The ball had base hit written all over it. It shot off the bat and toward the part of the infield where no one should ever be at 120-plus m.p.h. In the press box, the visiting sportswriter began to mark the hit in his score book when suddenly the player wearing No. 1 in the cardinal-and-white uniform materialized in front of the ball, scooped it up and leisurely threw the runner out at first by five steps.
The writer's jaw dropped, and he looked miffed as he hastily erased the hit symbol in his score book to substitute 6-3 for the routine ground ball. "Why do they let that guy play in roller skates when everybody else in the league has to play flat-footed?" he grumbled.
That was a scene in Dodger Stadium two years ago but it might just as well have been last night. The writer, the batter, the baserunners and the home team had just been victimized by the wizardry of Oz, a fairly familiar phenomenon on the playing fields of the National League these summers.
The infield hit has become a lost art to teams playing the St. Louis Cardinals. It has disappeared into the glove of Osborne Earl Smith, the best to play his position, shortstop, in the big leagues today and, maybe, ever.
Watching Ozzie Smith play shortstop is like watching Gregory Hines dance, or a cheetah hunt, or Man o' War run. No one does it any better. No one has ever done it as well.
Lots of guys--most, in fact--make the Hall of Fame with the bat. A few make it with their feet. But so far as anyone can tell, only one ever made it with the glove alone. That would be Rabbit Maranville. No one with a curveball ever feared him. But every line drive hitter in the league hated to see him out there, ready to snatch away base hits, submerge batting averages.
Ozzie Smith could make the Hall of Fame, too, if he never got another extra-base hit, stole another base or ignited another rally. He doesn't want it that way.
People like to practice what they do best. So you would expect to find this wizard out there in the land of Oz, the carpeted surface between second and third base, practicing one-handed scoops, running throws, diving catches and on-the-bag pivots.
Instead, you find this Oz in a weight room. Over the winter, he has tried to bulk up, not so he can improve his thievery of base hits but his hitting of them.
Ozzie doesn't want to be another Ruth. But neither does he want to be another Alice.
"People say, 'You don't need (a higher average),' " Smith said. "But I don't want to be known as a one-dimensional ballplayer. I'm trying to get a little stronger, trying to get the ball to go through the infield faster, to the fence faster.
"You know, the stronger you are, the less you have to be mechanically sound. You can make a mistake and still get a hit through strength."
At the 140-plus playing weight Ozzie usually found himself by midseason, he was not going to muscle anybody's curveball. So, he has bulked up to 165 and is aiming for 170.
Isn't he afraid the added heft will slow the skills that got him where he is, the first $2-million dollar defensive player in the game's history?
Ozzie shakes his head. "Muscle weighs more than fat. Scale weight shouldn't make any difference in performance if it's muscle and not fat."
Ozzie thinks he's in no danger of ever being the round mound of Missouri or St. Louis Fats.
"I'm one of those people who burn calories just sitting down," he says. "I have a high metabolism. I always burn more calories than I take in."
Ozzie didn't know it when it was brought up, but it is a fact that nobody is in the Hall of Fame with a batting average of less than .250. The second lowest of those chosen by the writers is another shortstop, Maranville, with .258.
Ozzie Smith fell out of bed with his ability to smother ground balls hit into the hole or to dive in front of line drives over second. "From the earliest times I can remember, I was the shortstop, even in the playground games," he says. "It was just taken for granted."
Fielding a ball was second nature. Hitting one was something else.
Baseball is the most under-instructed game in the fabric of sports. It is the conceit of the masters of the game that it is played only by "naturals," who come along about once a decade.
Ozzie Smith was a natural with the leather, not the wood. But his vision was such that he struck out slightly more than 20 times a season. Some guys do that in the first week. Ozzie had more stolen bases than strikeouts.
Golfers have as many gurus as there are swings. Pole vaulters, shotputters, sprinters, long jumpers and tennis players all have their personal coaches, but baseball lets its young find out how to hit a curveball all by themselves. They just give him a sign for it, not a lesson.
Ozzie piled up more assists for a season than any shortstop who ever lived. He has led the league a record-tying five times. His lifetime total, 4,639, menaces league leader Maranville's 7,338.
He became a switch-hitter because it didn't seem as if he could do any worse left-handed than right-handed.