Ozzie Smith looks only mildly apprehensive as he swings his brown Chevy van into the Ballwin Plaza shopping center, west of St. Louis. He knows, of course, that inside Schnucks supermarket—The Friendliest Store in Town—legions of autograph-seekers avidly await his arrival. For most ballplayers the prospect of striding into such a beehive of fans would be regarded with the same foreboding as that of batting against Nolan Ryan at Wrigley Field at midnight. But Smith appears relatively placid. He has an oval, large-featured face that, with his Fu Manchu-ish mustache and beard, has a vaguely Asian cast to it. No horror, not even an attack by autograph hounds, can ruffle his infinite calm.
This is an article from the Sept. 28, 1987 issue
And any misgivings Smith may have entertained evaporate with the prompt appearance at his van window of two smartly tailored young men who identify themselves as aides to Michael Duffy, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Vess beverage company, sponsor of Ozzie Smith Day at the store. Smith, wearing a red jumpsuit, hops nimbly out of the van and cheerfully surrenders himself to these functionaries. "I do some promotional work for Vess," he says, "and my only concern with these sessions is that there's somebody around to get me in and out quickly. Otherwise, softy that I am, I'd be here all day. I know a lot of players look at this as being thrown to the wolves, but all these people here in the store want is to say they've met Ozzie Smith. And I'd like them to be able to say afterward, 'Hey, no big deal. This guy's just like us.' And I am. The only thing that makes me different is what I do and that I do it in front of so many people."
Duffy, oozing camaraderie, meets Smith at one of the Schnucks entranceways and hustles him over to a table beneath a red-and-white Cardinals banner. A glass of Vess cream soda—one of the company's 16 flavors—and a stack of photographs of himself are set before Smith, and the line of fans, which snakes past the floral, cosmetics, pharmaceutical and dairy departments, is commanded to move forward. Everybody in it seems to have a word or more to share with Smith.
"You're my favorite, Ozzie," says a brunet woman in running shorts, feebly searching for the mot juste. "You're so wonderful." Smith smiles and signs a picture for her. "Hey, he's smiling," the woman's young son says, as if surprised that this celestial being should favor them so.
"Ozzie, I was just in the rottenest mood this week," the next woman in line confides. Smith looks concerned. "And then I got a divorce." He signs a picture for her.
An elderly man hands him a white pith helmet that has a paper Cardinal fastened to its crown. "Ozzie, take this down to the clubhouse, will ya, and get all the team to sign it." Smith happily signs the headgear, then tells the old-timer that any request for autographs from the rest of the Cardinals must first be cleared by the club's public relations office.
The line hasn't gotten any shorter after an hour or so of this, so Duffy cuts it off. "Somebody's got to be the bad guy," he says. "We could be here eight hours, and Ozzie'd still be signing autographs. I tell you, his popularity is incredible. He's such an accommodating person, so genuine. He's had a tremendous impact on this community. He's a hero who really deserves to be a hero."
And what a hero he is in and around St. Louis. The Wizard of Oz. Ah-ZEE! Ah-ZEE! The man can scarcely step on the artificial turf of Busch Stadium before the chant begins. Other players get standing ovations for great plays; Smith gets civic demonstrations. Then again, his great plays really are great. And they have to be, because Smith is no home run hitter; he's a glove guy who has captured a whole city. St. Louis has always been what's called "a good baseball town," but Smith has made it a better one. It's no mere coincidence that since he arrived for the 1982 season, the Cardinals have drawn considerably more than two million in attendance every year. Last week they broke their record of 2,637,563, set in 1985, a pennant year. Sure, Smith isn't the only attraction—just the main one.
What he does on the field must be seen to be believed. He routinely makes such seemingly impossible plays that even some of the other Cardinals are occasionally startled. "I may be his teammate, but I'm also his fan," says second baseman Tommy Herr, who has played alongside Smith for six seasons now. "So many times I'll see the ball leave the bat and say, "O.K., that's a base hit.' And then somehow Ozzie will come up with it. A lot of the time I feel like standing out there and applauding with the rest of the fans. He's head and shoulders above every other shortstop."
Smith robs rich and poor hitters alike. In a 4-0 win over the Reds on Aug. 31, he took two hits away from Eric Davis, who is, in addition to many other things, one of the fastest runners in the game. In the fourth inning Smith ranged far to his left, scooped up Davis's bouncer behind second base and, while still on the dead run toward rightfield, threw him out. That's one of the plays Smith has perfected. Indeed, he throws better on the run than Joe Montana. Then in the ninth, with Tracy Jones on first base, Davis hit another hard shot between third and short. Smith dived full-length for the ball, backhanded it while sliding on his chest, somehow scrambled to his knees and made a perfect throw in time to force Jones at second. "Those were both hits," Davis grumbled the next day. "Nobody else but Ozzie would've gotten either of them."
But these were merely routine plays compared with two that even Smith modestly acknowledges were somewhat out of the ordinary. The first came in San Diego on April 20, 1978, during his rookie year with the Padres. In the fourth inning the Braves' Jeff Burroughs hit a ground ball up the middle. Base hit all the way. Smith, who dives as often as Greg Louganis, hit the dirt, glove extended. But this time the ball took a bad hop and bounced up over his hip. No problem. Smith reached back with his bare hand, caught the ball, climbed to his knees and threw to first in plenty of time to catch the incredulous Burroughs.
The second play, on Aug. 4, 1986, in Busch Stadium, was, if anything, even more acrobatic. With runners on first and second and the score tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth inning, Philadelphia's Von Hayes lofted a blooper to short left-field that looked as if it would drop between Smith and leftfielder Curt Ford for a run-scoring hit. The two Cardinals converged, and each, unaware of the proximity of the other, dived for the ball. A disastrous midair, head-on collision seemed imminent. Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog had a terrible vision of his All-Star shortstop lying inert on the carpet as the ball rolled unimpeded to the fence while two runs scored. But no. In midnight Smith somehow redirected himself away from the hurtling Ford and, stretched prone with his feet toward the infield, reached out and caught the ball. "That was one of the best, if not the best play, I've ever seen," Phillies manager John Felske said afterward. For good measure, Smith scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth on Terry Pendleton's squeeze bunt.
In his 10th season Smith is at the point in his career when the experts are beginning to measure him against the immortals. He has, after all, won seven consecutive Gold Gloves and seems certain to win an eighth this year. "There are a lot of superior athletes at shortstop who can make the great plays," says Herr, "but Ozzie doesn't muff the routine ones, either. And a lot of those other guys do." Smith has averaged fewer errors per chance than any of the 16 shortstops now in the Hall of Fame. This year, through 145 games and more than 700 chances, he had made only nine miscues. Fielding statistics can be misleading, of course; many shortstops have had high fielding percentages because they could not reach a lot of balls. That's not the case with Smith. In 1980, when he had 933 chances, he set a major league record of 621 assists, breaking the mark of 601 set in 1924 by Pittsburgh's Glenn Wright. In six of his nine complete major league seasons Smith has had more than 500 assists and more than 800 chances, impressive totals indeed. The single-season major league record for chances by a shortstop is 984, set in 1922 by Dave (Beauty) Bancroft of the New York Giants.
No wonder no one questions Smith's skills with a glove. Offensively, of course, he is no match for such slugging shortstops as Honus Wagner, Joe Cronin, Travis Jackson, Lou Boudreau, Luke Appling, Ernie Banks, Arky Vaughan and Vern Stephens. He has not been, for that matter, as good a hitter as such contemporaries as Alan Trammell of the Tigers, Cal Ripken Jr. of the Orioles, Tony Fernandez of the Blue Jays or Julio Franco of the Indians. Smith also hasn't had the advantage of playing on legendary teams as did, for example, Frankie Crosetti, Leo Durocher, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and, more recently, Dave Concepcion. Nor has he been part of a historic infield combination, as was Joe Tinker of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame, or Jack Barry, who with Home Run Baker, Eddie Collins and Stuffy McInnis formed the Philadelphia Athletics' $100,000 Infield of 1911-14. Some observers say Smith had his defensive equals in such slick fielders as Bancroft, Rabbit Maranville, Marty (Slats) Marion, Eddie Miller, Luis Aparicio, Roy McMillan and Mark Belanger. There are even those who argue that two of today's shortstops, the Dominican duo of Fernandez and Alfredo Griffin of Oakland, are in Smith's class. Some St. Louis old-timers suggest that Smith isn't even the best shortstop to play in their town, a distinction that they say belongs to old Slats Marion, the Octopus of the 1940s.
Ah, but those who favor Marion are in rapid decline. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll of some 6,350 readers last year, the Wizard beat out the Octopus as the Cardinals' best shortstop ever. He was elected to an alltime Cards' infield that included Sunny Jim Bottomley at first base, Rogers Hornsby at second and Ken Boyer at third. The outfielders were Lou Brock, Stan Musial and Ducky Medwick. Walker Cooper was the catcher, Bob Gibson the starting pitcher and Bruce Sutter the reliever. Fast company for a guy like Smith, who at the time had been in St. Louis for only four seasons. Earlier this year The Baseball Research Journal, taking into account both hitting and fielding, ranked Smith as the fourth-best shortstop of all time, behind only Wagner, Bancroft and Bobby Wallace.
This is all the stuff of fantasy, to be sure, because comparing players from different eras is impossible on the surface of it. And speaking of surfaces, artificial turf has so altered the way the position of shortstop is played as to make such comparisons even more ludicrous. Can one picture Wagner, who liked to grovel in the infield dirt, doing his stuff on a carpet?
Still, Smith gets his kudos both from the old-timers and the newcomers. "He's changed fielding for shortstops," says Hall of Famer Boudreau, now a Cubs broadcaster. "I would have to compare him with Rizzuto and Aparicio, but they never had a chance to play on artificial turf, so who knows how good they would be? Ozzie has mastered artificial turf, and even off it he fields the ball on the run and gets rid of it. In my day, the only time you would throw on the run was when the ball got by the pitcher. He does it on all normal ground balls. He's mastered everything about shortstop by hard work."
"The thing about Ozzie is, if he misses a ball, you assume it's uncatchable," says Mets coach and former shortstop Bud Harrelson. "If any other shortstop misses a ball, your first thought is, 'Would Ozzie have had it?' I'd say Don Kessinger was the premier shortstop of my era—very steady, good range, made all the plays—but Ozzie is definitely a superior shortstop. He's Number 1 on my list."
"The one word to best describe Ozzie is 'spectacular,' " says longtime broadcaster Vin Scully. "Shortstops in the past were never as conspicuous as Ozzie. In the old days you had steady guys like Reese and Marion. You never thought of them making the great play. They were always just there in the right spot. But Ozzie is an acrobat, and that makes him stand out."
Andy MacPhail, the Twins executive vice-president who is the son of former American League president Lee MacPhail and the grandson of the legendary baseball executive Larry MacPhail, has been hearing about the old days longer than he cares to recall. But Smith, he is convinced, has bridged the generation gap: "I've heard scouts talking about modern players, and they'll always say, 'Yeah, but Mickey Mantle could do this,' or 'Willie Mays could do that.' There was always a player in the past who was better. But with Ozzie Smith they always acknowledge that he's the best defensive shortstop they've ever seen. It's never, 'Yeah, but Marty Marion...,' or 'Yeah, but Phil Rizzuto....' "
In one rather important part of the game, Smith is easily head and shoulders above every shortstop who ever played. When he signed a four-year extension of his contract in 1985, he became, at a salary of roughly $2 million a year, by far the richest shortstop ever. And good for him, says at least one old-timer, the revered Marion. "The position is a lot different now," says Slats, who will turn 70 on Dec. 1. "We had those big old heavy uniforms with the sliding pads and those little gloves. And now they play on those artificial fields where you get a true bounce. Frankly, I don't see how they ever miss a ball, do you? But Ozzie is spectacular. For one thing, he can dive for a ball and still get up in time to make the throw. But what he's done best for the position is make people in the game appreciate defense. In my day, unless you hit home runs, they didn't pay you anything. We defensive players were all underpaid. So I was glad to see Ozzie get his money. He's a crowd pleaser, and the fans love him. He deserves it. What he's done is upgrade the glove."
Smith and Vince Coleman are sitting in front of their lockers in the Cardinals clubhouse before a recent game, discussing, among other topics of the day, their relative abilities in Ping-Pong and racquetball—"Vince is a great athlete. Just ask him," says Smith—and, perhaps inevitably, Michael Jackson. "You seen pictures of him lately, Oz?" Coleman inquires.
Smith looks perplexed. "Yes I have," he says, "and I can't believe what I'm seeing." Then he laughs. "Why, that man used to be black and have a big nose like mine. Now, he's all powdered up and pale, and he's had so many face-lifts he's prettier than most women. I mean, I don't mind a guy trying to look different, but, Lord, there's got to be a limit."
Actually, on this occasion Smith looks different: He's holding a bat. And now, right in the middle of the clubhouse, he's swinging it, testing it for heft and balance. "It's the time of year when you go to a lighter model," he says. "This one's 32 inches, 32 ounces. I've always used a heavier bat hitting righthanded [he's a switch-hitter], but when I hurt my shoulder in '85, I used a heavy bat in the off-season to strengthen my hands and wrists. Then in spring training of '86, I went back to the light bat hitting lefty and found I couldn't hit a thing. So I pulled out the heavy bat, and, lo and behold, I found my point of contact again, my comfort zone. So I used the big bat—a 36-inch, 34-ounce model—batting both ways most of the year. But late in the season, when you get a little tired, I go back to a lighter one. Lefty, I'll use this 32-32; righty, I'll go 36-32."
Now, this isn't Wade Boggs talking. Or Tony Gwynn. What does Smith know about bats and batting? Well, quite a bit. In fact, Smith, at 32, is a serious student of hitting, a batter who has improved his offensive performance every year since his arrival in St. Louis. The last two seasons he has hit .276 and .280, and this year he's flirting with .300. In the course of his continuing education he has picked up pointers from hitting coaches and teammates, a hypnotist and an off-duty cop, anybody, in short, who makes sense on the subject. Last winter, in hopes of putting a little more muscle behind his swing, he trained under Mackie Shilstone, the New Orleans physical fitness guru. It was Shilstone who, through diet and weight work, converted Michael Spinks from a light heavyweight into a heavyweight champion and who added 31 pounds to the emaciated physique of 7'6" NBA center Manute Bol.
Smith's problem had been stamina. In six of the nine seasons before this one, he had played more than 150 games, and he led the league with 110 games in the strike-shortened season of 1981. But along about September of each year, his slight frame would begin to sag. Smith, who is 5'10", weighed 148 pounds when he reported to Shilstone's spa last November. Shilstone had him cut back on fried foods, added supplemental shakes and pasta to his diet, and had him run, work out with Nautilus equipment, a medicine ball and free weights. After one week, he weighed 162. He reported to spring training at 167 and had lost none of his formidable agility. Where once he had the build of, say, Fred Astaire, now it was more like Sugar Ray Leonard's: slender but heavily muscled. Through last Saturday he had played in all but two of the Cardinals' 147 games, and he still weighed 155 pounds.
And he has had a bang-up year at the plate. He was hitting 53 points above his preseason career average of .247. He will score 100 runs for the first time, and he is likely to break an unusual Cardinal record by driving in more than 76 runs without hitting a home run, a record for powerless productivity set in 1920 by Milt Stock. With his bigger muscles, Smith has, however, hit 36 doubles, third-best in the National League.
"I have never considered myself a one-dimensional player," says Smith. Nor has his manager. "Ozzie's been a hell of an offensive player, even before this year," says Herzog. "He does a lot of things with the bat—moving runners along, hitting and running—that go unnoticed. He's a much better hitter than people realize." Herzog had enough confidence in Smith's offense to move him from eighth to second in the batting order this season, a move prompted by an injury to Willie McGee's left knee last season. "Willie hasn't been able to steal with that knee," says Herzog, "so I decided to drop him down to fifth in the order. Ozzie gives us the stealing ability, the on-base percentage and the patience batting second."
The move has proved a benison for all parties involved. Coleman, the leadoff man, is having his finest season as a hitter and base stealer with Smith batting behind him. "Yeah," Coleman says jokingly, "but if Ozzie wasn't such a free-swinger, I'd have 150 steals right now."
And there's always Smith's defense. The word he uses most often to describe his work at shortstop is craft, yet he talks about it not as a craftsman but as an artist. "When I'm on the field, I'm there to create, to do as I feel," he says. "Nobody's tried to change my style, because I've always gotten results. I've always thrown on the run. Some people disapprove of that, but I say if you get caught up in the old ways of the game, you'll never excel, particularly when you play on the stuff we play on. The way I do things seems to please people. If it's exciting enough, the fans will want to come back again, and I take that as a real compliment. Yes, I consider it an art form. And I work at it. I just hate to see someone with a lot of talent not work to enhance it. The talent might just as well not be there if it isn't developed. An artist must work."
Smith always has. He was born in Mobile, Ala., the second of six children—five sons and a daughter—born to Clovis and Marvella Smith. The elder Smith, a truckdriver, moved the family to Los Angeles when Ozzie was six. "We lived in south central L.A.," Smith says. "Yes, that's Watts, and I suppose that carries a stigma with it. Well, we never thought of it as a ghetto. We may have grown up in poverty, but the important thing is we worked to make a better life for ourselves. We didn't have a whole lot, but we took care of what we did have. We had a clean house, and we kept trying to make it better. I had fun like all the other kids."
Smith's mother and father separated when he was in junior high, and it was Marvella who raised the family, working full-time in an Armenian nursing home across town. "They were all good children," she can say of her family today. "Well, the boys did tear up the garage every now and then playing wall ball, but they were all well disciplined youngsters, and they did their housework and their studies. And that Ozzie! I tell you, that boy had a ball in his hand all the time. He wanted to play everything, but people were always telling him he was too small. I told him that didn't matter, that if he wanted something, he had to work for it, and because he was small he had to work twice as hard as anybody else. I just told him 'Ozzie, if you want something, go get it.' And he did."
When he wasn't playing ball, Smith and his pals were working on their tumbling skills down in the sawdust pit at the neighborhood lumberyard. "We'd pile up inner tubes and practice doing flips off them into the sawdust," he says. "That was my only training in gymnastics. Just kids doing daredevil things. It was no big deal. Everybody could do it." Somewhat later, of course, those sawdust routines would become a staple of Smith's big league act.
Smith starred in baseball and basketball at Locke High along with his classmate Eddie Murray. Murray, now the Baltimore slugger, was drafted after graduation, as were two other Locke stars, pitcher Darrell Jackson and catcher Gary Alexander. Smith was not. "I'm sure size had a lot to do with it," he says. "I was maybe 130, 135 pounds." But he was a good enough student to win a partial academic scholarship to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, about 200 miles up the coast from Los Angeles. "I decided the two most important things for me were baseball and getting an education," he says. But he didn't get to play for the varsity baseball team until the starting shortstop broke a leg. And he was lonely being away from home for the first time.
"When he first got to Cal Poly," Marvella says, "he called me and said, 'Mom, I want to come home.' I just told him that I was very sorry, but he had no home to come back to. I told him to bring something back with him besides himself, and that was an education. And then that other boy hurt himself, and Ozzie got his chance to play. After that he never looked back. From then on we had to beg him to come home."
"The first time I saw him, as a freshman, fielding balls with the other players, I noticed he had this instinct for the ball," recalls his college coach, Berdy Harr. "Right away I knew he was something special. I never taught Ozzie anything about playing defense. He already knew what that was all about. He had a sense of timing, a rhythm I'd never seen before." Harr may not have taught Smith defense, but he did, in Smith's sophomore year, make him into a switch-hitter and persuade him to remain one.
The next year, Detroit drafted Smith and offered him $4,500. He wanted $10,000. The Tigers raised their offer to $5,000. Smith decided to stay in school. The Padres drafted him the next year, 1977, and he signed for $5,000. He played 68 games for Walla Walla and hit a surprising .303. He was the Padres' shortstop the next year, playing in 159 games, hitting .258 and stealing 40 bases. He finished second in the voting for Rookie of the Year. That honor went, as honors often do, to a slugger: Atlanta's Bob Horner, who had played in only 89 games but hit 23 homers.
Before the last game of that '78 season, one of Smith's teammates, Gene Tenace, persuaded him to perform one of the backflips he had seen him do during spring training. Tenace's daughters had taken gymnastics, he told Smith, and they would be in the stands that day. No big deal. It was back to the sawdust pit. Smith flipped, the fans loved it, and he decided, at Tenace's continued urging, to open and close every season with this act.
Smith was a crowd favorite, all right, but he wasn't much of a hitter in San Diego, his average slipping to .211, .230 and then .222 in the three years after his rookie season. He tried everything. He studied with a San Diego policeman named Bill Allen, who had a batting cage in his backyard. He even sought out another part-time hitting instructor, Lee Fisher, who was also a hypnotist. "I had to learn to hit in the big leagues," says Smith. "I don't think I'd had any formal training before. People had always just told me to go up there and trust my instincts."
The Padres were miffed that he was seeking outside help. They were also testy about money. Smith made around $72,000 in 1979. San Diego offered him a modest raise for 1980, but Smith's agent at the time, Ed Gottlieb, rejected the offer, and the team renewed the contract at the old figure. Incensed, Gottlieb took out a classified ad in The San Diego Union under JOBS WANTED: "Padre Baseball Player wants part-time employment to supplement income. College education, willing to work, prefer PR-type employment. Needs hours tailored to baseball schedule, but would quit baseball for right opportunity." Joan Kroc, the wife of the Padres owner, responded that she had just the job for him: helping out her gardener at $3.50 an hour.
Smith was not amused. "That ad was not my idea," he says now. "Gottlieb did it without my consent. And I didn't think Mrs. Kroc's response was funny at all. It shocked me, in fact. I thought it was vicious. I didn't even know the woman. I still don't."
Smith won the first of his Gold Gloves and set the assists record in 1980. In '81 he signed a one-year, no-trade contract for $300,000, but the Padres were nervous that they might lose him to free agency, just as they had lost Dave Win-field the year before, so they initiated trade discussions with the Cardinals. They offered to take St. Louis's shortstop, Garry Templeton, even-up for Smith. At the time, Templeton's career batting average was 74 points higher than Smith's .231.
Smith was reluctant to leave Southern California, but Herzog, who was then also the Cardinals' general manager, convinced him that he was needed and wanted in St. Louis, and Ozzie agreed to the trade. It was a decision neither he nor the fans of St. Louis have ever regretted. The Cardinals won the World Series in 1982 and the National League pennant in 1985. Smith won the fifth game of the '85 playoffs for them with a ninth-inning home run off of the Dodgers' Tom Niedenfuer. It was the first homer he had hit lefthanded in the big leagues—and the last one he has hit either way since.
Smith played the last half of that season with a slight tear in the rotator cuff of his right shoulder. He chose not to have surgery and played in a weakened state through most of 1986, compensating for the loss of throwing strength with his extraordinarily quick delivery. Smith has such deft hands that he can actually play catch without ever having the ball come to a stop in his glove. He simply deflects it from glove to throwing hand. The injury also put a stop to his ceremonial backflips, but he did bring in a substitute flipper for the opening game of the '86 season, his son, Osborne Earl Jr., or O.J., who was then nearly four years old. "He didn't flip the way I do," says Smith. "But it was a pretty good somersault, and the crowd loved it."
Smith now lives year-round in St. Louis and is one of the city's most active fundraisers for charity, particularly for the Sammy Davis Jr. Variety Club Telethon for Forgotten Children, which is spearheaded by his friend John Londoff, an auto dealer. His brilliant play aside, a great source of Smith's popularity is his accessibility, his willingness to become a part of community life. He and his wife, Denise, and their sons, O.J. and nine-month-old Dustin, live in a magnificent seven-bedroom, three-story mansion in one of St. Louis's most established neighborhoods. The house has a large swimming pool, a tennis court, a weight room and a racquetball court. And in the "rathskeller," where Smith keeps his trophies and his Gold Gloves, he has, in a case apart from the rest of the memorabilia, a ragtag collection of ancient gloves, some no bigger than a shortstop's hand. Smith may be a fielding revolutionary, but at heart he's a traditionalist. The gloves remind him of how far the game has come from the days of his sainted predecessor, Honus Wagner.
Smith thrusts a hand into one of the old gloves and pounds what passes for a pocket. "This town has such a rich baseball history, you can't help but be caught up in it," he says. "They're all here, all the great ones—Musial, Marion, Schoendienst, Gibson. They're people you see all the time, people you can reach out and touch. And the memories of others, like the Deans, are still here, too. I'm proud to be a part of this. I'm complimented to be compared with players like Marty Marion. Everything here seems to come full circle back to the ballpark. I feel as if I'm part of, well, a common cause."
Smith is working on the final scene of his 45-minute video biography, Ozzie (The Movie), which is being made by his friend Lawrence Miller of Philo Films and is scheduled to premiere in St. Louis on Sept. 28. It's mild and somewhat breezy at the shooting site, the 1904 World's Fair Pavilion in Forest Park. The pavilion, a curiously Spanish-style building, commands a dramatic view of the lakes and lawns of the big park, and the midmorning sun in a clear sky brings the pleasant scene into sharp focus. But making movies is a tiresome business, and the outdoor set seems almost enclosed and humid under the glare of lights and cameras.
The scene to be shot is simplicity itself: Smith stands behind two nine-year-old boys, Ryan Werkmeister and Sedrick Martin, who each bounce a ball against one of the pavilion's pillars. The boys turn to look at him and then sit down to watch, as Smith looks directly at the camera and smiles. That's it. Not even any dialogue. But it's not that easy lining up the right camera angles, and the boys, bored with endlessly throwing balls against the pillar, grow restless and careless. Their throws go awry. Their smiles are forced. Smith helps them out. "Sedrick," he says, "I think your problem is that you're too excited. You've got to calm down, relax. Here, look at me." Smith assumes a pose of such languor as to make Clint Eastwood seem frenetic. Sedrick makes his own stab at power nonchalance. The two, man and boy, burst into laughter.
"We've done all sorts of sports movies," says Miller. "Histories of the Cardinals, the Yankees, the Tigers, two colleges, Indiana high school basketball—but this is our first on an individual. I must say we were a little reluctant in the beginning, but then I realized, hey, this is a pretty neat guy.
"You know what they say about familiarity breeding contempt? With Ozzie, the opposite is true. The more you see him, the better you like him. How many people, in sports or out, are genuinely beloved? Well, Ozzie is. And he deserves to be. We think we've got a terrific movie. It's a celebration."
Miller calls for silence on the set. He nods to the boys. They bounce the balls perfectly this time. Then they turn and recline expertly on the pavement, looks of joy and admiration lighting their young faces. Smith gives them a broad wink of approval, and then he, too, turns toward the camera. He's smiling a big, broad Ozzie smile, the one that has won over an entire city. Miller throws his hands over his head in a gesture of profound relief.
"And that," says Smith, laughing, "is a wrap."