Ozzie Smith agreed to be traded to the Cardinals in what one writer called “one of the most bizarre transactions in recent baseball history.”
The deal propelled the Cardinals to three National League pennants and a World Series title and launched Smith toward a Hall of Fame career.
But the trade almost never happened.
On Dec. 10, 1981, at the baseball winter meetings in Hollywood, Fla., the Cardinals announced a trade of outfielder Sixto Lezcano to the Padres for pitcher Steve Mura.
Whitey Herzog, the Cardinals’ general manager and manager, acknowledged the deal also involved players to be named, but contract issues prevented him from revealing the identity of those players. Published reports made it clear the players were shortstop Garry Templeton and pitcher Luis DeLeon of the Cardinals and shortstop Ozzie Smith and pitcher Al Olmsted of the Padres.
The snag was that Smith, 27, had a no-trade clause in his Padres contract. He wouldn’t agree to a trade to St. Louis unless the Cardinals either allowed him to keep the no-trade clause or compensated him for dropping it.
Herzog went to San Diego to meet with Smith and his agent, Ed Gottlieb. In January 1982, in a story headlined, “Ozzie’s Pay Demand May Cancel Trade,” The Sporting News reported the trade of Templeton for Smith “apparently is about to fall through.”
Herzog was quoted as saying Smith wanted more than twice the $300,000 salary he was paid in 1981.
“Ozzie would like to play for me, but it looks as if we’ll have to cancel the trade,” Herzog said. “Ozzie is a great fielder and baserunner. I’d like to have him. But if he doesn’t want to come to St. Louis, I don’t want him. No .220 hitter is worth what he’s asking.”
On Jan. 26, 1982, Smith told the media there would be no trade unless the Cardinals paid him $750,000 that year. The Sporting News reported the Cardinals had offered a base salary of between $425,000 and $450,000, with incentives that could take the total package to $500,000.
Finally, on Feb. 11, 1982 _ more than two months after a Cardinals-Padres deal first was announced _ Smith agreed to the trade. His salary would be determined in arbitration before the season began.
In his lead paragraph for The Sporting News, St. Louis reporter Rick Hummel wrote, “After 62 days, it was over. Ozzie Smith had become a St. Louis Cardinal in one of the most bizarre transactions in recent baseball history.”
In four seasons with the Padres, Smith twice had won the Gold Glove Award. But he was a weak hitter. Smith batted .231 with one home run as a Padre. His on-base percentage was a paltry .295.
Herzog believed Smith’s offense would improve by playing home games on the AstroTurf in St. Louis rather than on natural grass in San Diego, but only if Smith focused on hitting balls on the ground.
When Smith reported to Cardinals spring training camp at St. Petersburg, Fla., Herzog assigned coaches Chuck Hiller and Dave Ricketts to help Smith develop, as Hummel put it, “a downward type of swing.”
“Guys like Ozzie have to keep the ball out of the air,” Herzog told The Sporting News. “If he could hit .240 or .250, we’d be very happy because we know he’s the best defensive shortstop in the league and maybe baseball.”
Smith was up to the challenge. “This year, I’ll get a true evaluation of myself as a player and person,” he said.
Just before the Cardinals opened the 1982 season at Houston, arbitrator Tom Roberts ruled for the Cardinals, awarding Smith a $450,000 salary rather than the $750,000 he requested.
In the opener at the Astrodome, Smith, batting eighth, went 2-for-5 with 2 RBI, including a single and RBI off starter Nolan Ryan, in the Cardinals’ 14-3 victory. Boxscore
It was a successful start to a magical season for the Cardinals, who went on to win their first World Series title in 15 years. Smith was a key contributor, winning a third Gold Glove Award and batting .248 with 24 doubles, 43 RBI, 25 stolen bases and a .339 on-base percentage.
In his book “White Rat: A Life In Baseball” (1987, Harper & Row), Herzog wrote:
I knew when we got (Smith) that he was good, but watching him every day I’ve found out just how good he is. Of all the shortstops I’ve seen, and I’ve seen some good ones _ guys like Marty Marion, Mark Belanger and Luis Aparicio _ Ozzie is the best. I’ve never seen anyone do the things on a baseball field that he can do.