Ozzie has been thief of hits

Defense, style are trademarks of future Hall of Fame shortstop

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Lenny Harris went into second base with a head of steam and a cloud of dust. He would break up the double play, he thought, or know the reason why.

The reason why was Ozzie Smith.

''I went up under him and then I didn't know where he was,'' Harris recalled before Friday's Reds-Cardinals game. ''The next day I saw a picture of him in the paper and he's got one foot on top of me. I asked him, 'How did you get on top of me?' He said, 'I pushed the elevator button and went to the next floor.' ''

St. Louis' singular shortstop is nearly finished as a major-league marvel - his retirement is effective at season's end - but his deeds are bound to endure through videotape and anecdote. No modern player has reduced his peers so regularly to dumbfounded disappointment and slack-jawed wonder. After 15 All-Star Games and 13 Gold Gloves, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ozzie Smith is that he has engendered awe in a craft of cultivated nonchalance.

''As a hitter, it was disheartening to watch him play shortstop,'' Reds manager Ray Knight said. ''He took so many hits from me that I tried to hit the ball to right field every time we played them. I never worried about that with any other shortstop. I always felt it was Ozzie and everybody else.

''Ozzie is one of the few guys who would have gotten to the Hall of Fame on just defense alone.''

It's a bird, it's a plane . . .

Several shortstops have owned stronger arms. Many others have shown more muscle at the plate. But if there has been another ballplayer who has matched Smith's grace and range and agility, his name does not immediately come to mind. Like Fred Astaire, Ozzie Smith elevated his art through his elegance. His baseball togs should have been a tuxedo.

''When we first saw him, he was such a small guy that we used to joke that the ball wouldn't go between his legs without banging his rear end,'' said former Red Dave Parker. ''But nobody could get to balls like Ozzie did. The guy could leave his feet, catch the ball and get back to his feet quicker than anybody I ever saw. To me, he kind of revolutionized the position.

''They say managers account for nine to 15 wins a year. Ozzie was worth 20-25. Easy.''

No one close

Davey Concepcion was a smooth, splendid shortstop, but his consistency suffered by comparison with Ozzie Smith. Larry Bowa had great hands, but lesser legs. Cal Ripken is solidity personified, but not so spectacular. Barry Larkin is entirely brilliant, and yet still subject to Smith's shadow.

''With all due respect for the other shortstops who have played - Concepcion, Alan Trammell, Cal Ripken, they weren't Ozzie defensively, none of them,'' Knight said. ''And a lot of those guys have Gold Gloves. In his prime, there was no one close.''

Even beyond his prime, Smith made plays to make your eyes bulge. Diving stops. Flying leaps. Blind stabs. Magical pivot moves.

''There was this one hit-and-run play,'' Reds first baseman Hal Morris recalled, ''and I was bearing down on him at second base and I'm thinking, 'I'm going to kill this guy.' But he used the bag as a springboard and jumped up and turned the double play and it wasn't even close. He probably doesn't remember it, but my jaw was on the ground. It was the most unbelievable play I've ever seen in my life.''

'The boss at shortstop'

Reds second baseman Bret Boone says Smith stole what should have been his first National League hit, spearing a line drive up the middle in 1994.

Dave Parker blames Smith for the loss of several singles, and also for forcing him to perform superfluous sprints.

''He'd catch the ball and pat his glove two or three times,'' Parker said. ''He liked to watch me run. He had me get to my full gallop and then he'd fire the ball over and nip me by a step.''

The great ones can get away with such stunts. So far as fielding is concerned, Ozzie Smith is about the best there has been.

''One of my first times playing against him I hit a ball that I knew was by him and he threw me out,'' Lenny Harris said. ''When I got back to the dugout, Eric Davis said, 'Come sit down here, son. He's taken a lot of hits from a lot of people.' He's the boss at shortstop.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 21, 1996.