On August 3rd, the St. Louis Cardinals are hosting another legendary speaker night as the television voice of the Cardinals, Dan McLaughlin, will speak to legends Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee and fans can be right there for the action. When I heard about this event, I started thinking about what made these two players so indelible and defiant to Cardinal nation. It’s easy. They were people’s champs. In the 1980’s, when you talked about Cardinals baseball, these two were always a part of the conversation.
Smith’s nickname, The Wizard, was made famous by the fans who adored his defense and all around play. Smith made 15 appearances in the All Star Game, and was well respected around the league. He redefined what great defense looked like. When a modern shortstop like Andrelton Simmons makes an insane play at short, people instantly compare him to Ozzie and think of the Wizard’s work back in the day. While Smith’s lifetime average was only .262, he stole 580 bases over his career and cranked 69 triples. He has speed to kill and was old fashioned on the basepaths. He didn’t have much power but everyone and their grandchildren know he made St. Louis go crazy in 1985 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was a people’s champ. He also won 13 consecutive gold gloves.
I remember watching Smith play shortstop. It was the early to mid 90’s and he had lost a step or two but still stole singles from hitters. A ball would be sent crackling up the middle and like magic, Smith dove behind second base and fired a strike to first. He did it with a smile and even did a backflip on each opening day. He wasn’t superhuman looking or enhanced. He was somehow you’d see on the street and be able to talk to and relate to, except when it came to playing shortstop. He’s a legend there.
McGee’s affect was rising to the occasion at the right time. McGee was an everyman, a humble servant for the game that came alive at the perfect moment. In his rookie season, at the age of 23, McGee hit 3 home runs and drove in 10 runners with 10 hits to help lead the Cardinals to the World Series. He made a pair of unforgettable catches against Milwaukee to seal a victory. In 1985, McGee won the MVP because he had 216 hits, 18 triples, 56 stolen bases, 82 RBI and he hit 353.
He won 3 gold gloves and went to four All Star games but it’s his performance in the playoffs that many will remember. His 1985 season is one of the best all around seasons in Cardinals history. When the Cards needed him, McGee rose to the occasion. He had a better overall batting average than Smith but didn’t have Smith’s all around signature touch and didn’t hold up as well defensively over the years.
Smith and McGee weren’t larger than life players, but they created larger than life moments. I grew up with the sound of my mother screaming McGee’s name every time he did something heroic and I grew up appreciating the excellence Smith brought to the shortstop position.
If I had to ask them one thing on August 3rd, I’d ask them how was it playing the greatest game for over 18 years and being on top of the world at such young ages. Their style of play doesn’t exist in baseball anymore. A great defensive play isn’t as sexy as a long home run and a gold glove isn’t as great as the MVP. A great moment in the playoffs is forgotten once a superstar player launches a home run. When I think about Smith and McGee, a wave of nostalgia hits my mind as I soak up a style of baseball that was once king, before the steroid era nearly destroyed the game.
If you crave old school baseball players who did things right, look up the adventures of Ozzie and Willie. If you find it worthy enough, buy a ticket and go ask them about their playing days on August 3rd. They are proof that legends, even the ones who only weigh 175 pounds, never die.