Of the many tributes expressed on Ozzie Smith Appreciation Day, the best came from a Cardinals opponent.
Twenty years ago, on Sept. 28, 1996, Barry Larkin, the heir apparent to Smith as the top shortstop in the National League, was at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, playing for the Reds against the Cardinals in the next-to-last game of the regular season.
The Cardinals had chosen that Saturday afternoon to honor Smith, 41, who in June had announced that the 1996 season would be his last as a player.
In the pre-game festivities before a crowd of 52,876, master of ceremonies Jack Buck was joined by an array of Cardinals legends, including Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Whitey Herzog.
Larkin, who like Smith would be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, took his turn at the microphone and spoke for the profession.
“Ozzie created a fraternity among shortstops and all those who had a relationship with him,” Larkin said. “On behalf of all baseball players, we thank you. For your sportsmanship. For your humanitarian work. For your great defensive plays. For hitting that home run in the 1985 playoffs. For representing baseball with honesty and integrity.”
Paving the way
Also in attendance were Smith’s mother and his three children.
Cardinals management announced that the franchise would retire the uniform No. 1 worn by Smith during his St. Louis playing career from 1982-1996. Among the gifts Smith received was a baby grand piano from his teammates and staff.
“I’d like to thank God for giving me the ability to go out and perform for 19 years in a sport that I love,” Smith said. “I’d like to thank my mom for being my inspiration and driving force. I thank my family for their support. I thank the Cardinals organization for its support and the opportunity to perform for the greatest fans in the world. I thank all my teammates, past and present, because I could not have done it without all of you.”
In summary, the master fielder known as the Wizard of Oz, said, “You have all been part of my dream. Thanks to every one of you for traveling down my Yellow Brick Road.”
Observing the lovefest, columnist Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, “We saw an all-time record for most hugs and kisses in a single day at Busch Stadium.”
Touch of class
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa started Smith at shortstop that day and put him in the leadoff spot in the batting order.
As he headed to his position to begin the game, Smith treated fans to a somersault and his signature backflip.
The Reds started pitcher Mike Morgan, who had been released by the Cardinals a month earlier.
When Smith stepped to the plate in the first inning, Morgan tipped his cap to his former teammate. “Mike is one of the nicest guys in the game,” Smith told Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch.
Smith grounded out to Morgan.
In the third, Smith sliced a grounder down the third-base line. Eduardo Perez, the Reds’ third baseman and son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez, dived to his right, fielded the ball and threw out Smith from his knees.
Smith grounded out routinely to third against Morgan in the fifth.
In the sixth, facing left-hander Mike Remlinger, Smith hit a looping liner to left for a RBI-single. It would be the last regular-season hit of his career.
In his final at-bat of the game in the eighth, Smith was hit on the foot by a pitch from Scott Sullivan.
The Reds went down in order in the ninth. Bret Boone and Perez each grounded out to Smith. Larkin made the last out on a pop-up to first. The Cardinals won, 5-2. Boxscore
Smith had six fielding assists in the game and started a double play.
Starting again the next day in the season finale, Smith was 0-for-2 before he was replaced by Royce Clayton.
In the 1996 postseason, Smith was 1-for-3 in the NL Division Series versus the Padres and hitless in nine at-bats in the NL Championship Series against the Braves.