In one rather important part of the game, Smith is easily head and shoulders above every shortstop who ever played. When he signed a four-year extension of his contract in 1985, he became, at a salary of roughly $2 million a year, by far the richest shortstop ever. And good for him, says at least one old-timer, the revered Marion. "The position is a lot different now," says Slats, who will turn 70 on Dec. 1. "We had those big old heavy uniforms with the sliding pads and those little gloves. And now they play on those artificial fields where you get a true bounce. Frankly, I don't see how they ever miss a ball, do you? But Ozzie is spectacular. For one thing, he can dive for a ball and still get up in time to make the throw. But what he's done best for the position is make people in the game appreciate defense. In my day, unless you hit home runs, they didn't pay you anything. We defensive players were all underpaid. So I was glad to see Ozzie get his money. He's a crowd pleaser, and the fans love him. He deserves it. What he's done is upgrade the glove."
Smith and Vince Coleman are sitting in front of their lockers in the Cardinals clubhouse before a recent game, discussing, among other topics of the day, their relative abilities in Ping-Pong and racquetball—"Vince is a great athlete. Just ask him," says Smith—and, perhaps inevitably, Michael Jackson. "You seen pictures of him lately, Oz?" Coleman inquires.
Smith looks perplexed. "Yes I have," he says, "and I can't believe what I'm seeing." Then he laughs. "Why, that man used to be black and have a big nose like mine. Now, he's all powdered up and pale, and he's had so many face-lifts he's prettier than most women. I mean, I don't mind a guy trying to look different, but, Lord, there's got to be a limit."
Actually, on this occasion Smith looks different: He's holding a bat. And now, right in the middle of the clubhouse, he's swinging it, testing it for heft and balance. "It's the time of year when you go to a lighter model," he says. "This one's 32 inches, 32 ounces. I've always used a heavier bat hitting righthanded [he's a switch-hitter], but when I hurt my shoulder in '85, I used a heavy bat in the off-season to strengthen my hands and wrists. Then in spring training of '86, I went back to the light bat hitting lefty and found I couldn't hit a thing. So I pulled out the heavy bat, and, lo and behold, I found my point of contact again, my comfort zone. So I used the big bat—a 36-inch, 34-ounce model—batting both ways most of the year. But late in the season, when you get a little tired, I go back to a lighter one. Lefty, I'll use this 32-32; righty, I'll go 36-32."
Now, this isn't Wade Boggs talking. Or Tony Gwynn. What does Smith know about bats and batting? Well, quite a bit. In fact, Smith, at 32, is a serious student of hitting, a batter who has improved his offensive performance every year since his arrival in St. Louis. The last two seasons he has hit .276 and .280, and this year he's flirting with .300. In the course of his continuing education he has picked up pointers from hitting coaches and teammates, a hypnotist and an off-duty cop, anybody, in short, who makes sense on the subject. Last winter, in hopes of putting a little more muscle behind his swing, he trained under Mackie Shilstone, the New Orleans physical fitness guru. It was Shilstone who, through diet and weight work, converted Michael Spinks from a light heavyweight into a heavyweight champion and who added 31 pounds to the emaciated physique of 7'6" NBA center Manute Bol.
Smith's problem had been stamina. In six of the nine seasons before this one, he had played more than 150 games, and he led the league with 110 games in the strike-shortened season of 1981. But along about September of each year, his slight frame would begin to sag. Smith, who is 5'10", weighed 148 pounds when he reported to Shilstone's spa last November. Shilstone had him cut back on fried foods, added supplemental shakes and pasta to his diet, and had him run, work out with Nautilus equipment, a medicine ball and free weights. After one week, he weighed 162. He reported to spring training at 167 and had lost none of his formidable agility. Where once he had the build of, say, Fred Astaire, now it was more like Sugar Ray Leonard's: slender but heavily muscled. Through last Saturday he had played in all but two of the Cardinals' 147 games, and he still weighed 155 pounds.
And he has had a bang-up year at the plate. He was hitting 53 points above his preseason career average of .247. He will score 100 runs for the first time, and he is likely to break an unusual Cardinal record by driving in more than 76 runs without hitting a home run, a record for powerless productivity set in 1920 by Milt Stock. With his bigger muscles, Smith has, however, hit 36 doubles, third-best in the National League.
"I have never considered myself a one-dimensional player," says Smith. Nor has his manager. "Ozzie's been a hell of an offensive player, even before this year," says Herzog. "He does a lot of things with the bat—moving runners along, hitting and running—that go unnoticed. He's a much better hitter than people realize." Herzog had enough confidence in Smith's offense to move him from eighth to second in the batting order this season, a move prompted by an injury to Willie McGee's left knee last season. "Willie hasn't been able to steal with that knee," says Herzog, "so I decided to drop him down to fifth in the order. Ozzie gives us the stealing ability, the on-base percentage and the patience batting second."
The move has proved a benison for all parties involved. Coleman, the leadoff man, is having his finest season as a hitter and base stealer with Smith batting behind him. "Yeah," Coleman says jokingly, "but if Ozzie wasn't such a free-swinger, I'd have 150 steals right now."
And there's always Smith's defense. The word he uses most often to describe his work at shortstop is craft, yet he talks about it not as a craftsman but as an artist. "When I'm on the field, I'm there to create, to do as I feel," he says. "Nobody's tried to change my style, because I've always gotten results. I've always thrown on the run. Some people disapprove of that, but I say if you get caught up in the old ways of the game, you'll never excel, particularly when you play on the stuff we play on. The way I do things seems to please people. If it's exciting enough, the fans will want to come back again, and I take that as a real compliment. Yes, I consider it an art form. And I work at it. I just hate to see someone with a lot of talent not work to enhance it. The talent might just as well not be there if it isn't developed. An artist must work."