The last few years of baseball have brought a tremendous amount of change to the game in a short period of time, but has all of it been for good? That’s the question that Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith wants the fans to answer. The former Cardinals great has partnered with Kingsford Charcoal to start the conversation about what people like most about baseball—home runs, dominant pitching, amazing glove work, or even something else entirely. Join the conversation via Twitter (using the hashtag #BestofBaseball) or Facebook, and you’ll be given a chance to win a VIP trip to the 2017 All-Star Game. For more information, go here.
As part of his fact-finding expedition, the Wizard of Oz talked to SI.com about what he likes most in baseball, whether the game has a pace of play problem, his issues with instant replay, what he thinks is wrong with his St. Louis Cardinals, and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What do you think is good about the game of baseball in 2017?
Beyond the great shortstops we have, one thing that’s always been one of my pet peeves is that when you start making changes to the game, you don't think about the effect that it has. One of the most exciting parts of the game for me was watching people like Billy Martin or Lou Piniella or managers in general getting into arguments with umpires on calls. That's always been part of the entertainment of the game. But because of the advent of instant replay, that's one part of the game that's changed. As a player, it was always entertaining to me to see how infuriated a person could get, and they got that way because they cared so much about the game and winning.
Is there a favorite memory of yours of a manager going nuts on an umpire?
I mentioned Piniella; he was one of those guys who'd come out and kick dirt on home plate and picked up [bases] and threw them. That was always part of baseball, because you cared so much. That part is gone now because of instant replay. Instant replay, originally, the intent was good, to determine if the ball was fair or foul or if it went out of the ballpark. But I think that what we've done now is we've taken it so far that we question every call that's out there. Those are the types of things that were put in place to try to speed the game up and in actuality slowed the game down.
So how would you fix instant replay?
There are some parts of this game that are natural, and the human element in this game is what made it unique. You're not going to get every call right. Instant replay, you could probably implement it more in the postseason. When you go beyond that, now you're starting to interfere with the natural order of what the game is all about. That's where the game has changed a lot. I wouldn't have replay on every play.
You played in an era when the game went by faster, but do you think it's too slow or needs to be sped up?
I've always believed that baseball had its own cadence, its own timeframe. But when you implement the instant replay and have the ability to question every play, that's what slows the game down. The fact that we're looking into the dugout to see whether it's safe or out, or all those challenges, you're up against a timeframe. You add time when you have all of these stoppages.
You mentioned earlier that there are a lot of great young shortstops in this game. Are there any who remind you of a young Ozzie Smith?
I think the guys today are expected to give a lot more offensively than the prototypical shortstops who were around when I played. In terms of guys who can blend offense and defense, I look at Alcides Escobar. Last year, we had a chance to see Francisco Lindor on the stage for the first time and realized how talented he is. The stability in San Francisco comes from Brandon Crawford, who doesn't get a lot of pub. These guys are all good offensive players and good defensive players. But I don't know if it's fair to expect them to be able to give you all the offense you're looking for and still cover as much ground as a prototypical shortstop because a lot of these guys are a lot bigger, a lot stronger and probably don't cover as much ground. But they're very surehanded and they make the routine plays everyday, and that's what's really important to a team. That gives a pitching staff a level of confidence it may not otherwise have had. When a pitcher knows that he doesn’t have to strike a guy out to get a guy out, that makes it a lot easier.
Of those good young shortstops right now, who stands out in your mind as the No. 1 guy in the league?
I don't know if you can say No. 1 because they're all different in their own rights. They present the special things their teams need. All those guys are very capable. Lindor, last year was a big year for him, getting to the big stage and being able to perform. Crawford over the last five years has proven that he's one of those guys. And Andrelton Simmons is still improving and still very young. Those three guys are the ones that really impress me with their ability and consistency.
It seems like MLB has more young stars than it can count, but it seems like the game is struggling to find a way to market those guys and make them household names.
You're right on. I think the NFL has done a much better job marketing football than MLB has with baseball. We've got to do a better job of marketing these young players that we have. That's one of the challenges Mr. Manfred has, being better at marketing the game. I think we certainly have the people to do it with. It's not as simple as "Put a guy on a billboard here." But I see it getting better; we just have to get to that next level. We certainly have the talent in this business and enough young people. If we can get the young people, especially from a social media standpoint, I think that's how it's going to be done. Social media is such an important part of this society and this group of young people. That's where the change is really going have to come.
How do you think baseball can get people involved on social media?
That's part of what this promotion is about. It's about getting people to talk about what they love about the game and what they don't like and getting the ideas of what people are looking for. That's where it starts, with programs like this, so we can see what it is people have interest in and the things that are going to ingratiate them more into the game itself.
Your St. Louis Cardinals are off to a bit of a rough start so far. What do you think is their biggest issue so far?
Other than hitting, running, throwing, catching, pitching...
I'll put that down as "Everything," then.
[Laughs] It's one of those things where you've got to put all of those things together. When you don't, you end up struggling like they are. But by this time next week, maybe they've won six or seven in a row, and then you're just like everybody else. You're not that far out, as bad as it may seem right now, and if you can run off four or five games in a row, you're still in the hunt. It's 162 games, and it's a long way to the end.
How hard is it when you're in one of those slides as a team to get out of it?
It starts with each person. If I go out and I do my job and you go out and do yours, and everybody concentrates on doing the best they can do that day, that's where it all starts. You look around, and overnight, things can change for you. It starts with all of the little things, making the routine plays, and that's how you get yourself out of a slump. It goes back to good fundamentals; if you don't have them, that makes it extremely tough.