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Plainly, the game was over and the Astros had beaten the Cardinals. With one out in the last of the 17th inning, the score tied 1-1 and a runner edging off third, Houston's Alan Ashby hit a hard grounder deep into the hole. The ball would either go through to leftfield or Shortstop Ozzie Smith would flag it down too late to make a play at home.
Wrong. Smith took a couple of quick steps to his right, dived, speared the ball and rose in virtually the same motion. Then he checked the runner back to third and threw out Ashby by 10 feet. Galvanized, the Cardinals scored twice in the 18th to win 3-1.
Afterward there was a tumultuous celebration of Smith's feat in the Cardinal clubhouse—a kind of accolade that's becoming increasingly common. "Greatest shortstop in the history of the game!" croaked Pitching Coach Hub Kittle, who has been observing them for 48 seasons. "No one ever had his reflexes or quickness." As Smith's teammates wandered about smiling and chuckling, Ozzie said, "Anybody can make a great play. I get special satisfaction from making one with the game on the line." Outside, Astrodome fans lingered long after midnight chanting, "Ah-zee, Ah-zee!"
True, there's no more dazzling sight in baseball than Smith on the move. But his fellow members of the St. Louis infield are far from being eclipsed. Consider a recent week in the life of the Cards:
The night before the 17th-inning Smithian spectacle, Keith Hernandez demonstrated why he's the National League's best first baseman. The Cards were leading the Astros 4-0 in the first, but Houston had runners on second and third with only one out. Phil Garner hit a high bouncer to Hernandez. Textbook: Give up a run and get the sure out at first. Instead, Hernandez fired home and nipped the sliding Terry Puhl. "When you've scored, you don't want the other team to score in the same inning," Hernandez said later. "I saw Puhl out of the corner of my eye and thought I could get him. You can say that if the umpire calls the runner safe it's a bad play, but you have to take chances."
And on Tuesday Third Baseman Ken Oberkfell demonstrated the full extent of his versatility in one inning. A liner was hit to his left. He moved over smartly and grabbed it. Range. A grounder right at him. He made the play routinely. Reliability. A hard shot between him and the bag. He actually backhanded the ball behind his body before making yet another sure throw to first. Quickness. What's more, he led off the next inning with a base hit.
And that week, as most every week, Second Baseman Tommy Herr made no spectacular plays—and no errors. He just did everything that was needed.
While waiting for the next pitch with the bases empty, they seem like rag dolls on a shelf. Hernandez dangles his open glove in front of his right foot and scratches the turf with its tip. Herr stands almost straight up, like a man starting a deep knee bend. Oberkfell creeps stealthily forward, a cat burglar at the hot corner. And Smith, blowing bubbles, sways eerily from side to side. He's in an (All-) World of his own. But once the ball is hit, the St. Louis infield springs to life in unison, moving into action with common purpose and uncommon expertise. There's no finer Front Four in baseball.
Defense is the least appreciated facet of baseball—and also one of the most important. "Good pitching isn't worth a damn without good defense," says Ken Harrelson, the slugger-turned-broadcaster. And defense is baseball's esthetic keystone. Consider the greatest moments in World Series history: Who could omit Willie Mays's catch in 1954, Sandy Amoros' grab in '55 and the superb glove work of Brooks Robinson in '70 and Graig Nettles in '78?
There's no statistic adequate to evaluate defense. A player who commits numerous errors may also have excellent range. Total chances are a better barometer, but they don't reflect play under pressure. Double plays? "What counts," says Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog, "aren't the number of double plays but the ones you should have had but missed. You can't judge defense with a common denominator. You have to watch it day after day."