I was born in 1982, which also happened to be Ozzie Smith's first season as a St. Louis Cardinal. The beginning of a legendary career that holds up with any other Cardinal in the history of the franchise. I am talking Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, and any other red suit owner. Arguing something as sure as this is futile.
Being an 80's product, I had the chance to fall in love with Smith's play as I was falling for the sport of baseball as a whole. I was just about four years old when Smith made St. Louis go crazy against the Los Angeles Dodgers and got to experience the painful rendition of the 1987 playoff run as a young fan coming to terms with the heartbreak of the sport.
There was a wondrous aspect to Smith's play on the field. The flips as he came out of the dugout on Opening Day were theatrical flair at its best, but it only represented a fraction of his ability. Part showman and elite defender, Smith could have represented the origin story of defensive runs saved.
"The Wizard" won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves and made a dazzling play each night. The man would go up the middle to steal a single away from the outfielder or venture into short left-center field and snag a wannabe-bloop hit. Calling his work amazing is like calling a steak an okay cheat meal; there's simply more to the description than words can afford.
You had to see Smith live in action to understand what he could do on a baseball field because it defies storytelling, but a revisiting via the internet doesn't rob all the thunder of his abilities. Ask your dad to pull up Youtube, and rightfully collapse into a video-watching rabbit hole of Ozzie highlights. It should be a tutorial for any young aspiring shortstop to take a glimpse in understanding where the stars align for the position.
Here's the thing. The appreciation of the talent doesn't diminish with age. Unlike certain otherworldly cartoons or movies, this larger-than-life tale holds up over the decades. As Smith celebrated his 64th birthday on Wednesday, I found myself thinking back on the wondrous back-to-the-infield catch that Smith is known for, or the one time I saw him dive nearly into the right side of the infield to take away a hit. It was like thinking back on the first screening of "The Terminator".
To opposing baseball players aching for a hit, Smith was the cyborg-like fielder who constantly said no. To opposing managers, he was the impossible dream. To other team's fans, he was a traveling one-man show that gained your respect.
Smith's glove was so good, people forgot about his crafty work in the field with a helmet on and a bat in his hands. He averaged 37 stolen bases per season over his career, smacked five or more triples in eight different seasons, and hit .262 over his 19-year career. The 75+ Wins Above Replacement can be mostly attributed to his defense, but the man could hurt another team in multiple ways on the offensive side of the sport.
Outside of the machine-like work on the field, Smith had a personality that included endless smiles, brash confidence, and a knowledge of how to play the game. He helped teammates but wasn't afraid to voice a concern or stand up in a time of need. Playing with Smith carried a reverence that couldn't be touched or explained in depth. It was just there, living and breathing.
He wasn't a saint. The 1996 controversy with playing time involving Royce Clayton, whom then-manager Tony La Russa named the starting shortstop, helped create a rift between Smith and the team that lasted for years. In his final season, Smith played just 82 games, which is ironic being that was the year he debuted in St. Louis. Some things don't end the way they should, with a guy choosing when the field no longer belongs to him.
22 years later, fans remember Smith as a legend and Clayton as a guy who played the position for a period of time. That's a legacy. Here's something else. Smith is a Hall of Famer in Cooperstown and a legend to this day in St. Louis. That's not bad work for a former 7th round and 4th round draft pick.
The funny thing is, at 64, Smith could probably still play the position for an inning or two. He regularly makes stops in Jupiter to help Cards and can still pick it and sling it. Sometimes, the great ones stick around, instruct the youth, and find new ways to hang around the game.
Smith represents the birthright of my love for baseball and its sustained endurance in my life. His appeal doesn't die or hinder relevance with age. I'll show my son clips of his work and talk about the amazing talent that covered shortstop 14+ seasons. Will the Cardinals ever have a shortstop maintain the position for that long again? Probably not.
Baseball may never see another Wizard again, at least not in my lifetime. Whether you were a Cardinal fan or a purveyor of his talents from afar, Smith had and kept your attention. He's one of a kind.
I'm 36 years old as 2018 wraps up, but I can easily remember the sound on the radio as a kid in my dad's car when Smith made a great play.
They say legends never die. With Ozzie Smith, that may just be true.