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This Game Is About Oz and Ends

Baseball: Ozzie Smith is an all-star in his last season as a tribute to his remarkable career.

July 09, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — Alex Rodriguez and Mark Grudzielanek are here as forerunners of an impressive new wave of young shortstops.

Barry Larkin and Cal Ripken Jr. are here as the redoubtable, still-productive, always-familiar veteran starters at that position.

And Ozzie Smith is here as . . . well, a 19-year highlight film now on the last reel and possibly, no, probably, the best shortstop ever.

That's how Philadelphia Phillie Manager Jim Fregosi, a former all-star shortstop serving as a National League coach in tonight's 67th All-Star game, put it Monday.

Probably the best shortstop ever. Definitely a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

"Defensive players are not glorified as they should be, but Ozzie gave new meaning to defensive shortstop," Fregosi said.

"I've never seen a guy make as many spectacular plays. There's nothing he couldn't do or didn't do in the field, and he turned himself into a hell of a hitter after coming up strictly as a defensive player."

Smith came up to the San Diego Padres in 1978, and Monday time stood still.

The Wizard's locker was next to that of Jason Kendall, the Pittsburgh Pirates' rookie catcher from Torrance who was just out of diapers when Smith played with Kendall's father, Fred, during those early years in San Diego.

Now 22, Jason Kendall said he couldn't describe how it felt to have his dream come to life as a rookie, to be in an all-star clubhouse, to be suiting up next to an idol.

Ozzie Smith is 41, an all-star for the 15th and last time.

He will retire at the end of the season, one he would not choose to be his last.

The 13-time Gold Glove winner has played irregularly behind Royce Clayton, acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals last winter.

He has exchanged words with Manager Tony La Russa, saying La Russa lied to him about the spring competition with Clayton and his role this season.

Smith was asked Monday if all of that has detracted from his final summer. He shook his head and said:

"I feel that I've had a storybook career. I've worked hard, never taking my skills for granted. I've accomplished a lot and look on 19 years as saying a lot for consistency.

"The situation in St. Louis hasn't taken away from anything. My only complaint was the way it was handled, with a total lack of respect.

"But I haven't gone around airing that out.

"People who say I became a troublemaker this year, that I didn't accept the situation, are acting on an assumption, not fact."

Smith's pride has now healed, he said.

The situation is behind him and he is having fun, hopeful of closing the storybook as a winner, hopeful of contributing to that St. Louis effort.

He appeared in only 34 first-half games, batting .267, but finished second in All-Star voting to Larkin and was picked, with Montreal sophomore Grudzielanek, as a shortstop reserve, a final tribute to 19 years.

Bobby Cox, the Atlanta Brave and NL manager, had initially said that he felt it appropriate for Smith to be honored in a non-playing capacity, but Cardinal President Mark Lamping called acting Commissioner Bud Selig and NL President Leonard Coleman and suggested Smith be given the opportunity to play in his finale, as long as it wasn't at anyone else's expense.

Coleman agreed, instructing Cox to include Smith on the roster.

"As long as I'm National League president, and you have a player who has contributed the way Ozzie has, he's going to be on this team," Coleman said.

Said Smith: "I don't think I would have been disappointed, but I wanted to be part of it one more time. I always enjoy the opportunity to mingle with the best.

"Any time you're on the All-Star team it's special, but this is that much more emotional and sentimental.

"Sure, there's always going to be people who say this player shouldn't be there or that player should, but the true assessment of an all-star is what he's done over his career, not for a half season.

"As long as baseball is trying to make this a showcase, with the fans selecting the starters, there should be even more emphasis on bringing in the best players."

In tonight's game, John Smoltz (14-4) of the Braves will start for the NL against Charles Nagy (11-2) of the Cleveland Indians.

Throughout the NL clubhouse Monday, players talked glowingly of what Smith has meant to their careers--both through example and unstinting tips.

"The great thing about baseball is the relationships you're able to develop aside from the competition," Smith said. "That's probably the thing I'll miss most.

"All I've ever tried to do is encourage young players to be the best they can be and not try to emulate the way someone else does it.

"You can argue until the end of time as to who the best shortstop was, but I'll leave that to the experts.

"I don't worry about how I rank. I don't even think about it. I worked hard to be the best I could be."

Smith owns a St. Louis restaurant and employment agency and has a 10-year personal services contract with the Cardinals, of which he smiled and said:

"It may only mean I have to take out the trash."

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