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Ron Fimrite
September 28, 1987
A decade of brilliance has earned Ozzie Smith of the Cards a high place among the best shortstops ever
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September 28, 1987

No. 1 In His Field

A decade of brilliance has earned Ozzie Smith of the Cards a high place among the best shortstops ever

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Smith always has. He was born in Mobile, Ala., the second of six children—five sons and a daughter—born to Clovis and Marvella Smith. The elder Smith, a truckdriver, moved the family to Los Angeles when Ozzie was six. "We lived in south central L.A.," Smith says. "Yes, that's Watts, and I suppose that carries a stigma with it. Well, we never thought of it as a ghetto. We may have grown up in poverty, but the important thing is we worked to make a better life for ourselves. We didn't have a whole lot, but we took care of what we did have. We had a clean house, and we kept trying to make it better. I had fun like all the other kids."

Smith's mother and father separated when he was in junior high, and it was Marvella who raised the family, working full-time in an Armenian nursing home across town. "They were all good children," she can say of her family today. "Well, the boys did tear up the garage every now and then playing wall ball, but they were all well disciplined youngsters, and they did their housework and their studies. And that Ozzie! I tell you, that boy had a ball in his hand all the time. He wanted to play everything, but people were always telling him he was too small. I told him that didn't matter, that if he wanted something, he had to work for it, and because he was small he had to work twice as hard as anybody else. I just told him 'Ozzie, if you want something, go get it.' And he did."

When he wasn't playing ball, Smith and his pals were working on their tumbling skills down in the sawdust pit at the neighborhood lumberyard. "We'd pile up inner tubes and practice doing flips off them into the sawdust," he says. "That was my only training in gymnastics. Just kids doing daredevil things. It was no big deal. Everybody could do it." Somewhat later, of course, those sawdust routines would become a staple of Smith's big league act.

Smith starred in baseball and basketball at Locke High along with his classmate Eddie Murray. Murray, now the Baltimore slugger, was drafted after graduation, as were two other Locke stars, pitcher Darrell Jackson and catcher Gary Alexander. Smith was not. "I'm sure size had a lot to do with it," he says. "I was maybe 130, 135 pounds." But he was a good enough student to win a partial academic scholarship to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, about 200 miles up the coast from Los Angeles. "I decided the two most important things for me were baseball and getting an education," he says. But he didn't get to play for the varsity baseball team until the starting shortstop broke a leg. And he was lonely being away from home for the first time.

"When he first got to Cal Poly," Marvella says, "he called me and said, 'Mom, I want to come home.' I just told him that I was very sorry, but he had no home to come back to. I told him to bring something back with him besides himself, and that was an education. And then that other boy hurt himself, and Ozzie got his chance to play. After that he never looked back. From then on we had to beg him to come home."

"The first time I saw him, as a freshman, fielding balls with the other players, I noticed he had this instinct for the ball," recalls his college coach, Berdy Harr. "Right away I knew he was something special. I never taught Ozzie anything about playing defense. He already knew what that was all about. He had a sense of timing, a rhythm I'd never seen before." Harr may not have taught Smith defense, but he did, in Smith's sophomore year, make him into a switch-hitter and persuade him to remain one.

The next year, Detroit drafted Smith and offered him $4,500. He wanted $10,000. The Tigers raised their offer to $5,000. Smith decided to stay in school. The Padres drafted him the next year, 1977, and he signed for $5,000. He played 68 games for Walla Walla and hit a surprising .303. He was the Padres' shortstop the next year, playing in 159 games, hitting .258 and stealing 40 bases. He finished second in the voting for Rookie of the Year. That honor went, as honors often do, to a slugger: Atlanta's Bob Horner, who had played in only 89 games but hit 23 homers.

Before the last game of that '78 season, one of Smith's teammates, Gene Tenace, persuaded him to perform one of the backflips he had seen him do during spring training. Tenace's daughters had taken gymnastics, he told Smith, and they would be in the stands that day. No big deal. It was back to the sawdust pit. Smith flipped, the fans loved it, and he decided, at Tenace's continued urging, to open and close every season with this act.

Smith was a crowd favorite, all right, but he wasn't much of a hitter in San Diego, his average slipping to .211, .230 and then .222 in the three years after his rookie season. He tried everything. He studied with a San Diego policeman named Bill Allen, who had a batting cage in his backyard. He even sought out another part-time hitting instructor, Lee Fisher, who was also a hypnotist. "I had to learn to hit in the big leagues," says Smith. "I don't think I'd had any formal training before. People had always just told me to go up there and trust my instincts."

The Padres were miffed that he was seeking outside help. They were also testy about money. Smith made around $72,000 in 1979. San Diego offered him a modest raise for 1980, but Smith's agent at the time, Ed Gottlieb, rejected the offer, and the team renewed the contract at the old figure. Incensed, Gottlieb took out a classified ad in The San Diego Union under JOBS WANTED: "Padre Baseball Player wants part-time employment to supplement income. College education, willing to work, prefer PR-type employment. Needs hours tailored to baseball schedule, but would quit baseball for right opportunity." Joan Kroc, the wife of the Padres owner, responded that she had just the job for him: helping out her gardener at $3.50 an hour.

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