think of Stan Musial, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. The names are hallowed, like Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio in New York. Smith established himself on a level with the greatest in the history of his team.
"There's probably five guys you put in that class," Hummel said. "Musial, Gibson, Brock, Ozzie and Red [Schoendienst]."
Since his retirement, and especially since the announcement of his induction, Smith has continued to carry himself with pride and dignity. He's been stretched at times, but he's remained a credit to the organization.
"Fortunately for Ozzie, he doesn't need to change the way that he has conducted himself with the media or with fans or with friends," Strasberg said, "because he has always been respectful of the position that he's in in the public's eye as a Major League Baseball player. He is certainly proud of the fact that he's a member of the Hall of Fame, but he's always been respectful of how to carry himself."
Maybe the biggest challenge of all will be the speech he has to give on induction Sunday.
"I don't know how emotional it'll be until I get in the situation," Smith said. "I will say that before the announcement came, being superstitious, I didn't talk about it much. I realized the next day it was easier because I hadn't had a chance to talk about it. That's made it a little bit easier."
One thing's for sure: you can bet he'll be well-prepared for his speech. And it's safe to guess he'll do a fine job with it, just as with everything else he's put his mind to.
Matthew Leach covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.