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Happy birthday to Ozzie Smith, the greatest shortstop ever

Cardinals legend Ozzie Smith talks ’87 team

Ozzie "The Wizard" Smith discusses the 1987 Cardinals. The '87 Cards were honored at Busch Stadium on Saturday.
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Ozzie "The Wizard" Smith discusses the 1987 Cardinals. The '87 Cards were honored at Busch Stadium on Saturday.

It is the opinion of much of baseballdom that fans of the St. Louis Cardinals are spoiled.

And maybe we are.

There aren’t many other teams whose fans would be in riot mode after spending a whopping TWO seasons in a row sitting home from the playoffs. Maybe New York Yankees fans. But they complain every year they don’t win the World Series. So that’s sort of a different situation. Rooters of the high-budget Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox can’t claim a higher playoff frequency the Redbirds over the past decade. Since their 2007 World Series win over the Colorado Rockies, the BoSox are batting .500 in qualifying for the playoffs, missing in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. The Dodgers missed out in 2007, 2011 and 2012.

So maybe we are a bit jaded. Our expectations are high. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate the things we’ve received in return for our faith.

One example of the way Cardinals fans have been spoiled over the years is by the presence of Osborne Earle Smith, who will celebrate his 63rd birthday Dec. 26, in our lives.

Ozzie ruined me for shortstops. Probably forever. I spent so many years watching him get one — or two — steps farther into the hole than possible, then leaping to his feet like a cat to make a perfect throw to first base that it’s ingrained into my brain that the way The Wizard played is the standard by which all future shortstops should be judged. Edgar Renteria, David Eckstein, Rafael Furcal, Aledmys Diaz and Paul DeJong are all fine players. But none of them could pick it like Ozzie Smith. And when a ball got past one of them on the third base side, I can’t help but feel disappointed when I don’t see the impossible play made. Well, impossible for anyone but Ozzie in his prime.

Smith is definitely one of the two greatest Cardinals players I ever watched in person, the other being Albert Pujols. But the funny thing about Ozzie is that — unlike Albert — I don’t think he was truly appreciated by those who didn’t watch his magic in person. I have heard people claim that Ozzie is the worst player in the Hall of Fame. It all makes me wonder, in a baseball world obsessed with “advanced” statistics, could the best defensive shortstop who ever lived even break into the big leagues in 2018?

It sounds ridiculous to say. But I remember how people whined and moaned in 1981 when St. Louis manager and general manager Whitey Herzog swapped gifted (but disgruntled) infielder Garry Templeton to the San Diego Padres for Smith based solely on their baseball card statistics. After the 1981 campaign, Templeton was a .305 career hitter who averaged 36 extra base hits and 23 stolen bases a year. Ozzie was a .231 hitter who averaged 21 extra base hits a year — although he was speedier with 37 stolen bases per season.

Where the statheads would have lost their minds is the all-important metric of on-base percentage. Templeton’s was a respectable if not fantastic .325 through 1981. Ozzie’s was an anemic .295. Of course, Cardinals fans will tell you that Ozzie worked constantly to improve his offense and, while he was a liability in his early days, he was very valuable at the plate later in his career. Still, he was so good in the field that it wouldn’t have mattered if he ever got a hit or drove in a run because he took so many runs away from the other team.

That type of player could get into the lineup in the past. Dal Maxvill often struggled to hit his weight. But Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson would rather have the guy who could vacuum up ground balls playing behind them than a plodding slugger with a skillet for a glove. Flash forward to a decade ago. Brendan Ryan is the closest thing to Ozzie with a glove since The Wizard retired. But he couldn’t hit well enough to stay in the lineup. During his Cardinals career, Ryan was a .259 hitter with a .314 on base percentage. Ozzie couldn’t come close to those numbers.

What made Ozzie so great? Well, beyond his incredible agility and his strong arm, Smith was a student of the game. He practiced constantly to get better. He also was incredibly focused on the game and had great intelligence for the game. He might not overwhelm you with his skills. But Ozzie knew how to hit in any situation. He put the ball in play and moved runners up seemingly every chance he got.

While players today can’t replicate Smith’s agility and instincts, they could learn a lot from Ozzie’s dedication to the game and drive to be the best all-around player he can be. And fans can learn a lot from his lesson: Sometimes statistics lie and you have to trust your eyes. A stat sheet might tell us that Ozzie doesn’t stack up with other Hall of Famers. But anyone who ever watched him play knows he was the best ever at fielding his position.

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