Calling The Wizard
Ozzie Smith backflips his way into Hall of Fame
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
During his 19 years in the big leagues -- we can now, officially, call it a "Hall of Fame career" -- Ozzie Smith was both superstar and Everyman. He made the monotony of playing good defense downright sexy. He made the routine seem spectacular, the spectacular merely routine.
He rose from nondescript major-league beginnings to become the most popular player on the planet, back-flipping his way into a baseball-loving nation's heart by doing the dirty work with a flair no one thought possible.
Even then, from the late 1970s through the mid '90s, the home run was king. But Smith, maybe the best defensive shortstop ever -- some will say the best shortstop ever, period -- was a king because of his glove.
On Tuesday, Smith got the call that everyone knew was coming. The former St. Louis Cardinals star was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, the only player selected in the voting.
The Wizard, who made a routine of doing a back flip as he ran to his position, was named on 91.7 percent of the ballots cast. He becomes the 37th player selected in his first year of eligibility.
"To be the only one going in I think speaks to the impact I had at my position," he said.
"The guys who get into the Hall of Fame are the guys who hit the ball out of the ballpark," he said. "I hope my going in will open the door for the other guys who have the ability to help their teams with defense."
Gary Carter, fell just short of election, getting 343 votes (72.7 percent), 11 shy of election. The former catcher's totals have dramatically improved over the years, going from 34 percent in 1999 to nearly 49.7 percent in 2000 to 65 percent last year.
"When the anticipation is so high and it's being talked about so much, there's a letdown," Carter said. "Being this close, you want it to happen."
"I'm at the threshold. I'm waiting for them to open the door," he said. "I'm just excited for next year."
Jim Rice (55 percent) was third in the voting, followed by Bruce Sutter (50 percent), first-time candidate Andre Dawson (45 percent) and Goose Gossage (43 percent).
Luis Tiant (18 percent) fell of the ballot in his 15th and final year of eligibility. Ron Guidry, Dave Stewart and Frank Viola were among the players who failed to receive the required 5 percent to remain on the ballot.
Alan Trammell, another star shortstop, got 16 percent in his first year of eligibility.
"It's about giving people's their money's worth. And that starts with not wanting to cheat myself, so you can't cheat anyone else," Smith said on the eve of his election. "I always gave it everything I had. I think fans recognized that, and they appreciated the effort I gave every day."
Smith's prowess in the field made him the unquestioned defensive star of his generation. He won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves. He was a 15-time All-Star. Twice he was the top vote getter among All-Stars.
He was so good at short -- with unparalleled range, a sure glove and a strong arm -- that what he did at the plate never could measure up. He was a lifetime .262 hitter with just 28 home runs. No one elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot has had a lower batting average.
Still, those are just the bottom-line numbers. With little or no formal teaching in the game, Smith started out slowly, never hitting above .258 in his first four years in the majors, all with the San Diego Padres. "When you have to learn on the job against guys like Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver ...," Smith said. "That's no fun."
Once he was traded to the Cardinals in 1982 (for another shortstop, Garry Templeton), Smith worked with Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog and coach Dave Ricketts and willed himself into becoming a good hitter. Herzog even made a deal with Smith: The manager, trying to get his shortstop to hit the ball on the ground and utilize his speed (Smith stole 580 bases in his career), would pay $1 for every ground ball Smith hit. Smith would have to pay $2 for every fly ball.
The bet paid off both ways. From 1985 through 1993, the last year he was a full-timer for the Cardinals, Smith hit .281. He never struck out more than 43 times in a year in that span. He finished his career with 2,460 hits.
Smith's defense remained his trademark. Fantastic plays were commonplace. His personal favorite came on April 20, 1978 when he dashed into the hole behind second on a smash off the bat of Atlanta's Jeff Burroughs. The ball took a hop the other way.
Smith reached above and behind him, snagged the ball with his bare hand on his way down, scrambled to his feet and gunned out Burroughs at first.
"The thing that made that play," Smith said, "was the element of surprise."
Ironically, it was a home run that marked the high point of Smith's career. It came in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5 of the 1985 National League Championship Series -- the first left-hander homer he ever had hit -- and it opened many people's eyes to the fact that Smith was not simply all-glove, no-hit.
"I think that it's a hard tag to shake if you come into the game as a defensive player, as I did," he said. "That's what people are going to say. I think I set out to do the things I accomplished. I had to work extremely hard for it. So it doesn't bother me that people look at me like that.
"Lots of guys were better off offensively. But, defensively, I think I stand alone."
Smith is only the fourth shortstop elected on the first ballot, joining Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks and Robin Yount. He may be the last of the glove-first, hit-second shortstops to make it for awhile.
"I'm proud of all 13 Gold Gloves, but the fact that I won 13 consecutive ones, I think that speaks to how dominant a period it was for me," he said. "I don't think you start out wanting to have that type of impact. But it's one of those things that manifests itself through your career when you're consistent in what you do.
"I think people truly appreciated the way I went about doing what I did. I didn't take anything for granted."
And for that, Ozzie Smith has earned his way into the Hall of Fame.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.