Why everyone flipped over Ozzie Smith’s defense

  • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
  • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
  • Has covered baseball since 1981

You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.

ON THIS DATE IN 1996, Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith announced his retirement, effective at the end of that season.

He retired as the greatest defensive shortstop of all time, and given the skill and the responsibility required to play that position, a case could be made that Ozzie Smith is the greatest defensive player, at any position, of all time. He won 13 Gold Gloves. He took part in more double plays than any other shortstop in National League history. He led his league in fielding percentage eight times, which ties the major league record for a shortstop. And he did it all with flair, style and panache. The plays that he made had to be seen to be believed. That’s why he was the Wizard of Oz; Jack Buck simply called him “The Wizard.”

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“At the beginning, we would watch him in amazement,” former Cardinals teammate Andy Van Slyke said. “But as is human nature, after a while he’d make these plays and we’d think, ‘Then you go to jail for five years and you miss it, and when you get out you look and say, “Oh, what a beautiful sunset.”‘ That’s Ozzie Smith. He was beauty in motion every time he played.”

Smith was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He made 15 All-Star teams. He stole 590 bases. He had 2,460 hits. He never struck out 50 times in a season. He finished second in the MVP voting in 1987 when he scored 104 runs, drove in 75, stole 43 bases, had 89 walks and only 36 strikeouts. But he will always be known for his defense. And perhaps the best defensive play he ever made was with the Padres in 1978. He dove to his left for a hard ground ball hit by Jeff Burroughs, the ball took a strange hop, Smith reached back and caught it barehanded behind him, bounced to his feet and threw Burroughs out at first.

Catcher Terry Kennedy played with Smith for a year in San Diego in 1981.

“The pride and the precision he took with all the pregame work was so impressive,” Kennedy said. “He’d take ground balls from his knees, he’d practice the big hop on turf. There was some sparkle, no-look feeds on double plays, there was a little show, but he worked.”

Said Van Slyke: “His ability to come across the bag on the double play was probably the best thing he did defensively. Back then, the way baseball used to be played, there was fear around the bag [from sliding runners]. He was an acrobat. But he had to be an acrobat.”

Smith was a gymnast as a kid. He was so strong, so nimble, he could dive, jump, move like few others. Every Opening Day in St. Louis, he did a backflip as he ran to his position.

“That was as much a tradition in St. Louis as the Clydesdales,” Van Slyke said. “One Opening Day, I followed him out to his position to see how he did that backflip. I mean, he was doing it in his mid-30s. Did he practice it at home? How did he do that? And he did it with his glove on. He did it only once a year, and he did it to perfection.”

Other baseball notes for June 19

  • In 1942, Joe DiMaggio struck out three times in a game for the first and only time in his career (all three came off the Indians’ Mel Harder). One three-strikeout game and 201 games of at least three hits for DiMaggio.

  • In 1988, Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven won his 250th game. I covered a game that he pitched in 1982 in which he struck out nine, all looking. One of the best curveballs of all time.

  • In 2015, Alex Rodriguez got hit No. 3,000. It came on a home run. No one before Wade Boggs (1999) ever hit a home run for No. 3,000. But since then, Derek Jeter and Rodriguez did it.

  • In 1974, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz was born. He told me the worst pronunciation of his name was Manischewitz. He missed a hit-and-run sign one day at Tiger Stadium and was punished by Twins manager Tom Kelly. “After the game, I had to go back on the field, lead off first, look for the sign, take off running and slide into third. I had to do it three times,” Mientkiewicz said. “There were 50,000 people in the stands, and I’m running the bases. The security guys thought I was just some fan running on the field. I had to say, ‘No, I’m a player. I missed a sign.”’

  • In 1950, pitcher Jim Slaton was born. One season he didn’t win a game for several weeks, so his brother, Frank, decided to eat nothing but soup until his brother won another game. Jim didn’t get into a game for two weeks, during which Frank lost 16 pounds. Frank asked his father to join in the fast for Jim. Dad said, “I love my son, but I’m not crazy.”

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