Baseball 84: Ozzie Smith

OK, we're finally through that Hall of Fame cycle -- hope you enjoyed it. It's time to get back to the Baseball 100. It has been a couple of months, so just to remind you where we are on my list of the greatest major league baseball players ever:

No. 100: Zack Greinke No. 99: Charlie Gehringer No. 98: Carlton Fisk No. 97: Johan Santana No. 96: Chase Utley No. 95: Dazzy Vance No. 94: Tony Gwynn No. 93: Trammell and Whitaker No. 92: Justin Verlander No. 91: Shoeless Joe Jackson No. 90: Johnny Mize No. 89: Willie McCovey No. 88: Carlos Beltran No. 87: Mike Mussina No. 86: Ryne Sandberg No. 85: Ivan Rodriguez

And we go on to No. 84: Ozzie Smith.

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Let me tell you a personal Ozzie Smith story. For the better part of nine months, maybe even a year, I worked with my friend, the brilliant director Jon Hock, on the movie that they now show daily at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I hope you have seen it or will get to see it. Writing "Generations of the Game" is one of the greatest joys of my professional life.

Here's the thing: There's no narrator for the movie. Jon and I and (and other incredibly talented people who worked on the movie) went round and round on that. At first, we thought there was no way to get across the poetry of baseball without a singular voice -- maybe it would be Robert Redford or Kevin Costner or Geena Davis -- who would tie everything together.

But after we started the process, we came up with a challenge for ourselves and all the people who worked on it.

Could we make the movie without a narrator? Could we do it with only music and images and the voices of the Hall of Famers themselves?

I had my doubts, to be honest, but then, well, you might know this, I'm a writer. For me, words are everything. And I had no idea how you could even write a movie when you don't actually WRITE anything.

But Jon is brilliant, and he thought we could do it. So here's what we did: We went around the country and interviewed some of the most amazing people in baseball over the last half-century or more. The interviews are absolutely incredible. We could have done a two-hour movie just with the stuff we got. Still, I had no idea what writing a movie like this meant ...

... until I talked with Ozzie Smith.

There's no need to talk about the awesomeness of Ozzie, but let's do it anyway. He's the greatest defensive player I ever saw, any position, and while remarkable fielders like Andrelton Simmons might someday pass him in overall defensive value, well, Ozzie was the one who reinvented the whole thing. Yes, there had been amazing defensive shortstops before him -- Mark Belanger, Luis Aparicio, Dave Concepcion, going all the way back to Rabbit Maranville -- but it was different with the Wizard. He was Chuck Berry, to pick another St. Louis legend. When marking shortstop time, it's Before Ozzie and After Ozzie.

In 1980, for instance -- this is when the Wizard was still with San Diego -- he had 621 assists. That's still the record, and one that I imagine will never be broken, unless the strikeouts thing changes. Marcus Simen led all shortstops last year in assists. He had 458. Think about that -- Ozzie had 163 more assists than that, or one per game.

In 1981, the strike season, Ozzie had 422 assists in 110 games -- his range factor was actually HIGHER than it was in his record-setting year.

Then he went to St. Louis, completely different pitching staff, complete different playing surface (much, much faster turf) and he had 535 assists in 139 games and, believe it or not, his range factor was even HIGHER than it had been in 1980 or 1981.

[caption id="attachment_24090" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Even if weren't named Ozzie, they would have called him the Wizard.[/caption]

The numbers are what the numbers are; he led the league in assists eight times, but he somehow also led the league in fielding percentage eight times. It's an impossible combination, it's like when the smartest person is also the hardest worker, when the richest person is also the most generous, when the most talented person is also the most humble.

What made him the Wizard, though, was the acrobatics. He was a showman in addition to being an artist. He would go diving after balls that seemed out of reach, and he snared them and fell to the ground, and then he would spring off the turf like it was a trampoline and land gently on his feet like he was Mary Poppins or Simone Biles or something. Then he would make a perfect throw, but it was usually an Ozzie throw, meaning he would purposely throw the ball about 15 feet short of the first baseman and let the ball leap up to the glove like an obedient pet. Yes, Ozzie was out there just skipping stones. It was pure sorcery. They would have called him the Wizard even if his name had not been Ozzie.

Speaking of pure sorcery, I can never write anything about Ozzie Smith without talking about the time I just stood on the side of the field before the game and just watched him take infield practice. It was one of the genuine professional thrills of my life, even though I guess it was no different than watching, say, Magnus Carlsen play chess against himself or Jason Isbell do a mike check or Meryl Streep rehearse her lines.

At one point, he started making no-look throws to first base. That's what really stays with me. He would field a ground ball and then just throw the ball way exactly the way you or I might throw away a crumpled piece of paper. The ball would sail and land softly in the first baseman's glove. It remains one of the great magic tricks I've ever seen.

As for the Wizard's bat ... he wasn't much of a hitter at all. But he was so smart, so fast, so instinctive, that in the middle part of his career -- between 1985 and 1992 -- he was just about league average, even though he slugged only .349. He bunted, chopped and blooped his way on base, he stole bases at an 82% clip, he scored 100 runs in 1987, he made the most of his 150 gymnastic pounds. And, of course, he hit the walk-off home run off Tom Niedenfuer that won Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS.

Which finally takes us back to the movie.

I went to see Ozzie Smith at his business in St. Louis. For the interview, we set up in a plain little windowless office in the back, an office like every other office you've ever seen. It was bland and dark, perfect for the sort of shot we were shooting, and we set up a chair for him, and I had my interview chair right in front, and we waited.

The way these things worked, I scribbled down a handful of questions that I knew that I wanted to ask, but mostly I wanted to let the subject lead the interview. When you get to sit in a room with Henry Aaron or Vin Scully or George Brett or Juan Marichal or Greg Maddux or Clayton Kershaw (exactly five minutes with Clayton), you don't want to do much talking. You want to take them exactly where they would like to go.

Ozzie walked in, and the room was dark, except for the lights we had set up, and we began slowly, simply... what was it like, how did it feel, what do you miss... you know, all that stuff. And Ozzie Smith is so good at doing interviews, he was saying perfect stuff, movie stuff.

"It’s those type of moments," he said of his great experiences in baseball, "that you realize the impact you had on people’s lives. Where you can create memories – memories that last a lifetime. It’s what makes this game so great.”

It was good, but then suddenly, in that airless office, it was something more. I don't even know exactly how it happened. I think I asked him about the homer off of Niedenfuer, and what it's like to be in that moment, and he talked about it. And then he started talking about Jack Buck's famous call.

And then he DID Jack Buck's famous call. I didn't ask him to do it. He just did the call from memory, right there, no preparation, no notes, no anything.

It was like he was hitting the home run all over again.

"Smith corks one down the line!" he said.

"It could go!" he said. (Buck actually said, "It may go!" but same thing.)

"Go crazy folks, go crazy!" Ozzie said, and he had the biggest smile on his face. I think that's when the goosebumps for me started just popping like fireworks.

"The Cardinals have won the game by the score of 3-2 on a home run by the Wizard!" Ozzie sang, and for an instant that drab office transformed into old Busch Stadium, and it was 1985, and the crowd was roaring, and Ozzie was running around the bases with his right fist raised high above his head, and people across America -- Cardinals fans and non-Cardinals fans alike (at least non-Dodgers fans) -- stood and cheered and knew that they would remember the moment for the rest of their lives.

And when Ozzie was done, I thanked him, even though the interview wasn't over yet. I thanked him because that was the moment when I knew what it meant to write the Hall of Fame baseball movie. And when you go see it (or if you have seen it already) you will see the home run, and you will see Jack Buck and Ozzie Smith announce the homer in a beautiful call and response, and I promise you that if you're a baseball fan who cares about history, it will blow up your emotions.

And I wrote it! You know, sort of.