But these were merely routine plays compared with two that even Smith modestly acknowledges were somewhat out of the ordinary. The first came in San Diego on April 20, 1978, during his rookie year with the Padres. In the fourth inning the Braves' Jeff Burroughs hit a ground ball up the middle. Base hit all the way. Smith, who dives as often as Greg Louganis, hit the dirt, glove extended. But this time the ball took a bad hop and bounced up over his hip. No problem. Smith reached back with his bare hand, caught the ball, climbed to his knees and threw to first in plenty of time to catch the incredulous Burroughs.
The second play, on Aug. 4, 1986, in Busch Stadium, was, if anything, even more acrobatic. With runners on first and second and the score tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth inning, Philadelphia's Von Hayes lofted a blooper to short left-field that looked as if it would drop between Smith and leftfielder Curt Ford for a run-scoring hit. The two Cardinals converged, and each, unaware of the proximity of the other, dived for the ball. A disastrous midair, head-on collision seemed imminent. Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog had a terrible vision of his All-Star shortstop lying inert on the carpet as the ball rolled unimpeded to the fence while two runs scored. But no. In midnight Smith somehow redirected himself away from the hurtling Ford and, stretched prone with his feet toward the infield, reached out and caught the ball. "That was one of the best, if not the best play, I've ever seen," Phillies manager John Felske said afterward. For good measure, Smith scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth on Terry Pendleton's squeeze bunt.
In his 10th season Smith is at the point in his career when the experts are beginning to measure him against the immortals. He has, after all, won seven consecutive Gold Gloves and seems certain to win an eighth this year. "There are a lot of superior athletes at shortstop who can make the great plays," says Herr, "but Ozzie doesn't muff the routine ones, either. And a lot of those other guys do." Smith has averaged fewer errors per chance than any of the 16 shortstops now in the Hall of Fame. This year, through 145 games and more than 700 chances, he had made only nine miscues. Fielding statistics can be misleading, of course; many shortstops have had high fielding percentages because they could not reach a lot of balls. That's not the case with Smith. In 1980, when he had 933 chances, he set a major league record of 621 assists, breaking the mark of 601 set in 1924 by Pittsburgh's Glenn Wright. In six of his nine complete major league seasons Smith has had more than 500 assists and more than 800 chances, impressive totals indeed. The single-season major league record for chances by a shortstop is 984, set in 1922 by Dave (Beauty) Bancroft of the New York Giants.
No wonder no one questions Smith's skills with a glove. Offensively, of course, he is no match for such slugging shortstops as Honus Wagner, Joe Cronin, Travis Jackson, Lou Boudreau, Luke Appling, Ernie Banks, Arky Vaughan and Vern Stephens. He has not been, for that matter, as good a hitter as such contemporaries as Alan Trammell of the Tigers, Cal Ripken Jr. of the Orioles, Tony Fernandez of the Blue Jays or Julio Franco of the Indians. Smith also hasn't had the advantage of playing on legendary teams as did, for example, Frankie Crosetti, Leo Durocher, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and, more recently, Dave Concepcion. Nor has he been part of a historic infield combination, as was Joe Tinker of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame, or Jack Barry, who with Home Run Baker, Eddie Collins and Stuffy McInnis formed the Philadelphia Athletics' $100,000 Infield of 1911-14. Some observers say Smith had his defensive equals in such slick fielders as Bancroft, Rabbit Maranville, Marty (Slats) Marion, Eddie Miller, Luis Aparicio, Roy McMillan and Mark Belanger. There are even those who argue that two of today's shortstops, the Dominican duo of Fernandez and Alfredo Griffin of Oakland, are in Smith's class. Some St. Louis old-timers suggest that Smith isn't even the best shortstop to play in their town, a distinction that they say belongs to old Slats Marion, the Octopus of the 1940s.
Ah, but those who favor Marion are in rapid decline. In a
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
poll of some 6,350 readers last year, the Wizard beat out the Octopus as the Cardinals' best shortstop ever. He was elected to an alltime Cards' infield that included Sunny Jim Bottomley at first base, Rogers Hornsby at second and Ken Boyer at third. The outfielders were Lou Brock, Stan Musial and Ducky Medwick. Walker Cooper was the catcher, Bob Gibson the starting pitcher and Bruce Sutter the reliever. Fast company for a guy like Smith, who at the time had been in St. Louis for only four seasons. Earlier this year The Baseball Research Journal, taking into account both hitting and fielding, ranked Smith as the fourth-best shortstop of all time, behind only Wagner, Bancroft and Bobby Wallace.
This is all the stuff of fantasy, to be sure, because comparing players from different eras is impossible on the surface of it. And speaking of surfaces, artificial turf has so altered the way the position of shortstop is played as to make such comparisons even more ludicrous. Can one picture Wagner, who liked to grovel in the infield dirt, doing his stuff on a carpet?
Still, Smith gets his kudos both from the old-timers and the newcomers. "He's changed fielding for shortstops," says Hall of Famer Boudreau, now a Cubs broadcaster. "I would have to compare him with Rizzuto and Aparicio, but they never had a chance to play on artificial turf, so who knows how good they would be? Ozzie has mastered artificial turf, and even off it he fields the ball on the run and gets rid of it. In my day, the only time you would throw on the run was when the ball got by the pitcher. He does it on all normal ground balls. He's mastered everything about shortstop by hard work."
"The thing about Ozzie is, if he misses a ball, you assume it's uncatchable," says Mets coach and former shortstop Bud Harrelson. "If any other shortstop misses a ball, your first thought is, 'Would Ozzie have had it?' I'd say Don Kessinger was the premier shortstop of my era—very steady, good range, made all the plays—but Ozzie is definitely a superior shortstop. He's Number 1 on my list."
"The one word to best describe Ozzie is 'spectacular,' " says longtime broadcaster Vin Scully. "Shortstops in the past were never as conspicuous as Ozzie. In the old days you had steady guys like Reese and Marion. You never thought of them making the great play. They were always just there in the right spot. But Ozzie is an acrobat, and that makes him stand out."
Andy MacPhail, the Twins executive vice-president who is the son of former American League president Lee MacPhail and the grandson of the legendary baseball executive Larry MacPhail, has been hearing about the old days longer than he cares to recall. But Smith, he is convinced, has bridged the generation gap: "I've heard scouts talking about modern players, and they'll always say, 'Yeah, but Mickey Mantle could do this,' or ' Willie Mays could do that.' There was always a player in the past who was better. But with Ozzie Smith they always acknowledge that he's the best defensive shortstop they've ever seen. It's never, 'Yeah, but Marty Marion...,' or 'Yeah, but Phil Rizzuto....' "