All is once again right in the world of baseball as Ozzie Smith has joined the St. Louis Cardinals in Spring Training for the first time since his retirement in 1996. After being hired as Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny reached out to the Hall-of-Famer about coming to Jupiter as a special instructor. Smith accepted and on Saturday made his first appearance of camp. Thankfully, Matheny has righted a wrong inflicted on the organization and its fans by former manager Tony La Russa.
On December 10, 1981, Whitey Herzog executed a trade with the San Diego Padres that brought Ozzie Smith to St. Louis. In an interview with USA Today on the anniversary of the trade, Smith called the opportunity to join the St. Louis Cardinals "the turning point of his life." It was also a turning point for the Cardinals franchise. Not only did the trade help the Cardinals to win the club's first World Series since El Birdos of 1967, it also brought added the greatest defensive shortstop in the history of baseball to the ranks of Cardinals legends.
The all-time leader in assists for a major league shortstop, Smith won thirteen Gold Gloves. He was elected to fifteen All-Star Game rosters. He totaled over 2,000 hits and was a no-doubt Hall-of-Famer-to-be when La Russa took over as Cardinals manager. The Cardinals traded for shortstop Royce Clayton prior to the 1996 season and La Russa announced that there would be a competition for the starting shortstop position. Despite Smith out-hitting and out-fielding Clayton during Spring Training, La Russa made Clayton the primary shortstop.
Because Smith clearly outplayed Clayton to all but the manager, La Russa was forced to defend displacing Smith. He was less than convincing.
I think it's fair to say he misunderstood how he compared to Royce in spring training. When I and the other coaches evaluated the play in spring training--the whole game--Royce started very slowly offensively and you could see him get better. By what he was able to do defensively and on the bases, Royce deserved to play the majority of the games.
La Russa's dishonesty with Smith caused a rift to develop between the manager and player as Smith shot back:
You know he's not doing what the man said he would do. [...] Anyone who sits down and listens knows it's a lie. It's things like that that don't allow you to have respect for people. That's cowardice, as far as I'm concerned. But should I expect anything different?
It wasn't so much about my playing time as the way it was done. I was under the impression I was going to have every opportunity to do what I do. I was told that the position would be earned in spring training. And I thought I did that. I did everything that was asked of me.
After Smith's retirement, the relationship between the two did not improve. At the 1999 All-Star Game, Smith said he would not return to the Cardinals while La Russa was the manager. After a 2006 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (seemingly unavailable on the internet), La Russa responded by rescinding his longstanding offer for Smith to be a special instructor at Spring Training and stating:
When my time is up, they can welcome him with open arms, but I don't want to be anywhere he is. [...] I won't ever be around when he's around. Cardinals fans can embrace him all they want to, and it won't be uncomfortable because I won't be there.
Now that La Russa is gone, the fans and organization can comfortably welcome our beloved Hall-of-Fame shortstop back into the Cardinals fold with open arms. This is where Smith belongs--wearing a No. 1 Cardinals uniform at Spring Training, joking with Willie McGee, and working with Cardinals infielders on their fielding. When asked about his return on Saturday, Smith responded, "It's really like coming home." In the Post-Dispatch, ace scribe Derrick Goold shared with us Smith's thoughts on his reconnection with the Cardinals:
"It's been kind of a weird thing. [...] I was still a part of it but not to this degree I still participated in opening day ceremonies. When I say reconnect, I mean reconnect from a baseball standpoint. Being around it. Getting to know some of these young kids who are coming up through the organization. That's the part that was missing."
Smith joined Jose Oquendo in working with the infielders on one of the back fields in Jupiter. One of the players he worked with was first-round draft pick and top second base prospect Kolten Wong, who tweeted afterward:
Just met Ozzie smith! Gotta love being a cardinal— Kolten Wong (@KoltenWong) February 25, 2012
(Before a Quad Cities game last season, I saw Wong do a backflip firsthand. Azruavatar did not because he was busy writing down the starting lineup. As far as I've seen, there has been no reporting on whether Smith has given Wong any pointers on backflipping, but I hope to hear of this taking place during the next week.)
This is a sample of what the organization has been missing with Smith's estrangement from the baseball side of things. Having Smith taking part in pre-game ceremonies is great and all but the organization is undoubtedly better off with Smith in the teaching fold, sharing his knowledge of the game with young players during spring. Smith will spend a week in a week in Jupiter with the club and Matheny reportedly plans on him instructing infielders on defense and, along with McGee and Lou Brock, working with all the players on stealing bases. The thought of a base-stealing clinic being put on the trio of Brock, Smith, and McGee just warms the heart, doesn't it? As Matheny so eloquently states, "There's wisdom for everybody to tap into."
Smith has been absent from the baseball part of the St. Louis Cardinals organization for far too long. It's a great thing to have him home, in Jupiter, sharing his knowledge with current and future Redbirds. I think I speak for nearly all of Cardinaldom when I say "Welcome back, Ozzie."