St Louis Cardinals fans rejoice in Ozzie Smith’s return to the spring training fold. Seeing the older but still fit Wizard in uniform brings back fond memories of his 15 seasons in the St Louis infield. Twenty-five years ago, during the last of Whitey Herzog’s runs to the World Series, Ozzie enjoyed his finest season along the banks of the Mississippi.
The Cardinals entered the 1987 season as a question mark. For the second time in the decade they had followed up a World Series appearance with a sub-.500 season. No one expected them to challenge the New York Mets for NL East supremancy; the 1986 World Champs were coming off an 108-win season and looked like a budding dynasty. Over the first week of the 1987 season, that future appeared to be today, as the Mets won six of their first 8 while St Louis stumbled out of the blocks. The Cardinals were two games back of New York when the Mets came to town for an early 3-game series.
New York did not roll over the Cardinals on their way to the post-season. Instead, St Louis swept the Mets, and rarely looked back. They never trailed by more than a game in April and early May, took sole possession of first place permanently on 22 May, led by 9 games at the All-Star Break, and won their third NL East title in 6 years.
In the middle of this Cardinal resurrection was Ozzie, who had the best offensive year of his career. It was the only year he hit over .300 (.303). He set career highs in OBP (.392), hits (182), doubles (40), RBI (75), runs scored (104), stolen bases (43), walks (89), and total bases (230).
Those career highs compared favorably with the rest of the league. He finished eighth in batting average, eighth in runs, third in hits, second in doubles, sixth in walks, seventh in stolen bases, and was fourth in at bats per strikeout. He was the only player in the top 10 of all those categories. By Baseball Reference’s calculations, his WAR of 7.1 was fifth-best in the NL, behind Tony Gwynn, Eric Davis, Dale Murphy, and Orel Hershiser. Broken into categories, his offensive WAR was seventh, his defensive WAR third.
As seemed to be the trend with those 1980s Cardinals teams, they quit hitting in the post-season. In years past Smith had hit in the NLCS but struggled in the World Series, but in 1987 he struggled in both. Ozzie hit only .207 combined (11 for 53) that October, and although St Louis rode home-field advantage and superior starting pitching to the NL pennant, they were bested by Minnesota in the Fall Classic.
Ozzie had some good years after that, and some years with better power numbers, but he never quite reached the heights he had in 1987.
It’s a shame he and Tony LaRussa could never find common ground, and that LaRussa had to retire before Ozzie was willing to come back to Spring Training. Although it’s not the same without Don Tony, the team is better with Ozzie teaching the finer points of middle infield defense to a new generation of Cardinal players.
Welcome back, Ozzie.