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Jim Murray

Twins Are Handled by Kid's Glove

October 22, 1987|Jim Murray

ST.LOUIS — Ozzie Smith, the ballplayer, erect, is this 5-foot 10-inch, 150-pound figure of a man; he has this goatee beard; he always looks as if someone just handed him a birthday cake or a new pony, and he has only the two eyes, two arms and he doesn't have roller skates for legs.

I bring this up because you have probably not seen a picture of Ozzie in your life where he was perpendicular. He is either upside down or prone in the dirt or parallel to the field, levitating 5 feet up. He usually has a ball in his glove in this position. There are people in the game who would not be able to recognize him unless he lay down with his arms stretched in front of him as far as they would go.

Someone once suggested Ozzie is the only guy in the game who could field upside-down, and Tommy Lasorda suggested he thought that was the best idea he ever heard, that Ozzie should be made to field that way to equalize the competition. A ground ball vs. Ozzie Smith is an unequal competition, a mismatch on the order of a fastball vs. Babe Ruth.

Here was the situation in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the 1987 World Series: the Minnesota Twins, riding the crest of a wave, had just scored the only run of the game on a flared single to right following two bases on balls.

With two out and Tom Brunansky, on first, Brunansky broke for second on the pitch. The batter, Kent Hrbek, lined a single to left.

I say single to left because it should have been. The ball was in what the ballplayers call the "hole," the putatively undefended gap in the defenses where ground singles slip through.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ozzie Smith saw the ball slashing into left field. Without hesitation, he did a pirouette that would have done justice to Nureyev. He changed direction and shot toward left field. He snatched the ball out of the air just as it went by him, pivoted and threw a ball to first that would have been an ace at Wimbledon.

The play might have saved the World Series. If Hrbek's hit goes through, the second run scores and the Twins have a third in scoring position. It would have changed Cardinal strategy in their game-winning seventh inning. It very likely would have broken the back of the St. Louis Cardinals. The World Series, to all intents and purposes, would have been over.

It shows up as a simple "6-3" in a scorebook. It was not even vintage Smith. The crowd, while glad to see the inning ended and the rally snuffed, began to cheer as soon as they saw the ball going on the ground between second and third. They knew there is no "hole" in an infield patrolled by Ozzie Smith.

We switch reels to Game 4. The Cardinals have a 7-1 lead going in the fifth inning, but the ever-dangerous Twins, who have a middle-of-the-lineup with 125 season home runs, were making noises like an express train coming down the track. Gene Larkin walked, Dan Gladden singled, Kirby Puckett singled and the Twins had a run and men on first and second, when Gary Gaetti ripped a shot into the "hole."

Ozzie Smith left his feet. He soared to the ball, seized it in mid-air, fell face first on the artificial turf, from where he rose and threw to second, forcing Puckett. The Minnesota train never left the station. The Cinderella Twins had turned into a pumpkin again. Ozzie Smith tolled midnight for them.

Ozzie Smith, by definition, has to be the best player in the game. He has made the infield hit obsolete. In fact, he has all but eliminated the outfield hit. If the ball is on the ground, Ozzie gets it.

Watching Ozzie play shortstop is like watching Kelly dance or Barrymore act or Ali fight. It's not sport, it's art.

He wears, and is, No. 1. In the program and in history. He makes $2 million a year with a glove. He hasn't hit a home run in two years, but no one cares. Ozzie being able to hit is like Garbo being able to cook. Ozzie gets more hits than anyone in the game if you count the ones he hits and the ones he catches.

Don't tally ones it says in the World Series record book. It says there he's gotten 3 hits for 16 at-bats.

The record book lies. The record books don't count the hits he got off the bats of Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti, for instance. Two of the biggest hits in this year's Series.

Ozzie Smith got both of them. Ozzie Smith doesn't have to be at bat to get hits. He was a .300 hitter this year but in truth he's the first .400 hitter since Williams. The other 100 points he gets with a glove. He could be the main reason the tournament is going back to Minneapolis. The Minnesota Twins are not used to having game-winning rallies killed on base hits.

Their only hope may be passing a rule shortstops have to remain vertical at all times--or rule that any ball hit to short with Ozzie there shall constitute a foul ball. Otherwise, if the Cardinals win, the Twins can point to Ozzie and say, "He did it--the little so-and-so outhit us. On our hits!"

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