Ozzie Smith Needs To Grow Up
Let’s start what is sure to be a well-loved article (#sarcasm) with this opening statement: I love Ozzie Smith. He defined an era of Cardinal baseball that shaped some of my fondest teenaged memories. Few baseball players can achieve near-unanimous status as “the best ever” at their position, but, in Ozzie’s case, you can confidently say this: Ozzie Smith is the best shortstop in baseball history. Derek Jeter had better offensive numbers, but I’d take Smith at short over Jeter in a heartbeat.
If you look deeper at Smith’s on-field accomplishments, you see a man who overcame his short stature and lightweight frame with unmatched determination and laser-like focus. Smith spent countless hours fielding balls thrown against walls to perfect his signature dive. Even after reaching the major leagues (and impressing Whitey Herzog), Smith worked even harder to develop a muscular frame and a better throwing arm. He worked tirelessly to transform himself into a vastly-improved hitter with more pop. All of these aspects deserve tremendous respect.
But Cardinal fans need to be honest about what happened next: the early-nineties teams were not the St. Louis Cardinals anymore, they were the Ozzie Smith Cardinals. The corporate hucksters at Anheuser Busch who wrestled control of the team from Gussie in 1989 (led by Fred Kuhlman) began to systematically dismantle the winning formula of the eighties with several years of junk teams surrounding one true star: Ozzie Smith. They knew the crowds would continue to come for Ozzie despite losing records and pathetic performances around him.
By the time Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan, and new, baseball-savvy owners arrived in town in 1996, Smith was a 41 year-old shortstop coming off of two injury-plagued and deeply disappointing seasons. What La Russa did next became legendary – he opted to make Royce Clayton his everyday shortstop over both the protestations of the fans and the irrefutable statistics of both players in spring training that year. Ozzie Smith performed better, but La Russa chose Clayton anyway.
It was the first of many egotistical moments from La Russa. By benching Ozzie, La Russa was making the statement that this would return to being the St. Louis Cardinals (managed by Tony La Russa), not the Ozzie Smith Cardinals with La Russa as Ozzie’s “yes man.” The move stunned Cardinal Nation, creating an emotional divide among fans that still exists today.
But it’s foolish to ignore Ozzie’s response to the controversy. Rather than accept his changing role on the team, Smith rashly announced his retirement. Smith was acting solely on ego just as much as La Russa. For years, Smith had enjoyed being The King of the Castle, and someone came along with the authority to knock him off of his throne. Ozzie didn’t like that, so he left in a huff.
The stalemate lasted 16 long years. Smith was rarely seen at Busch Stadium during La Russa’s reign in St. Louis. He skipped out on many Cardinal-related festivities (even charitable ones) because, essentially, the organization chose La Russa’s decision over his wishes in 1996.
The significance of Ozzie’s return to Busch Stadium at the 2012 Opening Day ceremonies did not go unnoticed. It was a symbolic gesture that showed Ozzie’s willingness to suddenly “play nice” now that Big Bad Tony La Russa had retired. Ozzie Smith, decked out in a red jacket, looked like Arthur returning with Excalibur to reclaim his throne. The organization, in a nice gesture of peace, presented Smith with a 2012 World Series ring that he did not earn in front of a packed house of forgiving fans.
The only uncomfortable part of my 16 years with the Cardinals is my relationship with Ozzie. I’ve reached out. But, nothing yet.
A man as pig-headed, obstinate, and egotistical as Tony La Russa has attempted to heal his rift with Ozzie Smith over the years, but Ozzie refuses to budge? Seriously?
Smith is now a 57 year-old man. He apparently has money troubles these days, as evidenced by his sudden decision to sell all of his Gold Gloves and other baseball-related memorabilia. You would think time and humbling experiences would soften a person, make them loosen their grip on past grudges and perceived slights.
But not Ozzie. He apparently wants to go to his grave as the Angry Cardinal, a grown-ass man too proud and too egotistical to forgive and move on.
In moments like these, I can’t help but wonder how much money and adoration Ozzie Smith passed on during those 16 years of grudge-holding darkness. I wonder if his Gold Gloves would be on the auction block today if he had stayed with the organization and fans that loved him, rather than abandon them all over a petty, egotistical feud with La Russa.
Both Smith and La Russa are big parts of what matters most: Cardinal baseball tradition. This is a proud, historic, and respectable organization, a familial, nearly-religious bonding between players and fans in a city that desperately loves the game. This kind of pointless (and, for Ozzie’s part, apparently endless) squabbling desecrates the love that unites us as Cardinal Nation and soils the reputation of a man fans still respect and admire. It has no place in this organization, or among the men who helped build it together.
Ozzie Smith was a great baseball player. He was a great Cardinal. But, by continuing to act this way, he has set an awful example as a MAN. Ozzie, it’s time to grow up.