Los Angeles — Shortstop Ozzie Smith of the San Diego Padres has found that he cannot live on a salary of $72,500 a year, plus $29.50 a day meal money when the team is on the road. There are also reports that he is in a financial bind because of bad investments.
Recently Smith's new agent, Eddie Gottlieb, began running a classified advertisement in the newspapers for a part-time job for his client.
One of the replies was from Joan Kroc, wife of the Padres' owner. She offered her husband's impoverished infielder an assistant gardener's job on their estate at $4.50 an hour. And that's just to start!
When Smith was unable to agree with the Padres on a new $82,500 salary at the start of the present season (his agent thought $150,000 was a more realistic figure) San Diego played its trump card.
Under baseball law, the Padres were able to renew Ozzie's contract at the same amount it paid him last year.
For those unfamiliar with Smith's background, he reached the majors in 1978 with San Diego after playing only 68 games with Walla Walla, Wash., the previous season. He is a wonderfully friendly and likable person.
Walla Walla is in the Northwest League, which is about as far removed from the majors as Pakistan is from beautiful downtown Burbank.
Nobody expected Smith to make the '78 Padres with so little experience, and this undoubtedly included Ozzie, whose college ball had been played at the NCAA Division II level at San Luis Obispo, Calif.
But Smith surprised everybody by showing the same super glove in spring training that the sheriff in Walla Walla could have arrested for "entrapment." Ozzie had the hands of a pickpocket, the instincts of a homing pigeon, and the range of a presidential candidate.
He also showed a lot of promise at the plate, particularly in the way he almost always made good contact and hardly ever struck out.
That first season Smith played in 159 games, looked like Horatius at the Bridge in the field, batted a respectable .258, stole 40 bases, and was runner-up to Atlanta's Bob Horner as the National League Rookie of the Year.
Although Ozzie continued to field brilliantly in 1979, he made the mistake of starting the season by going 0-for-32 at the plate. His personal struggle to get base hits after that met with about as much success as a man trying to thread a needle while standing up in a hammock.
However, Smith did bat .242 in the second half of the season.
"I don't know anything about Ozzie's financial problems and I don't want to know anything about them," said new Manager Jerry Coleman, who was the Padres' play- by-play announcer a year ago.
"But in the field, Smith deserves to be rated with Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Luis Aparicio, and Dave Concepcion. Ozzie makes plays that simply aren't possible for most shortstops. He makes at least one stop in every series that invariably saves us a couple of runs."
Asked how he had improved his hitting this year, Ozzie replied: "I'm a different hitter because for the first time in my life I'm thinking about each pitcher individually before I go up to the plate. I really don't know what kind of a ball player I'm going to become, because when you think about it, I haven't been around that long."
And about his financial problems?
"You know once a ball player reaches the big leagues, he starts to live differently -- like a movie star," he said. "Certain things are expected of you , and you kind of get caught up in a more expensive life."
As for bad investments, Ozzie never admitted (to me anyway) he had made any.