The sixth greatest Cardinal: Ozzie Smith
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 6: SS Ozzie Smith
Ozzie Smith didn’t hit much when he was with the San Diego Padres, but the magic he performed with his glove could levitate a crowd. So he figured he was due a raise from the $72,500 he’d made in 1979.
Ed Gottlieb, Smith’s brash Los Angeles-based agent, asked $150,000 on behalf of his client, which was a lot for a second-year player who had just batted .222. The Kroc family, purveyors of McDonald’s hamburgers as well as Padres baseball, naturally bristled. Under no obligation to raise his salary at all, they countered with a comparatively paltry raise of $10,000.
The following offseason, Gottlieb made an audacious attempt to parlay the first of Smith’s 13-straight Gold Gloves into a $5 million payday. That’s a bargain by today’s standards, but in 1980 only Nolan Ryan was making as much as $1 million per year.
When negotiations predictably lingered toward spring training, Gottlieb took the low road with an attempt to shame the Krocs. He placed a classified ad in the San Diego Times-Union: “Padre baseball player seeks part-time employment to supplement income.”
Smith himself would say later that he didn’t approve of such tactics, but was even less amused by Joan Kroc’s reciprocal offer of $3.50 per hour to assist the gardener at her family estate. With no negotiating leverage, he nonetheless signed on for another season at $300,000, asking only the additional security of a no-trade clause.
Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the Cardinals were having shortstop troubles of their own.
On Aug. 26 of the 1981 season, Garry Templeton drew the wrath of the Busch Stadium faithful by failing to run out a dropped third strike. While they booed him off the field, Templeton saluted the Ladies Day crowd with a middle-finger while grabbing himself in the unmentionables.
Manager Whitey Herzog might have beaten him to a pulp if not for the others in the dugout. Owner Gussie Busch ordered Templeton traded.
Herzog, who doubled as general manager, identified the handful of shortstops — Alan Trammel, Rick Burrelson and Ivan DeJesus — that suited his desire to rebuild the Cardinals on speed an defense. But Jack McKeon, the San Diego GM, confided that the Krocs would rather trade Smith than deal with Gottlieb. They’d even take Templeton, who was being treated for depression and substance abuse.
The glitch was that Smith didn’t really want to go somewhere else. He’d grown up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, honing those fluid fielding skills by bouncing a rubber ball against the concrete steps out in front of his parents’ modest house. Southern California was his home ... and he had that no-trade clause.
On the day after Christmas, Herzog flew to San Diego to convince Smith and his wife to at least visit St. Louis, tour the city, meet the other players and soak in the rich baseball tradition. When they arrived on a blustery midwest winter’s day — sans Gotlieb — Herzog turned on the charm “like a traveling preacher,” promising Smith he could be part of something great as the Cardinals’ shortstop.
He offered him $450,000 with the assurance that, if he didn’t like it in St. Louis, he could walk at season’s end. Smith accepted and the trade was made.
“When he sat down and talked baseball, he was totally different. He was so sincere it was so unreal the way he talked,” Smith told the Sporting News. “It took me two weeks to find out that I wanted to play for him. He’s a great baseball man.”
It was understood Smith was a defensive genius, but in seeing him daily in action, Herzog realized the sprightly product of Cal-Poly State University was elevating play at shortstop to a historic level.
Critics would claim that Smith had gained an advantage by playing on the Busch Stadium turf, which was void of the bad hops he’d otherwise face on natural grass. They ignored, however, the incredible speeds at which a batted ball would scoot across what was basically an upholstered parking lot. Even though he played 19 full seasons with a record number of chances, Smith retired with a 5.22 Range Factor/9Inn. Simply put, he made about 80 plays each year the average major league shortstop couldn’t make.
Bud Harrelson, a former MLB coach and shortstop, spotted Smith’s superior skills long before advanced metrics guru Bill James even conceived of Range Factor/9Inn.
“The thing about Ozzie is, if he misses a ball, you assume it’s uncatchable,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1987. “If any other shortstop misses a ball, your first thought is, ‘Would Ozzie have had it?’”
Smith amassed 13 Gold Gloves in his career and remains the all-time leader among shortstops in assists and double plays. His 44.2 career defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR) is the best by a player at any position.
But even as the rest of the baseball world viewed him as a human highlight reel, Smith worked throughout his career to improve his work at the plate.
In his first season with the Cardinals — which produced the World Series championship Herzog had promised him — Smith batted .248, which was his highest average in four years. Still, he contributed to Herzog’s small-ball offense by consistently putting the ball in play from the eighth spot in the order. He struck out just 32 times in 567 plate appearances.
And he got better with the bat seemingly by the year.
“Ozzie Smith took more responsibility for his God-given talent than any player, scrub or superstar, I’ve ever been around,” Herzog said in his book, “You’re Missin’ a Great Game.”
By 1985, Smith reached a new career high at .276 with a .355 on-base percentage, but saved his best for his second postseason. The Cardinals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in a six-game National League Championship Series, with Smith contributing 10 hits in 23 at-bats. The knock-out blow he delivered to walk-off Game 5, though, became the signature moment of his career and remains one of the great moments in team history.
The series was tied at two games apiece when the Cardinals and Dodgers went into the bottom of the ninth inning knotted 2-2. With one on and none out, the switch-hitting Smith faced reliever Tom Niedenfeur having never hit a home run from the left side of the plate. But he “corked one into right” to cinch a 3-2 victory and make 53,706 folks at Busch Stadium II “go crazy!”
Despite their 101 regular season wins, the Cardinals went on to lose the World Series in seven games to the Kansas City Royals.
St. Louis was disappointed again in 1987, when the Redbirds took it on the chin against the Minnesota Twins in the only World Series to that point in which the home team won every game. Smith completed a career year at the plate, though, batting .303/.392/.383 with 40 doubles, 104 runs and 75 RBIs — all career highs. He finished second to Chicago’s Andre Dawson for National League MVP.
Smith retired in 1996 at age 41, believing he was still the best shortstop on the roster, a point disputed by new manager Tony La Russa, who favored the younger Royce Clayton. Smith’s career line included a .262 average, which was a 40-point improvement since his time in San Diego. He also stole 580 bases, which ranks 22nd all time.
The loyalty he once gave to Southern California now belongs to St. Louis, where he remains active both in charitable work and as a special instructor with the Cardinals.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1982-1996
.272/.350/.344 in St. Louis | 15x All-Star | 13 Gold Gloves | WS ring | 65.9 WAR | HoF’02
TOP 100 SCORE: 6.53