By Mike Shannon
“Living Legend.” The name of Louisville Slugger’s prestigious award says it all. And the latest all-time baseball great to receive the honor is Hall of Fame shortstop extraordinaire Osborne Earl Smith, better known as “Ozzie.”
Now in its eighth year, the Living Legend Award ceremony, which takes place on a Friday night, is the kickoff to what has quickly become one of the most important hot stove league events on the baseball calendar. It is followed the next morning by a major sale of vintage baseball memorabilia, auctioned off by Hunt Auctions.
This year’s Living Legend Award gala was held on Nov. 14, attended by approximately 250 people who were able, before and after the ceremony, to peruse in person many of the more exotic items that were to be auctioned the next morning, such as an autographed team photo of the 1927 N.Y. Yankees.
Living Legend, indeed
Ozzie’s credentials as a baseball great are unquestionable. He set Major League records for assists and double plays by a shortstop, won a record 13 Gold Glove Awards for fielding excellence and became the first modern player to be voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame (2002) primarily as a defensive player.
His penchant for acrobatic, hit-robbing plays earned him the sobriquet “The Wizard,” and his stellar defense in the middle of the diamond helped lead the St. Louis Cardinals to three pennants and the 1982 World Championship.
Ozzie was also no patsy in the batter’s box. After some rough years with the San Diego Padres (1978-81) at the start of his major league career, the switch-hitting Smith continually improved at the plate with the Cardinals. Never a long ball bomber, he hit one of the most important and dramatic home runs in Cardinals’ history, a walk-off job in Game 5 that propelled St. Louis to victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1985 NLCS. Smith won the Silver Slugger Award in 1987 when he batted .303 with 182 hits (both career highs), and he collected 2,460 base knocks over his 19-year career.
Beyond his accomplishments on the diamond, Ozzie was a perfect choice for the Living Legend Award because he has remained a role model for kids and adults alike. He has consistently conducted himself as a gentleman, has donated his time and energy to numerous good causes and has never let his fans down.
As Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory Vice President and Executive Director Anne Jewell said, “Ozzie Smith was a dynamic player, and everything he does to give back makes us truly proud to have him as a part of the Louisville Slugger family. The Living Legend Award was created to honor a player who exemplifies greatness both on and off the field, and Ozzie is definitely a terrific representative on both fronts.”
Prior to the public portion of the program, Ozzie was treated to a personal tour of the Louisville Slugger factory, and he enjoyed being shown how the famous bats are actually made so much that he sent out several tweets and photos to that effect (OzzieSmith@STLWizard).
Next came a brief press conference, which Ozzie inaugurated by joking that he was particularly happy to be able to qualify for the “living” part of the award. Then it was on to one of the larger rooms in the museum, set up for the ceremony, for a meet-and-greet as guests ate and drank and an energetic jazz trio provided perfect background music.
For almost an hour the patient and personable Smith graciously posed for pictures with attendees. Autographs were not allowed, but no one seemed to mind, most likely because Ozzie was so generous with something better than an autograph: Himself. One fan, a local graphic artist named Steve Douglas (of heroesofyesterday.com), presented Ozzie with a matted print of a portrait which Douglas had done of the great Cardinals shortstop.
After opening remarks by Jewell and David Hunt, the auctioneer, a video of Smith’s career highlights was shown on a screen next to the stage. A poem written by this author (not “the other Mike Shannon” who played for the Cardinals) specially for the occasion and read by someone with the basso of a Johnny Cash provided the soundtrack for the video. The crowd roared its approval at seeing footage of a couple of Smith’s signature fielding plays, and laughed at a Montreal Expos’ player ruefully shaking his head after being robbed by The Wizard.
After the video, local TV anchor/reporter and die-hard Cardinals fan Joe Arnold reminisced about his fondest memories of Ozzie’s career, called Ozzie to the stage and then presented him with his Living Legend Award, a beautiful 10K gold ring in a handsome wooden display box. The ring was “specially designed to have personal meaning for Ozzie Smith.” As such it highlights on its shanks Smith’s 13 Gold Gloves, 15 All-Star Games, Hall of Fame induction and his jersey number, No. 1. The ring has ½ carat of diamonds in a crossed bat and ball field design over black onyx; and, as Arnold let the audience know, the inside of the ring is inscribed with Joe Buck’s memorable call of Ozzie’s big home run: “Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!”
After receiving a standing ovation, Smith issued appropriate thanks all around and began to talk about his career.
He joked about cheating himself out of money at the beginning of his career, pointing out that after rejecting an offer of $8,500 from Detroit, he later signed with San Diego for “$5,000 and a bus ticket to Walla Walla, Washington.” He admitted that as a young professional he questioned his abilities, as everyone does. (“Was I good enough? Was I as good as I thought I was?”) He was amazed when the Padres traded him, straight-up, for Garry Templeton, “a five-tool player.” Doubts or not, he made it clear he was thrilled about the trade, saying “I knew I was going to a club with the opportunity to win. The move changed my life and gave me the opportunity to experience things I never would have in San Diego. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity to play for the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization.”
Speaking about the Cardinals’ organization put Smith in mind of the vaulted “Cardinals Way” of doing things and of the deceased George Kissell, the grandfatherly coach who instilled into so many young St. Louis players over the years the Cardinals’ insistence on fundamentals.
The memory of the beloved Kissell spurred thoughts about the recent tragic death of Oscar Taveras, the talented young player the Cardinals had been counting on to blossom into a superstar. Ozzie quickly mentioned the Cardinals had other young players that “we’ll depend on in the future,” but it was a sad moment nevertheless. And so, before it turned into a eulogy, he said, “Let’s open it up for questions and have a little fun.”
That seemed to be exactly what the crowd had been waiting to hear, and for the next half-hour or so Ozzie fielded questions from fans eager to pick his brain. The questions ranged from the personal to the professional and often involved Smith’s likes/favorites or his dislikes/least favorites. He gave honest, thoughtful and often witty answers.
Twice, he was asked about the famous backflips he used to do before each game, and after a young boy asked him in the second instance if he could still do a backflip, Ozzie took a step or two toward the edge of the stage as if he were really going to try one! As he pulled up, saying that he’d strained a muscle doing his last backflip in 2005 (“and it wasn’t pretty”), the fake start brought a hearty laugh from the audience. After about 25 queries, a question about Pete Rose and his chances for reinstatement turned into a reflection on the use of performance-enhancing drugs and elicited a somber, insightful reply, which seemed to be the perfect place to bring the session to a close.
“Baseball has always been real, and with the steroid era, it got to a point where we didn’t know any longer what was real,” he said.
Being real, giving 100 percent every day and making baseball a better game than it was before he arrived on the scene, was never a problem for Ozzie Smith. After another standing ovation as Ozzie left the stage, Jewell thanked everyone for coming and reminded the crowd about the special red Ozzie Smith Living Legend commemorative bats for sale in the gift shop ( firstname.lastname@example.org).
At the conclusion of the evening, Jewell summed up the prevalent feelings about the guest of honor by saying: “Ozzie had one of the strongest connections I’ve ever seen with our guests. His openness and honesty during the impromptu question-and-answer session was refreshing and brave. We’ll all be talking about this night and reflecting on his inspiring words for years to come.”
Q: What’s your favorite restaurant in St. Louis?
A: Well, there is a place called “Ozzie Smith’s” … For Italian, it’s Mano’s, but I’m not gonna tell you where it is because I don’t want you all to go there (so it gets too crowded).
Q: Who was the best player you ever played against?
A: Andre Dawson was a great player. I played with Dave Winfield, and he was a great one. Tony Gwynn … Barry Bonds when he was younger.
Q: What advice do you have for young players?
A: There has to be sacrifice … a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and without those things there can be no success.
Q: Did you know that home run (the walk-off against the Dodgers in the 1985 NLCS) was going out?
A: Heck no! I knew I hit it well, but I wasn’t sure until I saw it hit.
Q: Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?
A: Oh, boy, there were a lot of them. Guys like Nolan Ryan and Fergie Jenkins. Dave Palmer of the Expos, he was tough for me. He hid the ball well and he had a big curveball that was tough to see in the place they played. The Expos had a lot of guys with big downward-breaking curve balls that were tough to follow. I thank Whitey Herzog for letting me learn to hit against some of the best pitchers in the history of the game.
Q: How can you get over 1985 (the painful loss in the World Series to the K.C. Royals) when we can’t?
A: You got to let it go. It hurts at the time, but over the years you learn to joke about things like that with other players. George Brett (of the Royals) is a good friend of mine now. And (former Dodgers’ manager) Tommy Lasorda, whenever I see him, he says, “How the heck did you hit that home run!”
Q: What was your favorite ballpark?
A: Hmm, not really sure. I know I didn’t like Candlestick Park. The wind changes the game. Willie Mays … what a great player he was. Who knows how many home runs he would have hit if he hadn’t played in Candlestick Park.
Q: Did you prefer playing on turf or grass?
A: It didn’t really matter to me. I found out I could cover more ground on turf because I could play deeper. The ball gets to you faster on turf. Speaking of great players … the best first baseman I’ve ever seen was Keith Hernandez. He saved me from so many throwing errors.
Q: Who was the biggest influence on your life?
A: My mom. In high school I was a better basketball player than a baseball player. I was a walk-on in college at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. When I saw everybody else but me getting drafted into pro ball, I got a little discouraged. I thought, “When will it be my turn?” My mom kept telling me, “Keep yourself in a position to take advantage of your opportunity when it comes. Be ready when it’s your turn.” Mine came in 1977 … when my dream came true. u
Mike Shannon is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.