On the day Ozzie Smith announced his plans to retire as a player, there was as much focus on his icy relationship with manager Tony La Russa as there was on his Hall of Fame Cardinals career.
Twenty years ago, on June 19, 1996, Smith tearfully said he would retire after the Cardinals’ final game of the season.
“I feel the time is here now,” Smith, 41, said to the Associated Press. “This is the best time. I’m ready for it.”
Impacting Smith’s decision, though, was his demotion to a reserve role at shortstop behind Royce Clayton, 26.
“I know that if I chose to do it I could play somewhere else,” Smith said to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But my thinking was to finish my career as a St. Louis Cardinal.”
Smith used the attention created by his retirement announcement to express his unhappiness with La Russa.
Wrote Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz: “Unfortunately, Ozzie didn’t make it through (the day) without sniping at La Russa. Let’s hope that the sourness will clear.”
Smith, who won 13 consecutive Gold Glove awards from 1980-92, went to spring training in 1996 determined to compete with Clayton for the starting shortstop job. La Russa, in his first year as Cardinals manager, said the player who performed best in spring training would be the everyday shortstop during the season.
“I was told that the position would be earned in spring training,” Smith said at his retirement announcement. “I thought I did that.”
When La Russa declared Clayton the regular shortstop, Smith said he believed the manager hadn’t done what he said he would.
“This was the most disappointing thing in my career in St. Louis,” Smith told Hummel at the retirement announcement. “All I can go by is a person’s word. Going into spring training, I knew I had a job to do and I did that job.”
In response, La Russa said of Smith, “It’s fair to say he misunderstood how he compared to Royce in spring training. By what he was able to do defensively and on the bases, Royce deserved to play the majority of the games. Royce is capable of making more plays.”
Irked that Smith had brought up the controversy at the retirement announcement, La Russa complained to Hummel, “It doesn’t go away. It’s a constant irritation for him and for me _ his misunderstanding of that.”
Responding to a suggestion that the Cardinals owed a player of Smith’s caliber the chance to play regularly, La Russa said, “You can’t put a player ahead of any club … We don’t owe anybody. If Stan Musial comes back tomorrow and says, ‘I want to play’ _ that’s not what you do.”
Acknowledging that “there is a strain in the relationship” between he and Smith, La Russa added, “I’ll always feel like there’s a little edge in our relationship. I don’t think that ever will go away.”
The next day, before the Cardinals faced the Expos at Montreal on June 20, 1996, Smith responded angrily to La Russa’s comments about Clayton performing the best in spring training.
“That’s cowardice as far as I’m concerned,” Smith told Hummel. “But should I expect anything different?”
Said La Russa of Smith: “All he’s got to do is look in the mirror and he can go out with honor and dignity rather than some kind of attempt at camouflage. I thought the purpose of his (retiring) was to be a positive influence on our ballclub. It doesn’t sound too positive to me.”
In a followup column, Miklasz reiterated that Smith is “a civic treasure” who “deserves a statue outside Busch Stadium,” but gave Smith an error for fueling the feud with La Russa.
Wrote Miklasz: “Ozzie is embarrassing himself … The only reputation that will be damaged is Ozzie’s.”