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An Appreciation for Ozzie Smith

With the Padres in town and the Cardinals debuting their baby blue alternates this year, now is as good a time as any to tip our caps to the Wizard.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v St Louis Cardinals - Game Five Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Thirty-seven years ago, Whitey Herzog put the finishing touches on a trade with the San Diego Padres that would transform the St. Louis Cardinals from a young contender into one of the best teams of the rest of the decade. At the time, Herzog wanted to upgrade his defense, add speed, and solve the Garry Templeton problem at shortstop. His solution for all of those needs would become a one-named legend in a baseball mad town. Thus began the story of Ozzie Smith in St. Louis.

Early in his career, Smith had struggled at the plate even by the 1981 standards that focused on batting average, homeruns, and RBI. In his four years wearing the McDonald’s company softball uniforms in San Diego, Ozzie had hit just .231 with a single homerun. He had slashed .231/.295/.278 for a 66 OPS+ and a 69 wRC+. Of course, the Padres didn’t mind that kind of production because he was capable of making plays like this behind-the-back barehanded play:

which is why Herzog wanted him in the first place.

His struggles at the plate in San Diego were reversed when he moved to St. Louis. His worst seasons at the plate for the rest of the decade- an 84 wRC+ in both 1982 and 1983- were tied for his best season as a Padre in 1978. His walk percentage increased in St. Louis, his strikeout percentage went down, and the increased balls in play paired nicely with a higher batting average on balls in play to boost his production. Sure enough, his .231 Padres batting average gradually increased on the fast astroturf in St. Louis. Along with the enhanced average, he also hit for more pop. He was collecting more doubles and triples in cavernous Busch Stadium. Here’s how it all came together for him using Fangraphs’ graph maker, with the Padres and Cardinal years highlighted:

In the field, he was still very much Ozzie Smith, an acrobatic wizard in baby blue deploying the leather like nobody in baseball had seen before or since. When hitters smoked line drives and groundballs anywhere near Ozzie, everyone in the ballpark held their breath hoping for magic.

The enhanced offensive production combined with his speed, transformative defense, and a franchise that knew just how to deploy him to create a superstar. His fWAR from 1982 through the end of the decade was 40.8, sixth in all of baseball and second in the National League. That level of production is higher in the same frame than other Hall of Famers like Mike Schmidt, Eddie Murray, Robin Yount, Gary Carter, George Brett, Ryne Sandberg, and Paul Molitor.

His increased production sparked the Cardinals on to one of the most successful eras in franchise history. There was the World Series victory in 1982, the National League pennants in 1985 and 1987, and epic pennant races against the Mets. All of it pushed Ozzie higher in the national consciousness. It crested in 1987, a 6.3 fWAR season that landed him second in MVP voting. That recognition was a culmination of a future Hall of Famer turning himself into as complete of a player as possible.

In that era, he was St. Louis, an ambassador for Cardinal fans everywhere each spring, summer, and especially October. With that role came supersized moments. This one in the 1982 World Series helped announce his presence to the baseball watching populace:

No Ozzie moment in the 80s was bigger than the Go Crazy game, a confluence of the beloved Ozzie and city icon Jack Buck at their best:

Of course, it wasn’t just glovework, improved hitting, or even the magic moments that made Ozzie a superstar. It was the way he did it all. It’s one thing to play supreme defense at a position. It’s something else altogether to do it with the flair of Ozzie Smith. He routinely made plays like this one, which appropriately made Cardinal fans give a defensive player a standing ovation:

Or how about this one, in to the early 90s:

all while flashing a smile that lit up the Arch. He punctuated it with a signature backflip that was as on-brand for the city during his career as toasted ravioli, the Clydesdales, and Ted Drewes custard.

One of Ozzie’s most impressive feats came after the 80s glory started to fade. It’s the simple fact that he aged so gracefully. Amongst position players in baseball history, he has the 20th highest fWAR after the age of 30, the 16th highest fWAR after age 33, and 25th highest after the age of 35. Even after the age of 37, he’s 23rd. Former VEB writer Alex Crisafulli captured it in his interview with Ozzie in April 2017:

VEB: One of the things that I think is overlooked about your career, and I was looking at some of these stats not that long ago, is how good you were for so long after the age of 30. Is there any advice you give to players, particularly shortstops because I imagine it can be a grueling position?

OS: It was real simple, Alex, it was about striving to continue to get better. If I signed a longterm contract, I wanted everyone to know that I was worthy of that, and the only way to do that was to continue to improve and continue to get better. That was my goal. Money was never really my driving force, my driving force was to make sure I gave my all every day, and if I did that then the other things would take care of themselves.

It was also to prove to myself that I could push off that point of diminishing returns. I wanted to play well into my 40s, I think when I retired I was 41, but I wanted to prove that players with the right work ethic could play beyond 40, which was the number put on guys as to when they could no longer contribute and I don’t think that’s true. There have been a handful of guys who have proven that.

When he retired after the 1996 season, he was fourth all-time in franchise fWAR, trailing only fellow luminaries Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Rogers Hornsby. He had carved out a spot on the Cardinals’ Mount Rushmore as a fan favorite for multiple generations. For that, even more than two decades after his retirement, all Cardinal fans can be grateful.