I loved the Tigers kicking the Yankees out of the playoffs; Gus Hoppel loved it even more! Regarding my two hometown teams, L.A. and St. Louis, only one got to the MLB final four; you know who I’m pulling for. All four final teams have outstanding GM’s and field managers, and it shows!
Story of the Week
THE ONGOING RIFT BETWEEN OZZIE AND LaRUSSA
Ozzie Smith is the greatest shortstop who ever played the game. I love Ozzie
Smith. A picture of Ozzie hangs on my office wall. Smith and Tony LaRussa have
been at odds for 10 years. I’ve disliked LaRussa since their problem began. But
a very comprehensive article written by Jeff Gordon in the St.
Louis Post-Dispatch on May 22 of this year has given me a new perspective,
and one that makes me even understand both men. If anything, I would now suggest
to Ozzie that he reevaluate the situation in 1996, and place himself in
LaRussa’s shoes, just as I have.
BY JEFF GORDON
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
The Ozzie Smith-Tony LaRussa rift is sad, but totally understandable.
It’s sad that Ozzie, one of the 20th-century sports icons in St. Louis, has chosen to exile himself from the Cardinals because he had to spend his final season playing behind the immortal Royce Clayton. And it’s sad that LaRussa lets Ozzie’s long-running lament get under his skin.
These guys are like forces of nature -- and sometimes forces of nature collide. All we can do is sit back and watch it unfold.
* Back in 1996, the Cardinals didn’t have a young shortstop ready to step in for Smith. The year before, Ozzie batted .199 and missed much of the season with a severe shoulder injury. Since he was turning 41, retirement appeared to be an option.
Ideally, the Cards would have had a kid prepared for graduation. That way, if Smith couldn’t make it back, the team would have been covered.
And if Smith somehow rebounded -– as he did -– the kid could have spent another year at the Class AAA level or shared some of the workload as Ozzie’s acolyte.
* Instead, the Cards covered themselves by acquiring the good (at the time), but not great, Clayton. When Smith tapped his enormous pride and boundless determination to stage an amazing comeback, LaRussa, the new manager, fell into an untenable situation.
Management didn’t trade away Smith for what could be the final season of his glorious career. Ozzie had done too much for the franchise and was way too popular for that.
So LaRussa was stuck with two shortstops, including a destined Hall of Famer who was definitely NOT ready to step aside as a full-time player.
* When LaRussa made the standard managerial statement that the best Cards shortstop in the spring would emerge as No. 1, Smith embraced the challenge and outhit Clayton. Ozzie based his case for the starting job on his superior spring training statistics.
But Clayton offered better range, arm strength, base-running speed and durability. So he got more work.
* LaRussa did an artful job of giving Smith a key role in the ’96 team. Ozzie hit .282 as a half-time player and finished his career and got one final crack at the playoffs.
Would he have hit .282 playing full-time? Probably not. Would he have held up physically playing full-time? Probably not.
Some players would have realized all that and appreciated this respectful treatment. But Smith will never, EVER believe that he was EVER a part-time player.
He willed himself to greatness, transforming himself from a light-hitting defensive star into a well-rounded perennial All-Star. Ozzie is not normal. He does not come with an “off” switch.
That is why he is in the Hall of Fame . . . and that is why he will never let go of the ’96 season.
* When Smith elected to retire rather than pursue a full-time job elsewhere in 1997, the above questions went unanswered. I expected Ozzie to go someplace else and hit .280 out of spite. But he didn’t -– proving that LaRussa’s assessment was the correct one.
The Wizard was no longer a full-time player after all.
* Clayton did well to hit .277 that season, playing in the shadow of the very unhappy Smith. That was Royce’s finest hour in his otherwise ordinary career. How he did so well under those circumstances remains a mystery.
* Once he retired, Smith started undermining LaRussa. An interview here, a television comment there . . . Ozzie couldn’t help himself. This wasn’t a comprehensive anti-LaRussa campaign, it was just seeping bitterness.
Initially, Smith got some play with sympathetic fans -– especially since the Cards weren’t a perennial playoff team during the first half of LaRussa’s tenure. Tony wasn’t Whitey Herzog, so Ozzie’s words rang true with those fans still living in the 1980s.
* With each passing year, though, Ozzie’s lament becomes less relevant. Albert Pujols dominates the landscape now -– and he could become even bigger than the Wizard ever was. Albert is becoming Stan Musial without the harmonica and the folksy charm.
And LaRussa has won over most of Cardinal Nation. He isn’t the enemy anymore. Hard-core fans respect his commitment to winning and they understand his methods better. They have gotten to know him better as a person, too, which is critical.
* Given his overdue acceptance in St. Louis, LaRussa has lowered his guard. There is no reason to be defensive. He took the high road on Ozzie, sharing many positive thoughts about Ozzie with P-D baseball scribe Rick Hummel for the centerpiece story in Sunday’s paper.
LaRussa paid Smith the proper respects.
* At the end of the day, though, LaRussa remains every bit as proud as Ozzie. He, like Smith, has tapped his supernatural determination to build a historic career. LaRussa manages a 162-game season with an intensity that rivals NFL coaches. He, too, lacks an “off” switch.
So just as Ozzie can’t let go of what happened back in ’96, Tony couldn’t allow the comments he read in the Post-Dispatch and/or STLTODAY.com to slide. He just couldn't.
Hence the unfortunate standoff.
Decades from now, when both men are long gone, their Hall of Fame plaques will still be glaring at each other at Cooperstown.
Last Week’s Trivia
Archie Moore had the most knockout victories in his pro boxing career. His 129 ko’s spanned 27 years from 1936 to 1963.
Trivia Question of the Week
Does the name John Berwanger ring a bell? It should ring two bells. See next week’s Sports Junkie for the answer.