Now that the man they call the Wizard of Oz has retired, the controversy can end and the farewell tour can begin.
Ozzie Smith and new Cardinals manager Tony La Russa have never seen eye-to-eye. But after Smith's news conference Wednesday to announce he's hanging up his Gold Glove at the end of the season, there was no trace of bitterness as the memories from his 19-year career came flooding back."I've seen all the highlights," La Russa said. "In San Diego he caught one barehanded early in his career. Shoot, he's made so many."
Royce Clayton, the player who took away Smith's job this season, had posters of Smith on his wall when he was a kid and became a shortstop to be just like Ozzie.
"Do I remember any plays? I have a videotape full of them," Clayton said. "I saw how it was done and how he made it look so easy."
But everything has to end sometime. At age 41, his fabled defensive skills on the wane and his playing time drastically reduced, Smith decided it was time. He said he might have extended his career with another team, but chose to conclude it with the Cardinals, where he'll now work in the front office for at least 10 years.
"I probably could go somewhere else and if I pushed it, proved that I could still play," Smith said at a tearful news conference 90 minutes before the Cardinals played the Philadelphia Phillies. "But my goal in my last contract negotiation was to make sure I finished as a St. Louis Cardinal.
"I've always felt that was the right thing to do. The time was right."
Smith didn't play Wednesday and has started only 15 of the Cardinals' 69 games this season, while Clayton, 26, has become the regular shortstop. Although Smith was expected to retire at season's end, the news conference attracted a media mob that hasn't been seen around Busch Stadium since 1987, when he helped the Cardinals make it to the World Series for the third time in that decade.
Before the game, the video board played some of his greatest fielding hits to the tune of "Singular Sensation." Then he drew a 45-second standing ovation when he stepped on the field and doffed his cap.
"I just wish that you had a good time playing," said Smith's son Dustin, who accompanied him at his news conference.
Ask 10 people about Smith's greatest defensive stop and you'll probably get 10 different answers. One that stands out was Aug. 4, 1986, when outfielder Curt Ford made a head-first dive toward the infield and Smith made a head-first dive to the outfield, somehow avoiding his teammate and making a midair basket catch of a fly ball by Von Hayes.
Smith's personal favorite came in his first major league season, 1978, when he dived to his left and made a barehanded grab of a bad-hop ground ball by Jeff Burroughs of Atlanta, then popped to his feet and threw to first for the out.
"That was by far the best," Smith said.
The wizard was born.
"Sometimes when nicknames are given to you, you don't have any choice," Smith said. "You just kind of go with it. It just kind of happened, and it stuck."
The rest of the season will be a farewell tour for Smith, who'll get occasional chances to add to his major-league records for games played at shortstop (2,474), assists (8,250) and double plays (1,564). He's also among the top five in total chances, putouts and fielding average.
The 13-time Gold Glove winner is one of only 21 shortstops to play into their 40s.