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Mike Downey

Once Again, the Wizard Is Merely Human

October 18, 1987|Mike Downey

Ozzie this. Ozzie that. I am getting just a wee bit tired of hearing what a wonderful, adorable, Muppet-like, sensational, inspirational, saintly, classy baseball player Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals is. It is about time somebody took a closer look.

There is no question--none--that Smith is a super player. He fields beautifully, and hits better than anybody imagined he ever would. Most of the praise he gets, he earns. He also is kind to autograph hunters, and popular among teammates. Nobody dares accuse Ozzie Smith of being a bad person.

It is simply getting to the point that, whenever we have to hear or read a word about Ozzie Smith, it is as though the man can do no wrong, as though he is this perfect little angel who can do or say anything he wants, whereas somebody like Jeffrey Leonard of the San Francisco Giants is a vile, villainous varmint who doesn't belong on the same field, and got his comeuppance.

Let us wonder for a moment why Leonard was perceived by some as a loudmouth and a showoff during last week's National League playoffs, but Smith walked away smelling, as usual, like red roses.

Who was the one who dashed out onto the diamond before every game and did a back flip for the crowd? Ozzie Smith was.

Who was the one who waved his hands in front of an infielder's face when a throw from the outfield was winging toward second base? Ozzie Smith was.

Who was the one who started complaining because a baserunner whose team was trying to reach the World Series came sliding hard into second base, trying to break up a double play? Ozzie Smith was.

Who was the one who said the Most Valuable Player of the playoff series "didn't deserve" the award, and probably received it "because they felt sorry for him" after all the abuse he had taken from the fans? Ozzie Smith was.

Never mind what Leonard had to say, or go through.

The great Oz has spoken!

He might be a wonderful ballplayer, but Ozzie Smith also is a guy who dishes it out better than he takes it.

When he waved his arms in front of that guy, that was just fooling around. Never mind that he accidentally could have deflected the ball, or screened the infielder's view of it, and forced the guy to miss the throw, maybe even get struck with it in the face. That was all strictly innocent, said the wise and all-knowing Oz.

Yet, when Leonard tried to take out the St. Louis shortstop with a perfectly legal slide--check the replays--what was it? A cheap shot. "He's a cheap-shot artist," Smith said. "Yeah, I yelled at him. I told him that it was a terrible thing he did."

Sure thing. God forbid Leonard should try to prevent a double play in the fourth inning of Game 7 of the league championship series, with his team behind by four runs.

Leonard: "I guess he was mad at me because I touched him."

That's about the size of it. How dare anybody say anything bad about Ozzie Smith?

When he was having all that contract trouble with the San Diego Padres, it was all right for him to try to embarrass the owner by placing a classified ad in the newspaper, making a mockery of the whole proceedings by pretending to be looking for a job. But when Joan Kroc responded in kind by saying she had an opening for a gardener, oh, what an insult to the mighty Oz. How dare she?

Then there was all that stuff about how much money he deserved. He was the best shortstop there was, so he ought to be rich--that was the general argument.

OK, granted, he could catch those grounders. But here are Ozzie Smith's batting averages for his four full seasons with San Diego: .258, .211, .230 and .222. Total home runs: 1. And his first three years with St. Louis: .248, .243, .257. Home runs: 6.

With that kind of offense, a player better be good on defense.

Should it sound as though some sort of grudge exists here, believe me, there is none. In my experience, Ozzie Smith is an accommodating, articulate, interesting guy. But please, although he may play for St. Louis, he is not St. Ozzie.

Reggie Jackson was supposed to be baseball's biggest hotdog, but let's be honest, Ozzie Smith is not exactly a Vienna sausage. He turns somersaults. He waves towels, M. L. Carr-style, whipping crowds into a frenzy. And, occasionally, he even makes a routine play look difficult, rather than the other way around, which is why some of the Giants were mocking Ozzie after that grounder squirted through his legs in Game 2.

When Busch Stadium's audiences did their sing-song "Jefffff-rey, Jefffff-rey," that was supposed to be understandable, but when Candlestick Park's crowds came back with "Ozzzzz-ie, Ozzzzz-ie," that came across like picking on a harmless puppy.

And then, Ozzie Smith had the gall to say that Jeffrey Leonard did not deserve the MVP award. That: "They probably just gave it to him because they felt sorry for him because our fans were on him."

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