The `Wizard of Oz' makes magic with his bat as well as his glove
Everybody knew about Ozzie Smith's defensive skills long before the current World Series began. He is, after all, a perennial Gold Glove Award winner and the standard against whom all other shortstops are judged. He's also the first player ever to get one of those megabucks contracts primarily for his play in the field. Some people, in fact, think ``The Wizard of Oz'' is the best ever at his position. And when you have a defensive genuis of this magnitude at an all-important position like shortstop, you just write his name in the lineup and forget about it. St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog figures Smith's acrobatics save at least 100 runs a year -- and in his book that comes to the same thing as driving in 100. No one expects a player like that to be a hitter too.
Smith didn't do much to change this image at first. He was your typical ``good field, no hit'' player, with batting averages like .211, .230, and .222. But although it's gone largely unnoticed, Ozzie has gradually developed into a much more dangerous batter. This season, for example, he hit .276 with six home runs and 54 RBIS -- all career highs. And in the National League playoffs against Los Angeles, he turned into a veritable terror at the plate.
Ozzie led the Cards in batting at .435, but it was his sudden burst of power in the decisive games that catapulted him into the hero's role at the plate for a change.
A switch-hitter, Smith had never displayed any power batting left-handed. In fact, he hadn't hit a home run that way in nearly 3,000 major league at-bats. But in the ninth inning of Game 5 he drove a Tom Niedenfuer fastball into the right field seats to give St. Louis a 3-2 victory. Then in Game 6 he smashed a game-tying triple that helped set up the 7-5 victory which won the pennant.
If you glance superficially at Ozzie's 5 ft., 10 in., 150-pound frame, you might wonder where he gets such power -- even occasionally. He's tough and wiry, though, and a lot stronger than he might appear at first sight. And while he may not go on another such power binge against Kansas City (he was hitless in Game 1, although he walked and stole a base in the Cardinals' 3-1 victory), he'll probably give the Royals a handful one way or another on offense before it's all over.
Even if he doesn't however, he's a virtual certainty to hurt them with his glove -- and in the long run this is still the main reason he's out there.
``I've seen all the best shortstops of my time,'' Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese (a fine one himself) told me, ``and you just can't play it any better than he plays it.''
Robin Yount, Smith's opposite number in the 1982 World Series, became a believer, too, after watching Ozzie in that fall classic.
``He does things I've never seen anyone do,'' the Milwaukee shortstop said. ``The way he dives for balls and comes up throwing is unbelievable.''
Indeed, of all Smith's tricks, this ability to get rid of the ball at the instant he fields it is the most eye-popping. But despite that nickname of ``Wizard,'' Ozzie says there's no magic involved -- just a lot of hard work.
``I've tried to develop the ability to throw from wherever I field the ball,'' he told me. ``I try to do things all in one motion. But it doesn't just happen. I've spent a lot of hours perfecting my game. Just about everything I've done has been my own thing, and has evolved from work. That's why I take pride in it.''
Baseball, though, is far from the only interest of Smith, who lives in Town & Country, Md., with his wife, Denise, and their son, Osborne Earl, Jr. He has been named one of the 10 best casually dressed men in America along with such notables as Alexander Haig and Johnny Carson. In a more serious vein, he has always gone out of his way to help disadvantaged youngsters.
Ozzie serves on the President's Council for Drug Abuse, and was nominated in 1983 for the N.A.A.C.P. Image Award for Sportsmanship, Humanitarianism, and Community Activities. His pet project is his own ``Operation Grandslam,'' in which, as he travels to each major league city, he teaches children living in juvenile halls proper baseball skills and techniques.
Smith played for San Diego from 1978 through 1981, when he was traded to the Cardinals for shortstop Garry Templeton, whose much higher batting average at the time led some observers to question the deal.
As usual, though, Herzog knew what he was doing. He got the game's premier defensive performer at a key position -- and as things turned out, Ozzie has developed into just as dangerous a hitter, if not more so. The first year he was with the Cards they won the pennant and the World Series -- and Ozzie batted .300 for them in postseason play. And now he is doing it again.
Ironically, the word at the time of the trade was that Smith was unhappy about it and reluctant to leave San Diego for St. Louis -- which he says now was just a lot of talk that was blown out of proportion.
``If I had written the script, I couldn't have written it better,'' he says. ``I really don't know how all of that talk got going at the time. I'm very happy here, my family is happy, and I hope the ball club is happy as well.''
You don't have to worry on that score, Ozzie.