I thought, for fun, I’d pull out the last column I ever wrote about Ozzie Smith as an active player. It was his last year playing for the St. Louis Cardinals and it was the last time he played in Cincinnati. I wrote this for the Cincinnati Post on September 24, 1996. I adjusted a couple of things to make it read a bit more current.
This does not go into detail about his great career. He was, I feel sure, the greatest defensive shortstop who ever lived. And, offensively, he had good years. He had an on-base percentage of .392 in 1987 and perhaps deserved to be MVP. He was, all things considered, about as good in 1985, 1988 and 1989. He stole almost 600 bases in his career.
Then, with Ozzie, greatness was more than greatness. It was beauty.
* * *
The baseballs roll slowly at first. Around Ozzie Smith, batting practice rages. People hit, throw, chat, spit, a hundred baseballs dance around, like fireworks, only Ozzie Smith focuses on the one ball, the one that dribbles toward him.
Ozzie Smith is getting ready to perform.
“Here we go,” St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan says.
Ozzie Smith smiles. Yes. Here we go. In baseball, great players come and go like favorite songs. They show up for a few years, they hit many home runs, they strike out 3,000 batters, and then they fade into memory when the next one appears. Folk heroes happen less. Ozzie Smith is one of those folk heroes. He grows better in memory.
His brilliance has little to do with is own numbers. His brilliance comes numbers that were not recorded. Everybody in the National League would have hit .300 if not for Ozzie. Everybody would have broken Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak if not for Ozzie. Everybody remembers some play he made, like the time he dove one way, the ball skipped the other way, so he caught it barehanded and threw out the runner. Then there as another time when he flipped the ball behind his back to start a double play or the time he snared a line drive 15 feet to the right of second base. Then there was another time …
The guy stole away hits from everybody, including the Beatles. Late at night, in dark bars, baseball players still sit over empty beer bottles and tell the stories of the hits Ozzie Smith stole from them.
Monday, Ozzie Smith plays his last baseball game in Cincinnati. Before the game begins, he puts on his final show. He fields a few ground balls. It is routine infield practice, or would be for anyone else. For Ozzie Smith it is Charlie Parker warming up. At first, the baseballs roll slowly.
“Here we go,” Ozzie Smith says.
He catches a grounder and, without looking, throws it to first base. Then, he does it again. Again. The balls begin to come at him more often, once every 10 seconds, then once every five, and each time the baseballs spin a little faster, a little harder, they begin to skid along the turf, buzzing as they approach. Each one he catches softly, as if he’s picking them with tweezers.
And each time, he makes that throw to first without looking. It is utterly impossible. He stares straight ahead, throws the ball to his left, as if he’s tossing away a whiskey bottle. Each time, the ball lands in the first baseman’s glove. Smith rushes to his right, scoops the ball, flings it away, it lands in the first baseman’s glove. He bounces to his left, grabs the ball like a hockey goalie, flings it away, it lands in the first baseman’s glove.
“Are you peeking?” Duncan asks.
“For 15 years,” Smith says.
Now, the coach cracks the ball hard against the turf, so that it bounces high in the air. Smith waits for it to come down, and catches it on the short hop. Again. Again. It is like trying to catch water from a geyser. Smith rushes up, twirls his glove in front of his chest, like a man waving away mosquitoes. Somehow, he catches the ball. He throws it without looking and in one motion. Again. Again.
The ball bounces higher, higher, it seems to jump off the turf, attacking Smith, an angry baseball, only Smith continues to grab the ball with that same wild motion, the same nonchalant throw, the same soft landing in the first baseman’s glove
“Hit it up,” Smith yells at the coach. The coach hits pop-ups behind Ozzie Smith. He turns his back, runs to where he figures the ball will land, he stands with his back to home plate and lets the ball fall into his glove like an NFL receiver. Another pop-up. Again, Smith turns his back and catches it over his head. He is showing off now.
The coaches turn to watch him. A few players turn. Ozzie Smith, 41 years old, keeps turning his back, keeps catching the baseball over his shoulder, blind, and it is magic trick.
And then, the symphony is over. Ozzie Smith has performed enough. He rushes around the field, picking up a few stray baseballs, and even that he does with style. He slaps his glove to the ground, and the ball somehow ends up in the pocket. The eye does not leave him.
That’s when it happens. There is no way for him to see the ball that knifes toward him. Teammate Gary Gaetti in the batting cage has just ripped a line drive, and Ozzie Smith’s eyes are focused somewhere else. A baseball rips straight for his head, and there’s no time to warn him, no time for him to see, no time for anything at all. Ozzie Smith reaches down to pick up a baseball. At the last instant, without looking, he stretches his arm, catches the line drive. He discards the baseball and returns to the task at hand.
“Eyes everywhere,” Duncan says, and he shakes his head.