By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 77: Ozzie Smith

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.

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47 Responses to No. 77: Ozzie Smith

  1. hewetson says:

    Remember Evan Longoria’s catch?

  2. dlf9 says:

    That we are closing in on twenty years since Ozzie last played makes me feel old.

    For the many BRs who weren’t around in the late 70s-mid 80s to see Ozzie at his defensive peak, you simply can’t understand how good he was. He came up way before he was ready offensively and had to learn how to hit at the big league level. But his fielding was world class from day one. He was fast, but moved so smoothly it was like flowing water. Mid career, he started to have shoulder problems, but before then his arm was a plus allowing him to set up deeply, particularly on the artifical turf that was so prevalent in his time. Even after the shoulder problems took away the arm strength, he had an amazingly quick release and accurate throws. Lithe but strong, he was a gymnast, literally turning cartwheels and backflips on his way out to short – doing it frequently when young, but only once or twice a year as he reached into his 30s and 40s. His hands were soft as anything and the reactions lightening quick.

    I am not one to wail against the young and claim that things were better in the good old days, but due to increased emphasis on offense, elimination of artificial turf, and increase in strikeouts, teams no longer emphasize fielding the way they once did. Those of us who got to watch the Wizard of Oz saw something that hasn’t been repeated and, absent a change in the direction of the game, may never come back.

    • Steve says:

      I actually think defense is much better than it used to be, especially on the 2B-SS-3B-CF side of the defensive spectrum. One of my favorite things to do during the season is looking at the plays of the day on There are plays made every day that are on the outer edge of astounding. The flip play where the SS or 2B gets the force at second without ever taking the time to change hands is now pretty common. The coordination it takes for that is amazing.

      Maybe for awhile during the high offense 90s/00s teams were sacrificing defense for offense, but if so it’s turned back with a vengeance. The new metrics on defense aren’t perfect, but a) teams have better info than the publicly available stuff and b) they know with reasonable certainty that the difference between a good fielder and a bad one is at least several wins over the course of a year. We didn’t really used to know that. You’d get silly estimates like “Ozzie saves a run a game.” Which, come on. The 1987 Cardinals had a 3.91 ERA. Ozzie was singlehandedly keeping it from 4.91? That wouldn’t make him the best player of 1987, that would make him the best player of all time by a wide margin.

      That said, Ozzie Smith was absolutely in his glory fielding on Astroturf.

    • johnq11 says:


      I’m old enough to have seen O. Smith play his whole career and I have to disagree with you.
      I have to disagree with your point because I don’t see any evidence to prove that statement. There have been some great short stops over the past 15-20 years: Adam Everett, Clint Barnes, Jack Wilson, Troy Tulowitski, J.J. Hardy, Rafael Furcal, Cesar Izturis.

      The question is why aren’t most of those players more celebrated.

      On the contrary I think defense in general is better than it was 25.

      But maybe in a roundabout way that’s why O. Smith stood out so much. He was so much better than most players of that era so he stood out exponentially.

      Go back and watch old repeats of games from the late 70’s and early 80’s. Some of the play is rather shocking.

      • dlf9 says:

        Goodness no. David Concepcion, Mark Belanger, Campy Campaneris, a generation earlier Luis Aparicio, Eddie Brinkman … all provided exceptional comparisions: very, very good fielders who, none-the-less weren’t as good as Ozzie. Shoot, just a few years before Ozzie, there used to be players like Dal Maxvill (career OPS+ 57) and Hal Lanier (50) who would be full timers just because they could really field. Well into Ozzie’s career, you could shake a tree and a dozen Mario Mendoza’s would fall out. He stood out not because others were bad, but because he was *that* good.

      • Clint Barnes or Clint Barmes…. Well, at least spell his name right if you are going to make foolish comparisons. Furcal…. You make me laugh. The guy had range and a great arm, but was an error machine at times. Seriously, don’t bring weak stuff like this in here.


      Nope. Look at modern defensive metrics. Ozzie Smith is the most overrated defensive player who ever lived.

    • This was beautiful. I wish I had seen Ozzie back in his heyday and witnessed what everyone during that time raved about.

  3. Seiya says:

    I like Ozzie Smith as a player. I lost a lot of respect for him after this, though.

    • What was Ozzie, supposed to do? If a guy (who outweighs you by 40 pounds) takes a swing at your teammate, you swing back. Oquendo may have started it, but if Smith had walked away, as you suggest, then he’d have lost the respect of his teammates. I watched the play three times and if the umpire had called the double play for Clark sliding out of the direct line, it would have been only marginally wrong; as is, Clark wound up with no part of his body within five feet of second base when he stopped his slide on a play where there was no effort to turn the double play and the second baseman was retreating. It was a clear retaliation play to Thompson getting spiked earlier in the series. So on this particular play, Clark started a dirty slide, Oquendo responded with a knee, Clark started the fisticuffs, and then you lose respect for Ozzie. Sound like you’re a Giants fan to me.

  4. Stugots says:

    You’re joking right? You know that’s from a commercial….

  5. Chad Meisgeier says:

    No. 77, I will go with Dennis Eckersley.

  6. Ozzie Smith was the only ball player who made me get tickets to watch him (at Dodger Stadium). He was more fun to watch than any other player I’ve ever seen. And he was great on The Simpsons.

  7. hardy callcott says:

    I’m not a stat guy, but I have seen it argued persuasively that Mark Belanger (who I watched growing up) rates out as an even better fielder than Ozzie – fairly remarkable because he was playing next to Brooks Robinson and Bobby Grich and in front of Paul Blair, all of whom were great fielders and got to some balls that otherwise Belanger would have fielded. Certainly less spectacular than Ozzie (and with a home field on natural grass, not astroturf), but maybe even more reliable.

    • Donald A. Coffin says:

      Belanger: 15,337.1 innings at SS, 39.4 dWAR

      Ozzie: 21,785.2 inning at SS, 43.4 dWAR

      Belanger: 3.75 dWAR per 1458 innings (162 games times 9 innings)
      Ozzie: 2.90 dWAR per 1458 innings

      Even a stat guy might argue that Belanger was better…the gap is huge.

      • Donald A. Coffin says:

        Ozzie was, OTOH, much better offensively. 87 OPS+, 48 oWAR, to Belanger’s 68 OPS+, 15,oWAR.

      • forsch31 says:

        Just curious…does that account for amount of innings on Astroturf? For infielders, there is a huge difference between grass and Astroturf (the latter being far more difficult to play on and rack up assists), and I was wondering if there was any way to measure that, or if somebody had actually recorded the amount of innings for either player.

        • Donald A. Coffin says:

          I thought that the conventional wisdom is that turf, with its truer bounces, was easier to play on. (I doubt, actually, that anyone knows what the answer to that is.) But in answer to your specific question, I don’t know whether the BBRef flavor of dWAR makes a fielding surface adjustment. But I doubt it does.

  8. Mac says:

    I’m feel compelled to mention the name Andrelton Simmons. I was to young to remeber Ozzie live but I think I understand what it might have been like watching stuff like this:

    • Donald A. Cofin says:

      Simmons is off to one helluva start–7.8 dWAR in 1778.1 innings (about 1.25 full seasons of innings, about 6 dWAR per full season. If he keeps it up for the next decade, I think we will have to say he’s the greatest defensive shortstop ever…if…

    • I think Simmons’ season ranked as the top defensive season of all time for any position. Or, at least he was on pace for that distinction very late in the season. We’ll see how things go over the next 10 years before we start comparing him to Ozzie or Belanger.

  9. Ross Holden says:

    When I saw Ozzie at this level, I thought Joe was giving Ozzie more credit for the eye-test and was putting him higher than he deserved if you look at numbers and advanced stats. Though since we’ve had a few middle infielders who played around the same time recently in the list, and decided to compare:
    #85 Barry Larkin 70.2 67.5 13.8
    #82 Robbie Alomar 66.8 70 2.4
    #78 Ryne Sandberg 67.6 59.5 12.8
    #77 Ozzie Smith 76.5 47.9 43.4

    I was shocked that Ozzie stacked up so well and did come out ahead. I didn’t think his defensive advantage over the other 3 would be so dominant and show through in WAR, but it put him in the lead.

  10. Will3pin says:

    His walk-off home run in Game 5 of the ’85 playoffs was electric. His first ever left-handed home run. Unbelievable that he hits it at that moment of the game, at that moment in the series.

    Rounding the bases, pumping his fist, his expression is is one of pure joy. Even gives Joe Carter a run for his money in WOHE (Walk-Off Homer Enthusiasm).

    Sandberg and Smith back-to-back on the list. Many interesting contrasts there.

  11. Rick R says:

    There are certain players who define the position for me. Like Willie McCovey defined what a first baseman should look like. The Stretch, the power—I’m not saying McCovey was the best first baseman, but when I think of an archetype at first base, I think of Willie McCovey.

    Ozzie Smith to me is the archetypical shortstop. The phenomenal fielding, hitting just well enough to be useful—when I think shortstop, I think Ozzie Smith. Again, not to say that he is the best player ever to play shortstop (though I think he is the best defensively), he’s just the perfect fit for the position.

  12. Dave Gilland says:

    Omar Vizquel may have been a better shortstop, but he didn’t do backflips, which we all know is what gets you celebrated.

  13. Geggse says:

    There was this one play, fly ball to left, Ozzie is going out, Jose Oquendo is coming in. It looks like they’re going to crash into each other. At the last moment Oquendo dives. Ozzie jumps over him, catches the ball.

  14. “Everybody remembers some play he made”.

    People talk about Brandon Phillips this way.

  15. franklb says:

    Joe, reading each installment in this series is like opening another Christmas present. Thank you!

  16. Carl says:


    1) Ozzie Smith has the most career DWAR of anybody in the history of baseball.
    2) Ozzie Smith has the most assists in a season (621) of any player in baseball post 1947.
    3) Ozzie Smith has 6 of the top 21 assist seasons in baseball post 1947. (Mark Belanger had 1)

  17. bobburpee says:


    Instead of telling us who you have at the same number, which doesn’t give us any context, tell us where you have the player Joe is discussing ranked.


    Amazing that Joe was just as good a writer in 1996 as he is now.

  18. wordyduke says:

    For anyone not keeping score at home, that’s 3 elected by a Veterans’ or Old Timers’ Commitee (Radbourn, Bell, Santo). 5 passed over so far (Whitaker, Raines, McGwire, Biggio, Schilling). 3 from the Negro Leagues (Williams, Bell, Rogan). 4 not eligible (Rivera, Cabrera, Suzuki, Joe Jackson). 9 voted in by the BBWAA (Frisch, Waner, Roberts, Perry, Ryan, Smith, Sandberg, Alomar, Larkin). Or so I calculate Joe’s choices through #77.

  19. johnq11 says:

    Mize was a veteran’s committee selection in 1981.

    Shoeless Joe was technically eligible for the first 50 odd years it’s just that no one voted for him.

    He didn’t become “ineligible” until they passed that Pete Rose rule in 1991 banning players from the ineligible list.

  20. nightfly says:

    The Wizard of Oz. All-time nickname (not that it matters in player evaluation), all-time fielder (which does matter). Great appearance on the Baseball Bunch.

    Also, since I’m a hockey fan I will always think of #77 as Ray Bourque, but oh well.

  21. BobDD says:

    77 is also the age that Sophia Loren first had average naked t+a War – what a prime peek!

  22. In 1977, the Cardinals jumped off to a big lead as the Mets unexpectedly got away slow. By August, they were looking as if the pennant was a sure thing. Then the Mets came into St. Louis, swept them three games, and began to close in. Then injuries hit. Jack Clark went down, then Willie McGee. The Mets were within 2-3 games by mid-September and closing fast.

    Someone asked Keith Hernandez, about this time, if what with all the injuries the Cards were finished. “Is Ozzie hurt?” he asked rhetorically. “No? Then the Cards aren’t finished.”

    And with guys like Jim Lindeman and Jose Oquendo hitting in the middle of the order, the Cards came within one game of winning the World Series.

    That he didn’t get the MVP that year was criminal.

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