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Ozzie Smith and the perils of free agency

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In 1992 Ozzie Smith contemplated signing with the Houston Astros and that would have been terrible.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Here are two indisputable facts: (1) Ozzie Smith ranks 71st all-time in fWAR (excluding pitchers) at 67.7, bookended by two other Hall of Famers in Paul Molitor and Willie McCovey; and (2) Ozzie Smith is the greatest baseball player in the history of the sport. That he was my favorite player when I first discovered baseball in the mid-80s and would remain so until his retirement in 1996 is what makes the second fact perfectly reconcilable with the first.

His All-Star contemporaries at the time, players like Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt, and Tony Gwynn, were all great in their own right but they didn't break any sort of mold. There were Mike Schmidts before Mike Schmidt and there will be Mike Schmidts going forward. But Ozzie Smith was not only the greatest player in history he was also the most interesting because no one played baseball like he did.

Imagine the highest paid player (which Ozzie was in MLB in 1988) in the NBA as a liability of offense but whose defense was so dominant and transcendent that he was the most popular player in the league. Ozzie was that anomaly. Often the top vote-getter for the All-Star Game, he hit for virtually no power and never had an ISO eclipse .092. He hit exactly zero home runs in 1987 and yet there was a strong case that he should have been NL MVP, or at least finished ahead of MVP Andre Dawson who hit 49. Peruse the FanGraphs Leaderboards and you'll see that Ozzie (career 90 wRC+) is the only player in the top 145 as ranked by fWAR to have a career wRC+ lower than 100. Keep going to find someone with a lower career wRC+ and that will take you all the way down the list to #194, and appropriately Luis Aparicio (career 83 wRC+).

Liability as a descriptor of his offense might not be the right word. He was actually far from terrible at the plate - especially as his career matured - and he spent a bulk of his time batting second in the order when lineup construction was a bit more archaic. During his 19-year career, he banged out nearly 2,500 hits and drew a walk in nearly 10% of his plate appearances. Pitchers had trouble missing his bat and he retired with a career 5.5% strikeout rate. For reference, FanGraphs lists a strikeout rate of 10% and below as "excellent" and during Ozzie's career which spanned from 1978 to 1996, the average National League strikeout rate fluctuated between 12.9% and 17.4%.

Always a thief on the base paths - Ozzie's stock rose in the heyday of Whiteyball, after all - he retired with 580 stolen bases which at the time was 19th all-time (he has since been passed by Otis Nixon, Kenny Lofton, and Juan Pierre). And, he scored runs. In a seven season stretch from 1986 to 1992 (according to the venerable Play Index), only Barry Bonds, Ryne Sandberg, Will Clark, and Gwynn crossed home plate more times in the NL. Ozzie's 991 total runs scored with the Cardinals ranks seventh in the organization behind five Hall of Famers (Stan Musial, Lou, Brock, Rogers Hornsby, Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst) and Albert Pujols.

The defense though is why we bought the tickets. Like watching Barry Bonds hit a home run, being in attendance when Ozzie made a spectacular play was thrilling but hardly unexpected. It was just part of his job description. And that combination of defense, along with his contributions to Whiteyball, and the backflips on Opening Day - to say all of that culminated at a peak where he was universally beloved by Cardinals fans doesn't quite capture it. Although he was beloved - more than any Cardinal in my lifetime - but there was more to it than that. There's a bias at play here, evidenced by my opening paragraph, but I feel comfortable saying no player embodied a team, their style more than Ozzie Smith embodied the Cardinals. Remove him and they would take on an entirely new identity.

This long-winded setup is to put in context the dismay when word leaked in the offseason of 1992 that he, Ozzie Smith, a free agent, was entertaining the notion of signing with the Houston Astros. Ozzie Smith on the Houston Astros? The very idea seemed like it should be illegal, or at least against some sort of baseball rules. But I was learning it wasn't. Just a year prior Eric Davis had been traded by the Cincinnati Reds and joined childhood chum Darryl Strawberry with the Los Angeles Dodgersa move which they had basically colluded on years earlier. This offended me. Strawberry was supposed to be a Met and Davis a Red. (I was not a pro-labor 12-year old.) If they could leave it wasn't inconceivable that Ozzie could leave.

This, at the time, from the New York Times (which the Gray Lady carefully categorized under "Sports People: Baseball"):

At least 10 teams have contacted Ozzie Smith, a free agent after 11 years as the St. Louis Cardinals' shortstop. "We knew there would be teams interested, but there are more than we thought," Debra Ehlmann, Smith's agent, said yesterday, a day after Smith met with the Houston Astros.

All in all, though, Smith would rather go back to St. Louis. The Cardinals have made two proposals to retain the 12-time All-Star, who batted .295, stole 43 bases and won his 13th Gold Glove last season. But St. Louis is offering only one guaranteed season with a club option for 1994. Smith, who will be 38 next month, wants two guaranteed years.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Ehlmann hinted there was discord between Ozzie and the organization. When asked about his meeting in Houston, Ozzie stated, "I'm here because I feel their (the Astros') interest is sincere, and hopefully, I'm going to find that out."

Was their interest sincere? Probably. They mostly used Andujar Cedeno at short in 1992 and he hit .173/.232/.277 with a 45 wRC+ and was worth -0.9 fWAR. Now, no one knew what wRC+ or fWAR was in 1992 but I'm guessing the Astros knew enough that even a slugging-challenged player like Ozzie embarking on the back end of his career would have been an improvement.

As for Ozzie, maybe he should have headed to big Texas instead of having his career prematurely cut short (as the old argument goes) - crushed under the weight of the unforgiving fist of La Russa. He might have played past 1996 (or been the full-time starter in 1996) and reached 2,500 hits, joined the exclusive 600 stolen base club - which only has 18 members, including this guy, the Freshest Man On Earth -  or smacked his 29th career home run (the 29 home run club has approximately 2,085 members). He might have continued to make diving catches at the place where AstroTurf got its name.

Thankfully - I say with the utmost selfishness - we'll never know. Whether Ozzie ever actually considered signing with the Astros or was using them as leverage is not on record, but on December 6, 1992, he re-signed with the Cardinals and a crisis was averted. The relief of the re-signing was shared on that evening's local news. The greatest baseball player in history stayed with the Cardinals where he would eventually retire and all was okay in baseball.