Ozzie Smith brought acrobatics and grace to the baseball diamond.
In a sport known for dirt, grass stains and pine tar, he utilized an elegant, exquisite set of skills.
Arguably the finest defensive shortstop in history, Smith wields credentials that deservedly won him induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2002. He won 13 consecutive Gold Glove awards and was a member of 15 National League All-Star teams. He recorded 2,460 career hits and 580 stolen bases.
He also made what many observers call the greatest defensive play in baseball history.
ESPN Playbook enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with Smith recently as he made the rounds to promote the Pepsi Max Field of Dreams campaign. Here’s what transpired:
Who was your favorite athlete growing up?
Smith: I grew up in Southern California, and I used to catch the bus out to Dodger Stadium -- especially when the Pirates came to town. Because there was a guy that they had in right field who was kind of unique in the way he went about playing the game. It was unlike anything that I had ever seen, and he played with a degree of consistency with which I tried to pattern myself. That was Roberto Clemente. He played with a flair and a style all his own. I admired the way that he went about his craft every day, and that was my favorite player growing up.
Not including yourself, who’s the greatest shortstop in history?
I can only speak to the guys that I had the opportunity to see play. The guy that I got traded for is not given a lot of credit, but Garry Templeton probably was the most talented guy that I ever saw put on a pair of spikes. He and Davey Concepcion were two guys that I thought did their jobs extremely well. They anchored the infield.
Tempy could run like a deer, had a great throwing arm, could hit for power and hit for average and is still one of the only guys in the National League to get 100 hits from both sides of the plate [in the same season]. So Garry was probably the most talented, but Davey Concepcion brought a degree of consistency to his craft that allowed the Big Red Machine to be the Big Red Machine. He hasn’t gotten his due as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned.
You’ve been honored many times over the years for your charitable work. Which of your contributions has been the most rewarding?
Anything to do with cancer, be it prostate cancer or breast cancer or all those things, because that’s one of the most dreaded diseases in our society today. There are none of us that are not gonna be touched by this dreaded disease. So the work that I’ve done to try and bring more awareness to men making sure that they get tested early -- early detection being the key to saving lives. Anytime that you can help save one life, I deem it very, very important.
You were teammates with Eddie Murray at Locke High School in Los Angeles. What was he like back in the day?
I made him a good basketball player. I fed him. He played underneath, and I played up top. Eddie came from a very athletic family. There were five boys in their family. They all played sports, and they were all very, very good. ... Of course, he’s another Hall of Famer. Very, very talented.
How is it possible that no college offered you a full scholarship out of high school?
You know what? When you play with guys like Eddie Murray, when scouts come, that’s who they come to see. Because the guy could throw with both hands. He hit for power. He hit for average. He pitched. He played second base. He played first base. He caught. He did it all. So, that being one of the reasons, and I wasn’t very big guy back at that time -- not that I am now -- but back then, they were looking for people like Eddie who had all those tools.
What went into your decision to not sign with the Detroit Tigers after they drafted you in the seventh round in 1976 and instead return to Cal Poly for your senior season?
At that particular time, I had finished three years of my schooling. I had promised my mom that I was gonna get my education. I knew that if I didn’t get at least $10,000 -- now this was just my thinking -- that I wasn’t gonna get a real good look. So I decided that it would probably be better for me to go back, which I did, in hopes of getting drafted my senior year, which I did, by the Padres [in the fourth round of the ’77 draft]. ...
The Detroit Tigers offered me $8,500, and I asked them for $10,000. They came back and said it wasn’t in the budget. So I decided to go back to school, and being the good businessman that I am, I ended up signing for $5,000 and a bus ticket to Walla Walla, Wash. But the road to the big leagues is not always paved with gold. Not everybody who signs a professional contract is a bonus baby. ... I certainly was not one of those people.
That being said, you proved yourself, and you were earning the highest salary in baseball at one point.
Yeah, for about 15 minutes! Then the flood gates kind of opened. I had no idea that when I came over to play for the Cardinals that it would be something that would happen. When I sat down and signed that contract, at the time I was the highest-paid player, and I was probably one of the most surprised people in baseball that the salaries had grown to that level.
Did you feel added pressure because of that contract, and if so, how did you handle it?
No, I didn’t, because money wasn’t my driving force. My driving force was that failure was not an option. If I failed, I failed not only for me, but for my family as well. So it was about being the very best that I could be each and every day out there. That didn’t mean that I won every day, but it meant that I gave everything that I had that day. I tell young people today that you’ve gotta find what it is that you love to do. If you find that thing early on in life that you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life.
How often are you asked about the winning home run you hit off Tom Niedenfuer in Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS?
Baseball is such a part of the makeup of [St. Louis] that people will come up to me and say, “I know exactly where I was that day you hit the home run.” Of course, having the great Jack Buck at the mic when it happened was a blessing in and of itself, because he makes that thing live on forever. ... I feel like I’ve hit 500 home runs because I see it so much. It’s odd that a guy who was noted basically as a defensive guy, one of the things people talk about the most is a home run. It’s all about timing.
You won the World Series in your first year with the Cardinals in 1982. How did the feeling compare to your expectation of that moment?
When you get traded, and you get traded for a player the caliber of Garry Templeton, who was, as I mentioned earlier, one of the most talented players that ever strapped on a pair of spikes. ... So the one thing I had to fight coming over here was not trying to be Garry Templeton. I had to be Ozzie Smith, and I can remember one thing that [former Padres manager] Alvin Dark said to me. Alvin Dark was the guy who gave me my first chance. He invited me to big league camp in 1978. ...
After he had been fired in spring training, I came into his office, and he said, “This is part of the game. This happens all the time. But I’m gonna tell you something: Don’t you worry about a thing. You just continue to do what you’re doing. Pick the ball up and throw it across the diamond, son, because you’re going to be a great one.” And I will never, ever forget that.
Can you compare and contrast your managers with the Cardinals, Whitey Herzog and Joe Torre?
Whitey was the one that brought me over here, so I got to spend probably more quality time with him. Joe was a super person. Joe, at the time, was much like Frank Howard. I got a chance to spend some time with Frank with the Padres. He was one of those guys who took the blame for most of the stuff that went wrong. When players didn’t do what they were supposed to do, they were the guys that stood up and took the blame for it -- to their detriment.
Whitey Herzog is probably one of the brightest minds that I’ve ever had a chance to be around. He was one of those people who was always two of three steps ahead. … He only had two rules: be on time, and give 100 percent. And as a professional athlete, if you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be here.
Does the 1985 World Series -- and especially the errant call in Game 6 -- still leave a bad taste in your mouth?
No, it’s over and done with. The only thing that leaves a bad taste in your mouth is to not make an effort to get it right. I’m asked a lot about instant replay. If the goal is to get it right, and we have the technology, I don’t care how much time it takes -- especially in postseason -- let’s get it right. Even if it goes against me, I can live with that.
You and several other Hall of Famers will play Saturday in the Pepsi Max Field of Dreams game against last year’s contest winner and 10 of his friends. Regardless of age, there’s no way you can let a team of regular guys beat you, right?
There are a few of us that still take it very seriously and can still move a little bit -- the guys that don’t have bad knees and stuff. I have a son that’s played a little independent baseball, so I still throw the ball around a little bit with him and stuff, and then I can come downstairs in my basement and hit some balls off the tee. I swing the golf clubs a lot, too. I’ve gotten a lot of swings in.
Pepsi Max is once again giving fans the chance to take the field with MLB legends in the Field of Dreams program. Fans can cast votes for players through June 15 at MLB.com/PepsiMax to assemble dream team rosters and enter to win a chance to play with their favorite MLB legends in an AL vs. NL matchup.