On today's date 56 years ago Osborne Earl Smith was born in Mobile, Alabama.
As anyone who is familiar with the Cardinals knows, Ozzie rose from being a poor kid who learned to field using an old milk carton for a glove to the best defensive shortstop in the history of baseball.
He won 13 Gold Glove Awards and was named an All-Star 15 times. But I wonder if we would have even heard of The Wizard had he been born about a decade and a half later than he was. As Whitey Herzog knew when he traded for Smith, it's just as important to keep the other team from scoring runs as it is to score runs yourself. And Ozzie stole runs from the opposition by the bushel basket.
I remember being at Busch Stadium when Ozzie was in his prime and seeing someone from the other team hit the ball deep in the hole at short. Fans of the other club cheered in confidence that no one could field the ball, get to his feet and throw out the runner before he reached first base. But Cardinals fans knew the hitter didn't have a chance. It was automatic. So much so that it was hard not to take it for granted.
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But today it seems like defense has taken a back seat. If you don't have a high on-base percentage and batting average, it doesn't seem to matter how much ground you can cover or how good you are at turning the double play.
The story goes that Brendan Ryan was run out of town because of his grating personality. But do you really believe the club wouldn't have put up with his eccentricities if he had hit better than .223 with a .279 on base percentage and a pair of homers in 2010? I didn't hear any complaints at all about his personality in 2009 when he hit .292 with a .340 ERA... I'm just saying...
Back in 2009, in fact, people were too busy comparing Ryan to Ozzie Smith than worrying about his sleeve licking or his reputation as a chatter box.
How soon people forget that through his first five seasons in the majors, Ozzie was a .235 hitter who averaged 66 runs scored and 37 RBIs a year. Good thing Ryan Theriot wasn't around back then...
The Cardinals won consecutive National League pennants in 1967 and 68 with Dal Maxvill averaging .240 with a .309 on base percentage. But those kinds of offensive numbers just don't fly anymore.
While Ozzie managed to build himself into a very effective offensive player later in his career, I doubt he would have ever had the chance to develop his skills in today's game. But Cardinals fans will never forget how wonderful it was to see The Wizard and his defensive magic in the 1980s and 1990s.