When Ozzie Smith performed backflips while heading to his position before the start of Cardinals home openers, postseason contests and All-Star Games, it was as if he were saying, “Let the fun begin.”
Watching Smith sustain defensive wizardry at shortstop was indeed fun for his multitude of aficionados, whom he treated to 13 consecutive National League Gold Glove Award-winning seasons and 15 All-Star selections in a 19-year big league career spent mostly with St Louis. Oh, and he could swing a bat, too. The 2,460 lifetime hits he amassed required ample skill.
Here’s a collection of 10 top moments and events from Smith’s career, on the occasion of his 68th birthday:
1. Go Midwest, young man
Dec. 10, 1981
Embroiled in a contract dispute with Padres management, the 27-year-old Smith underwent a change of scenery when the Cardinals acquired him in a six-player trade. Smith’s San Diego contract included a no-trade clause, but Cards manager Whitey Herzog assured him that St. Louis would become one of baseball’s elite teams with him in the lineup. Smith waived the clause a couple of months later, became a Cardinal and went on to greatness.
2. Sudden slugger
Oct. 14, 1985
The score was tied, 2-2, in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NL Championship Series. The series between the Cardinals and Dodgers was also even at two games apiece. Then the light-hitting Smith, a switch-hitter who had not homered in his previous 3,009 left-handed at-bats, came to the plate with one out against Los Angeles right-hander Tom Niedenfuer and yanked a fastball over the right-field barrier to win it for St. Louis, which went on to capture the NLCS in Game 6. Cards broadcaster Jack Buck implored after Smith went deep, “Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!” Smith finished that series with a .435 batting average and won the NLCS Most Valuable Player Award.
3. Good with gold
Smith won his first NL Gold Glove Award as he accumulated a record 621 assists by a shortstop. Smith already had begun building his reputation as “The Wizard” by making plays such as the one he recorded against Atlanta on April 20, 1978, when he dove to his left for a Jeff Burroughs smash, caught the ball barehanded after it caromed unexpectedly off a rock, and threw to first base for the out in the fourth inning. The Padres went on to win, 2-0.
4. Numbers don’t lie
Smith finished among the league's Top 10 in defensive bWAR 14 times during his career and led the NL in that category six times during the 1980s. Of course, Smith sparkled in compilations of conventional statistics, leading Senior Circuit shortstops eight times in fielding percentage in his career.
5. One tough Wizard
Smith played the second half of the season with an impingement in his right (throwing) shoulder. That forced him to alter his throwing motion which, in turn, led to a rotator-cuff tear.
6. First-rate at second spot
Herzog elevated Smith to second in the batting order for this season. Smith responded admirably to the increased responsibility by batting .303 with a .392 slugging percentage, 75 RBIs, 104 runs and 40 doubles. It was easily Smith’s finest year offensively.
7. Tough call for MVP
Due to his all-around excellence, Smith received plenty of support in NL MVP Award balloting. But voters favored Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson, who amassed 49 homers and 137 RBIs. Smith, who had zero homers, compiled a 6.4 bWAR, compared with Dawson’s 4.0. But WAR had not yet entered baseball’s statistical lexicon. Moreover, Jack Clark, Smith’s St. Louis teammate, finished third in the voting and may have inadvertently robbed Smith of some support.
8. No-doubter for Cooperstown
A first-ballot selection for the Hall of Fame, Smith received 91.7 percent of the vote -- 16.7 percent more than the minimum necessary. He needed 354 votes and collected 433. He was the lone player elected on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot that year.
9. Ozzie Smith, shortstop
Almost inevitably, even the best performers play an alternate position at some juncture during their careers. Not Smith, who manned shortstop and only shortstop in each of his 2,511 regular-season appearances.
"He leaves a legacy of the correct way to play shortstop,” said Tony Gwynn, San Diego’s hitter par excellence.
10. Now, about that backflip ...
Shortly after Smith reached the Major Leagues with the Padres, the team’s promotions director, Andy Strasberg, noticed the rookie doing backflips during early pregame workouts before fans entered the ballpark. Strasberg asked Smith to surprise San Diego rooters with a backflip on Fan Appreciation Day, the Friars' last home game of the season. Smith’s gymnastics prompted an enthusiastic ovation.