How about this for real Americana? Couple of little guys named Smith. Unrelated but friends. Nicest people you'd ever hope to meet. Play on the same sandlot baseball team. Drift apart. Take separate routes to the majors. And—wouldn't you know it?—years later they're on the same team and turn it into the scourge of the division, with a winning streak that reached 12 games last Saturday.
Yes, it's a heartwarming story, as long as your rooting interest is the St. Louis Cardinals and your heroes are Centerfielder Lonnie Smith, late of the Phillies, and Shortstop Ozzie Smith, a former Padre. After the streak ended on Sunday in an 8-4 loss to Philadelphia, the Cards still led the National League East by three games.
At week's end Lonnie Smith, 26, 5'9", 170 pounds, led the league in steals (11) and runs (15) and ranked high in average (.324), runs batted in (13), homers (3), on-base percentage (.427) and hits (23). Ozzie Smith, 27, 5'10", 150, was hitting .333, had stolen four bases and was fielding exceptionally well. Together, the Smiths were galvanizing their teammates and demoralizing the opposition. Consider the events in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia last week.
On Wednesday night St. Louis was trailing Pittsburgh 1-0 in the fifth inning. Then the Pirates went to sleep—or did they? Ozzie Smith led off by reaching second on a pop fly that Leftfielder Mike Easier let drop near the line. Cardinal Pitcher Steve Mura bunted hard to First Baseman Jason Thompson, who instinctively threw to third. Trouble was, Ozzie's as intelligent a base runner as he is a fielder. Realizing he probably would have been tagged out at third, he retreated to second. His circumspection was wise. Cardinal Second Baseman Tommy Herr promptly doubled home Mura and Ozzie, and reached third himself when Rightfielder Dave Parker played Wally-ball with the carom. Herr then scored on Keith Hernandez' sacrifice fly. The Cardinals eventually won 6-2, wrapping up the scoring when Lonnie Smith, running with the pitch, scored from second on a force play.
May 2, 1982
Afterward, the shell-shocked Thompson blamed poor Pirate hitting for the loss. Pittsburgh Manager Chuck Tanner knew better. "A team that runs well makes it tough on the defense," he said. "That's what happened tonight."
Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog dearly loves the running game, but last year his players stole only 88 bases in 103 games. Inspired by the Smiths, the 1982 Cardinals stole 26 bases in the first 17 games; they may run more aggressively than any team in baseball. At Veterans Stadium Saturday afternoon, the Cards were losing 3-1 in the sixth when their running game took off. With two outs and Rightfielder George Hendrick on first, Leftfielder Dane Iorg hit a shot up the gap in left center. Hendrick, who is 6'3", 195 and doesn't look particularly fast, never stopped chugging and beat the throw home. "The key is how a player comes into third," says Third Base Coach Chuck Hiller, whose marching orders can be summed up in two words: Send 'em. "Too many guys slow down before they get there." Iorg took second on the throw and scored on a single by Third Baseman Ken Oberkfell, who in turn took second on a wild pitch. When Ozzie Smith singled to right, Oberkfell was thrown out at home. Well, two out of three ain't bad.
In the eighth the Cardinals were at it again. Iorg reached on an infield hit, David Green ran for him and stole second, and Oberkfell was intentionally passed. Ozzie loaded the bases with a single. Pinch hitter Orlando Sanchez drove home what proved to be the winning run with a soft grounder that couldn't be turned into a double play. Lonnie added two insurance runs with another base hit, and St. Louis won 7-4.
After the game, the Cardinals were exuberant. "It's just like at K.C.—boogieing on the bases!" said Catcher Darrell Porter, who has played under Herzog four-plus years as a Royal and Cardinal. "That's the way to be an aggressive coach," Hernandez told Hiller. "If you hadn't sent George home, I'd have strangled you."
Obviously, the Smiths weren't winning games all by themselves. Hernandez was off to his best start (.355), and Hendrick had four homers and 13 RBIs. The speedy Green, an outfielder, is shuffled into the lineup like a sixth man in basketball. The bullpen, led by Bruce Sutter (six saves in his first nine appearances), is as sound as ever, and the rotation is vastly improved with the acquisition of San Diego's Mura (2-0) and the stellar work of Joaquin Andujar (2-1, 2.03 ERA).
Andujar was obtained last June in a trade with Houston. During his SXA years with the Astros his behavior had been as erratic as his pitching. At various times he showered with his uniform on, poured milk on his head, fought with Cesar Cedeno, his best friend on the team, and batted left or right depending on how he felt, not who was pitching. Since joining the Cardinals he has shown control both on and off the field. His overall record with St. Louis is 8-2, and this season he has overcome his occasional propensity for wildness by walking only two batters in 31 innings. "He's not showboating; he's got his head together," says Pitching Coach Hub Kittle, who has taught Andujar how to change speeds. Says a teammate, "Some people play well when they're yelled at, but Jack needs to be appreciated."
The Smiths, of course, are the final pieces in the jigsaw puzzle Herzog has been putting together since coming to the Cardinals during the 1980 season. He decided early on that speed and relief pitching would produce a winner at Busch Memorial Stadium, notable for its long power alleys and artificial turf. He therefore traded Third Baseman Ken Reitz and Catcher Ted Simmons and promoted or acquired Porter, Sutter and Herr. In 1981 St. Louis had the best overall record in the division. Before this season, Herzog traded middling pitchers Lary Sorensen and Silvio Martinez and malcontent Shortstop Garry Templeton and Sixto Lezcano, a disappointment in the outfield, for Mura and the Smiths.
Herzog is a blunt man who inspires affection by treating all his players the same and giving them free rein on the field. They don't complain, and as Whitey would have it, they don't make much of a fuss, win or lose.
"Lonnie's our catalyst," says Herzog. In seven of the eight games Lonnie has led off by reaching base, he has scored, and the Cardinals won each time. Catalyst, indeed.
Lonnie's offense was always a given: He averaged .321 in his more than two years with the Phillies; now that he has learned to pull, he could be even better. His defense, however, has been spotty. It seems he kept falling down on the job. Lonnie's nickname in the minors was Skates. Philadelphians swear they saw him trip over the foul lines. When he was introduced before his former home crowd last Friday night, the Phillie Phanatic mimicked him by hitting the deck. And, perhaps just for old times' sake, Smith fell down while chasing a ball on Saturday.
In spring training Lonnie tortured Card watchers by playing a sloppy game in unmatched shoes. Then, to the groans of thousands, he dropped the first fly ball hit his way in St. Louis. But since then he has played a solid—at times even excellent—defense, despite having to switch from center to left every time Green is inserted as a late-inning replacement for Iorg.
"Our scouting reports said Lonnie was a more than adequate centerfielder in the minors," says Herzog. Iorg, who played with him in Oklahoma City, says, "He used to fall down a lot, for no apparent reason, and he'd sometimes make a glaring error. They'd hold it against him, forgetting all the good things he could do."
"I never played good defense in Philadelphia because I was afraid I'd be sent down," Lonnie says. "I'd only play if someone was hurt or if they were mad at him. I was too scared to steal and I used to daydream in the field. The Cardinals didn't tell me to play good defense. They just said to hit, steal bases and do my best in the outfield. I'm playing better because I'm more confident." He laughed. "And because I have only one pair of spikes."
The book on Lonnie is being rewritten posthaste. "He charges the ball as well as any outfielder in the league, and he isn't afraid to take chances," says Cub G.M. Dallas Green, who managed Smith in Philadelphia. Herzog maintains that Lonnie breaks up the double play with the best of them. Iorg says, "He's always had great speed and desire. When you combine that with his hitting, you've got a great ballplayer."
Ozzie Smith, in contrast, has always been known for his defense. In 1980 he set a major league record for shortstops, with 621 assists. "Templeton has better range and a stronger arm than Ozzie, but Ozzie has outstanding hands and a more accurate throwing arm," says Herzog. "Most guys think you have to come out with a cannon and blow away the first baseman," says Ozzie, who is so loose he can sing Talkin' Baseball while being interviewed. "That's not true. I just try to make my throws quick and accurate."
On April 13, St. Louis beat the Cubs 4-3 as Ozzie clubbed his first homer in 1,772 at bats, Andujar hit safely for the first time in two seasons and Sutter pitched spectacularly in relief. Later, when somebody asked Herzog what had surprised him most, he replied, "That Ozzie booted one." It was Smith's only error in 94 chances this season.
Ozzie's lifetime average of .231 through 1981 had given him a poor reputation as a hitter. Unfairly, he believes, because he has a knack for getting walks and stealing bases. "Last year, I only had 37 strikeouts in 450 at bats," he says. "So I wasn't a hopeless case."
On Ozzie's first day as a Cardinal he approached coaches Hiller and Dave Ricketts and asked them for help with his hitting. "The main thing they told me," says Ozzie, "was to stay on top of the ball. I don't have a great deal of power, so I have to utilize my speed. I do that by keeping the ball on the ground."
"I've never seen anyone work so hard," says Hiller. "He's the classiest big-leaguer you'll ever see."
Neither Smith ever thought he'd be a big-leaguer at all. They grew up 10 miles apart—Ozzie in East Los Angeles, Lonnie in Compton. Ozzie says he was "in awe" of even the semipros who played in the park across the street from his house. Lonnie says, "All I ever wanted was to be six feet tall. I have a 5'10" younger brother, a 5'11" sister and a 6'2" older brother. I guess I was the pip-squeak."
The Smiths eventually met when they were teen-agers on a Connie Mack team. Lonnie played center, Ozzie shortstop. "I always knew Ozzie could pick it [field]," says Lonnie. "We called him the Whiz."
And that was his problem: Ozzie was a Punch-and-Judy hitter and defensive specialist, hardly the stuff to light up the eyes of big league scouts. While Ozzie was being overshadowed at Locke High School by Eddie Murray, Lonnie was making a name for himself at Centennial. Lonnie was the Phillies' first-round draft choice in 1974. Ozzie, who wasn't drafted after high school, spent four years simmering at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.
"I don't think I was any better when I got out of college than I was when I finished high school," Ozzie says, "but I've always believed in myself. My mother, Marvella, used to tell me, 'When it's your time, it's your time.' " Although the Tigers drafted him in the seventh round after his junior year, he stayed in school and pursued a degree in social sciences (he's 30 units short). A fourth-round draft choice of the Padres in 1977, he signed, hit .303 and fielded well one year in the minors, and was the Padres' regular at the start of the next season. He stayed with that woebegone team four years, doing community service and saying things like: "It would be great to finish my career where I started it."
Ozzie began to feel differently last year when he asked for a substantial raise and the Padres wanted to cut him by $60,000. After two months of negotiation with Ozzie's agent, Ed Gottlieb, the Cardinals traded Templeton for him on the understanding that Smith's case would go to arbitration. He asked for $750,000, the Cardinals offered $450,000, and the arbitrator decided on the lower figure. So Ozzie lost—if a 50% raise is losing.
As he tells it, being in first place is compensation enough. "Coming over here enabled me to experience winning," he says. "At 27 I was tired of talking about 'five years down the road.' "
What kind of guys are the Smiths? Asked how he's doing, Lonnie mentions the health of his wife and two children. Ozzie, with a straight face, says "It's great to be a Cardinal."
Great for the Cardinals, too. "You know how good they are?" asks St. Louis Coach Red Schoendienst. "I had a cold and I sat down next to them. The Smith Brothers made me well."