When the Wizard became a Cardinal

40 years ago, trade with Padres nearly fell through

December 10th, 2021

and the Cardinals fit together as seamlessly as a slick double-play combo. The legendary shortstop wears a St. Louis cap on his Hall of Fame plaque, and his No. 1 jersey is retired by the team. Even his Twitter handle (@STLWizard) pays tribute to his longtime home.

But it wasn’t always that way. And the two sides were this close to never pairing up at all.

Forty years ago Friday, on Dec. 10, 1981, the Cardinals and Padres agreed to a Winter Meetings swap that would send Smith to St. Louis and fellow shortstop Garry Templeton back to San Diego. But even then, Smith’s Redbirds destiny was not sealed. It wasn’t until two agonizing months later that the teams would finally complete the trade that propelled The Wizard on his path to St. Louis, and eventually, Cooperstown.

Let’s take a look back at how this momentous deal materialized and eventually crossed the finish line.

A California Kid

While Smith was born in Mobile, Ala., his family moved to Los Angeles when he was young. Smith played at Locke High School -- incredibly, he was teammates there with fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Murray -- and then continued his career at Cal Poly. While the Tigers drafted and nearly signed Smith in 1976, he returned to school for another year before being taken by the Padres in the fourth round of the ‘77 Draft.

By the next year, he was San Diego’s Opening Day shortstop at age 23. In only his 10th career game, he made a barehanded grab so jaw-dropping that in 2011, MLB Network named it the most spectacular defensive play in MLB history. At the end of that season, on the Padres’ Fan Appreciation Day, Smith was coaxed into doing a backflip, showing off the acrobatics that would become a trademark.

And so it seemed that Smith’s baseball career would be a West Coast affair. He was the runner-up for the 1978 NL Rookie of the Year Award, won his first two Gold Glove Awards in 1980-81, and in the latter year, he was selected for his first All-Star team. But there were problems, too.

A shortstop swap

Smith had proven his glove was special, but he also had done nothing to indicate he could be even a passable Major League hitter. Over his first four seasons in San Diego, he hit a collective .231/.295/.278 with one home run and a 66 OPS+ that was the worst among 88 players with at least 2,000 plate appearances in that span.

The Padres also didn't seem to be going anywhere. An expansion franchise that began play in 1969, San Diego had its first winning season in 1978 (84-78) but still finished fourth in the NL West. The club didn’t approach the .500 mark in any of the next three seasons, including going 41-69 in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign.

Meanwhile, contract disputes made things contentious between Smith and the Padres. At one point, heading into the 1980 season, Smith’s agent, Ed Gottlieb, rejected a modest raise on his client’s behalf and took out a classified ad in the San Diego Union, looking for part-time employment for a “Padre Baseball Player.”

Jack McKeon, then the Padres’ GM and later a World Series-winning manager with the Marlins, recalled to MLB.com in 2016 that the contract issues prompted the Krocs - the family that owned the Padres - to instruct him to trade Smith. The Cardinals were an ideal match, with the club looking to snap a 13-season playoff drought. It just so happened that St. Louis was also disenchanted with its young, talented shortstop. That was Templeton.

Templeton wasn’t quite the defensive maestro that Smith was, but he was a far better hitter. Through his age-25 season in 1981, he was a two-time All-Star and a Silver Slugger Award winner who had batted over .310 three times, led the NL in triples three times and also led the circuit with 211 hits in 1979 -- including at least 100 from both sides of the plate.

Despite that, Templeton’s relationship with his team also was strained. Things came to a head during an ugly incident on Aug. 26, 1981, at Busch Stadium, where fans booed and shouted racial slurs at Templeton over a perceived lack of hustle. Templeton responded with obscene gestures, and things ended with he and manager Whitey Herzog scuffling in the dugout.

After the season, Templeton’s agent, Richie Bry, asked Herzog (also the team’s GM) for a trade. (Bry, who was also a Cardinals fan, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the deal was completed, “The Cardinals are going to live to regret this. It’s an unfortunate deal, yet it’s right for Garry. They really had no choice.”)

A slow-motion transaction

Per Baseball-Reference’s database, the Padres traded Smith and pitcher Steve Mura to the Cardinals for Templeton and right fielder Sixto Lezcano on Dec. 10, 1981, with the trade being completed on Feb. 19, 1982, when two players to be named later were announced (pitcher Al Olmsted to St. Louis and pitcher Luis DeLeon to San Diego).

But while the trade was in fact agreed to at December’s Winter Meetings, there was a hitch. Smith had a no-trade clause, and he did not give it up easily, looking to use that leverage to improve his contract. Plus, there were the Southern California ties.

''San Diego is my home,'' Smith said at a news conference in late January, when it looked as if the deal would never come to fruition. ''I love it here. My friends are here. I have no intentions of leaving.''

But in mid-February, Smith finally relented, thanks to talks with Herzog and the club’s eventual willingness to have Smith’s 1982 salary decided via arbitration. The Wizard was a Cardinal.

A Cards coup?

There’s no question that the trade worked out beautifully for the Cardinals. The very next season, the team won the World Series. St. Louis would capture two more NL pennants over the next five years, as Smith became a beloved franchise cornerstone, 15-time All-Star and 13-time Gold Glove Award winner. He even developed into a respectable hitter who launched one of the most famous postseason home runs in history, to end Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS. Smith retired as a Cardinal, and in 2002, he cruised into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

But this wasn’t a one-sided heist at the level of the Cardinals’ Broglio-for-Brock trade in 1964. Templeton was still a solid player for 10 seasons in San Diego, making another All-Star team in 1985, although knee problems hampered him. He's now in the team's Hall of Fame. Lezcano was terrific for San Diego in ‘82 (.860 OPS, 5.9 WAR) before being traded the next year, and DeLeon posted a 2.37 ERA over 213 relief innings between 1982-83. In ‘84, the Padres made the World Series.

What would have happened if the Wizard had stayed in San Diego? We’ll never know, but Cardinals fans are undoubtedly glad they don’t have to find out.