It's great to see Ozzie Smith with the Cardinals in spring training this year.
But, as happy as I am to see him now, I am disappointed that one of the greatest players in baseball history couldn't put aside what seem like petty differences with manager Tony La Russa years ago and make a contribution to the team -- and to the fans -- in St. Louis.
Smith vowed at the time of his retirement not to have anything to do with the Redbirds until La Russa was gone because he felt the former skipper was disrespectful in how The Wizard was used in his last couple of seasons in the majors. He was particularly offended that the Cardinals acquired young shortstop Royce Clayton and that he had to split time playing time with him.
It's the classic case of an all-time great player failing to realize that he couldn't play like he once did. Ozzie was 40 in 1996 and he struggled at the plate, hitting .199 in 44 games. In his last season, 1996, he rebounded to .282 thanks in part to La Russa's playing him at times when he was more likely to succeed. But in Ozzie's last three or four years, it was obvious that his baseball smarts couldn't make up for his lost range and diminished arm.
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When I was a teenager it was the most exciting thing at the ballpark to see Ozzie go deep into the hole to his right, laying out on the turf before springing up like a cat and nailing the runner at first base by a step. If you didn't see Ozzie play in person it is impossible to explain how great he was. The best way to describe it is to say that all baseball fans have a calculator in their heads that instantly produces a prediction on whether or not a ball will be a hit or an out just as soon as the ball leaves the bat.
Ozzie made my calculator obsolete because every time a ball seemed to be a sure hit either in the hole between short and third or behind the second base bag, he found a way to make plays that otherwise seemed impossible. So it was difficult to watch a hero of my youth suddenly be unable to make plays that average major league shortstops of the day could make.
Whether you like La Russa or not, it wasn't difficult to see who was in the right on this matter. None of us can stop the sands of time.
No one was trying to hurt you Ozzie. At least La Russa kept you on the roster and allowed you to to leave the game on your own terms. Playing you more would have only unfairly damaged your reputation as a perennial all-star and a Hall of Fame.
So, back around to my point:
Ozzie could have made a huge impact in recent seasons with guys like Brendan Ryan, Tyler Greene and maybe even Khalil Greene if he could have put personal differences aside for the fans -- and the ballclub -- that made him famous. He might have made a great coach, not just a spring training instructor for a week at a time.
Maybe Ozzie completely disagreed with La Russa's style of play or his philosophy on how to handle players. But that's not really The Wizard's area of expertise. Ozzie knows more about playing defense at shortstop than all of the middle infielders in the Senior Circuit combined. I once asked him if he could give me just one tip about how to teach my son to be a better infielder and he talked to me for 10 minutes about footwork and how to anticipate the ball. I wish I had it on tape...
The Cardinals have a financial disadvantage when it comes to competing with teams like the Cubs, Mets and Dodgers in the National League. But what they have that none of those teams can match is a tradition and heritage of winning. And it is up to guys like Ozzie Smith to step up and teach the young guys in the same way that Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock have done in the past.
Sometimes the name on the front of the uniform is more important than the one on the back.