St. Louis' Wizard Named Oz Is the Slickest-Fielding Shortstop in Baseball

updated 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The catch. Were it mounted in a more impressive setting, it would shimmer in baseball memory like Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder grab of Vic Wertz's drive in the 1954 World Series. All Ozzie Smith did, in an otherwise routine contest five years ago between the San Diego Padres and the Atlanta Braves, was dive headlong to his left after a white blur skimming past second base. Then, as the ball took a bad hop and caromed behind him, he still speared it in midair with his bare hand, cleared a swath of ground with his chest, scrambled to his feet, and threw the batter out at first base.

"He's an acrobat," says Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. "I think they signed him out of Ringling Brothers circus." "No question," says the redoubtable Leo Durocher, former skipper of the Giants. "Ozzie Smith is absolutely the greatest shortstop of all time." Greater than Honus Wagner, Marty Marion, Luis Aparicio? Yes, nods Red Schoendienst, who played with Marion during the '40s. Smith, 28, is properly awed by such talk. "I mean, we're talking about baseball history!" he says.

Though Smith's fielding talents have long been recognized by baseball people, he labored in relative obscurity until a 1982 trade sent him from San Diego, a perennial also-ran in the National League, to St. Louis. Last year's World Series was the perfect showcase for Smith's talents, as his outstanding defensive play helped the Cardinals to victory. "We couldn't have won it without him," St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog says simply.

Though in an era of big talk and big contracts Smith is refreshingly self-effacing, the facts of his career speak for themselves. His 621 assists in the 1980 season broke a record that had endured 56 years. So what if, with a .234 lifetime batting average, he is a less-than-terrifying presence at the plate? "If you save 100 runs or drive in 100 runs," says Herzog, "it's all the same." One-third of the way into this season, the Cardinals were back in first place. Ozzie's average was hovering in the .220s, but his fielding has been, as always, sublime.

Osborne Earl Smith was born in modest circumstances in Mobile, Ala., one of six children of a laborer father and a vocational nurse mother. The family home was next to a baseball diamond, and little Oz whiled away his childhood tossing stray balls back over the fence. At 8, Ozzie moved with his family to the Watts section of Los Angeles, where he honed his acrobatic skills by bouncing on a park trampoline and diving into sawdust piles in a nearby lumberyard. He played Little League baseball, sometimes against Lonnie Smith, his current Cardinal teammate, and by the end of high school he had decided on a professional career.

Trouble was, the scouts only had eyes for his Locke High School teammates Eddie Murray, now with the Baltimore Orioles, and Darrell Jackson, formerly with the Minnesota Twins. No matter. Ozzie enrolled at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where he quickly earned a scholarship. In the spring of 1977, after touring Taiwan with a college all-star team, he signed with the Padres, who in turn farmed him to a Class A club in Washington State. Not one to wallow in Walla Walla, he was moved up to the majors the following season. Within three years he collected his first Gold Glove, symbolic of fielding supremacy at his position, and since then he has been an annual presence on the National League All-Star team. A 1981 salary dispute notwithstanding, he seemed to be a fixture in San Diego.

Then in December 1982 Smith learned from a local reporter that he'd been traded to St. Louis in a multi-player deal for strong-hitting shortstop Garry Templeton. Initially upset by the trade, Ozzie soon got over his St. Louis blues; a World Series ring and a three-year contract bringing him more than $1 million per annum had to help. And, of course, he still had his No. 1 fan, Denise, 27, the former San Diego radio talk show producer he married in 1980. "She was the first girl who cared about me," says Ozzie, "not about what I did." And on April 28, 1982, along came Ozzie Jr. The Smiths still maintain a house in San Diego, but last April Ozzie Sr. and Denise bought a six-bedroom home just 25 minutes from Busch Stadium.

At the start of the seventh game of last fall's World Series, Ozzie performed two spontaneous backflips as he headed out to assume his position. There's little question that the good people of St. Louis have flipped for him too. Just ask Ronald Reagan, who had the bad luck of joining Ozzie at a boys' club banquet last July and seemed slightly startled when the Wizard's ovation outthundered his own. Said the President, "I hope he's not running against me."

From Our Partners