WHEN I WAS 6 years old, my father moved our family from Mobile, Ala., to Los Angeles. After we got to Los Angeles, it seemed as if I did something athletic almost every day. I joined the YMCA and played on almost all of the teams they had--baseball, football, basketball. When I wasn't playing an organized game, I just went out and played catch by myself, throwing the ball off the concrete steps and catching it, moving in closer all the time so I had to react quicker to catch the ball. All of those things helped develop my eye-hand coordination. When I wasn't playing ball, I would go down to the sawdust pit at the neighborhood lumberyard with some of the other kids. We piled up inner tubes and practiced doing flips into the sawdust. At the time, I thought I was just goofing around. Much later, of course, I realized the value of that training.
We lived in South-Central Los Angeles, in Watts. Growing up, I never thought of it as a ghetto. We didn't have a lot, but we took care of what we had. We had a clean house, and we kept trying to make it better. We lived across the street from the Manchester Recreation Center. I can remember getting my first uniform there, but I can't remember the first time I ever played shortstop. It just seems as if I was always there. I can't remember anyone telling me to go out and play shortstop. It was the only position I ever really wanted to play.
Even though I played all of the sports, baseball was my favorite. I played some sort of baseball almost every day of the year while I was growing up--except for a period of about two weeks in the summer of 1965. We stayed inside those two weeks, sleeping on the floor, because we were right in the middle of the Watts riots. Looking back on it now, I know it was scarier than it seemed to us kids at the time. At 10 years old, I couldn't understand the impact of what was happening.
My mom always stressed the importance of getting a good education and working hard. I was fortunate to have a good home life, even though my parents separated while I was in junior high. All of us kids had chores to do, and we knew we wouldn't be allowed to go out and play until we finished them.
When I got done with my work, I would ride the bus to Dodger Stadium. We almost always sat in the left-field pavilion, and we always cheered for the Dodgers. They were the team. We didn't care who they were playing, we just wanted the Dodgers to beat them. I remember thinking how big that left-field wall looked. It doesn't look nearly that big now.
Maury Wills was the Dodgers' shortstop. He was the first shortstop I ever noticed because he was a little guy and stole bases. He was quick and didn't hit the ball out of the park very often. As young kids, we could more easily imagine ourselves doing those things than hitting a lot of home runs.
I played baseball and basketball at Locke High School, and a lot of scouts came out to watch us play. But in baseball, most of them were watching our first baseman, Eddie Murray. Today you know him as the Orioles' first baseman, but back then he also pitched and played the outfield, and he could hit the ball a long way. A high school kid who could hit the way he could before he had filled out was going to attract a lot of attention from scouts. In basketball, the college scouts mainly watched a guard from Crenshaw High School named Marques Johnson. I was selected second-team all-city guard, but I didn't have the size that Johnson did. He went on to UCLA and then the NBA, and the rest is history.
I had a chance to go to some schools, including Washington State, to play basketball, but I decided to put all my time and energy into baseball, even though I was disappointed that I hadn't been drafted. The reason I wasn't picked was my size--at that time I probably weighed between 130 and 135 pounds. Not exactly overpowering.
The two most important things to me at that point were baseball and school, so I decided to try to go to a college where I wouldn't get lost in the crowd, since I didn't hit a lot of home runs. So when I got a partial academic scholarship from Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, that's where I went.
I walked onto the baseball team at Cal Poly and got my first chance to play some games with the varsity team when the starting shortstop broke his leg. But I didn't get along with an assistant coach there, and at times I actually said I wasn't going to play anymore. My mother and my high school coach talked me out of it each time.
My college coach was a nice guy and a good coach. And even though he says he never taught me a thing about playing defense, he did teach me at least one hitting skill: To switch-hit. That may have been a key to my success.
I was lucky to get a chance to play baseball for a living. I never thought I would get rich at it--my first contract was for $500 a month--but I thought I had a chance to be a pretty good player. I told myself I would give it five years. If I wasn't in the big leagues by then, I would give up baseball and find something else to do.
Copyright 1988 by Ozzie Smith and Rob Rains. Reprinted by permission of Contemporary Books.