Ozzie Smith looks only mildly apprehensive as he swings his brown Chevy van into the Ballwin Plaza shopping center, west of St. Louis. He knows, of course, that inside Schnucks supermarket—The Friendliest Store in Town—legions of autograph-seekers avidly await his arrival. For most ballplayers the prospect of striding into such a beehive of fans would be regarded with the same foreboding as that of batting against Nolan Ryan at Wrigley Field at midnight. But Smith appears relatively placid. He has an oval, large-featured face that, with his Fu Manchu-ish mustache and beard, has a vaguely Asian cast to it. No horror, not even an attack by autograph hounds, can ruffle his infinite calm.
And any misgivings Smith may have entertained evaporate with the prompt appearance at his van window of two smartly tailored young men who identify themselves as aides to Michael Duffy, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Vess beverage company, sponsor of Ozzie Smith Day at the store. Smith, wearing a red jumpsuit, hops nimbly out of the van and cheerfully surrenders himself to these functionaries. "I do some promotional work for Vess," he says, "and my only concern with these sessions is that there's somebody around to get me in and out quickly. Otherwise, softy that I am, I'd be here all day. I know a lot of players look at this as being thrown to the wolves, but all these people here in the store want is to say they've met Ozzie Smith. And I'd like them to be able to say afterward, 'Hey, no big deal. This guy's just like us.' And I am. The only thing that makes me different is what I do and that I do it in front of so many people."
Duffy, oozing camaraderie, meets Smith at one of the Schnucks entranceways and hustles him over to a table beneath a red-and-white Cardinals banner. A glass of Vess cream soda—one of the company's 16 flavors—and a stack of photographs of himself are set before Smith, and the line of fans, which snakes past the floral, cosmetics, pharmaceutical and dairy departments, is commanded to move forward. Everybody in it seems to have a word or more to share with Smith.
"You're my favorite, Ozzie," says a brunet woman in running shorts, feebly searching for the mot juste. "You're so wonderful." Smith smiles and signs a picture for her. "Hey, he's smiling," the woman's young son says, as if surprised that this celestial being should favor them so.
"Ozzie, I was just in the rottenest mood this week," the next woman in line confides. Smith looks concerned. "And then I got a divorce." He signs a picture for her.
An elderly man hands him a white pith helmet that has a paper Cardinal fastened to its crown. "Ozzie, take this down to the clubhouse, will ya, and get all the team to sign it." Smith happily signs the headgear, then tells the old-timer that any request for autographs from the rest of the Cardinals must first be cleared by the club's public relations office.
The line hasn't gotten any shorter after an hour or so of this, so Duffy cuts it off. "Somebody's got to be the bad guy," he says. "We could be here eight hours, and Ozzie'd still be signing autographs. I tell you, his popularity is incredible. He's such an accommodating person, so genuine. He's had a tremendous impact on this community. He's a hero who really deserves to be a hero."
And what a hero he is in and around St. Louis. The Wizard of Oz. Ah-ZEE! Ah-ZEE! The man can scarcely step on the artificial turf of Busch Stadium before the chant begins. Other players get standing ovations for great plays; Smith gets civic demonstrations. Then again, his great plays really are great. And they have to be, because Smith is no home run hitter; he's a glove guy who has captured a whole city. St. Louis has always been what's called "a good baseball town," but Smith has made it a better one. It's no mere coincidence that since he arrived for the 1982 season, the Cardinals have drawn considerably more than two million in attendance every year. Last week they broke their record of 2,637,563, set in 1985, a pennant year. Sure, Smith isn't the only attraction—just the main one.
What he does on the field must be seen to be believed. He routinely makes such seemingly impossible plays that even some of the other Cardinals are occasionally startled. "I may be his teammate, but I'm also his fan," says second baseman Tommy Herr, who has played alongside Smith for six seasons now. "So many times I'll see the ball leave the bat and say, "O.K., that's a base hit.' And then somehow Ozzie will come up with it. A lot of the time I feel like standing out there and applauding with the rest of the fans. He's head and shoulders above every other shortstop."
Smith robs rich and poor hitters alike. In a 4-0 win over the Reds on Aug. 31, he took two hits away from Eric Davis, who is, in addition to many other things, one of the fastest runners in the game. In the fourth inning Smith ranged far to his left, scooped up Davis's bouncer behind second base and, while still on the dead run toward rightfield, threw him out. That's one of the plays Smith has perfected. Indeed, he throws better on the run than Joe Montana. Then in the ninth, with Tracy Jones on first base, Davis hit another hard shot between third and short. Smith dived full-length for the ball, backhanded it while sliding on his chest, somehow scrambled to his knees and made a perfect throw in time to force Jones at second. "Those were both hits," Davis grumbled the next day. "Nobody else but Ozzie would've gotten either of them."