Fans return Cards' Smith to place of All-Star honor


PITTSBURGH -- Ozzie Smith long ago stopped trying to figure out the major leagues. "A lot of strange things go on in baseball these days," Smith said.

Millions of fans undoubtedly would agree. And they might offer as Exhibit A the 1993 All-Star team, which did not include Smith, the man who is to shortstop what Brooks Robinson was to third base, Willie Mays to center field and Roberto Clemente to right field.

That omission brought to an end Smith's 12-year reign at that position for National League All-Star teams, probably for good, the St. Louis Cardinals' shortstop figured, as he stood on the outside looking in at the 1993 game in Baltimore.

The public, though, wasn't ready to close the show on the 39-year-old Smith. Rather, in a most democratic way, fans returned Smith to his place of honor as the starting All-Star at shortstop by casting more than 4 million votes for him in the annual balloting.

That total was not only enough to return Smith to his league's most high-profile roster for the 13th time overall and a record 11th time as a starter, but those votes also represented the largest number given a National Leaguer this year, earning Smith that distinction for the third time in his career.

Smith's All-Star comeback in a league that includes such shortstops as Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds, Royce Clayton of the San Francisco Giants and the blossoming Wil Cordero of the Montreal Expos surprised even Smith.

"It's kind of unusual," he said before last night's game at Three Rivers Stadium. "When you've gone for 10, 12 years, then lose out on the voting, it's very tough to get back. I find it very strange that not only did I get back, but I got the most votes."

Larkin forms the nucleus of the Smith fan club. "He's been on my ballot every year, as well," said the Cincinnati shortstop. "It's kind of a fellowship of shortstops, anyway. When I came up, it was Davey Concepcion, and he passed any information that I wanted down to me. The same with Ozzie. I would ask him about certain situations, and he would be willing to sit down and talk to me. I appreciated that a lot. And I will pass down anything that I have, to a Wil Cordero or any other young shortstop because that's the way it's been for me."

It is unusual that such affection is lavished on one so diminutive. Smith, who is in his 17th major-league season, stands 5 feet 10 and weighs 168 pounds. He will never be confused with big bashers such as Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey and Matt Williams.

Still, he stood among those big men last night and termed it a continuing quirk as well as a personal honor because "it is such a power-laden game; the big guys usually win the votes."

To fans, to his peers, Smith's victories are easily understood. He has earned respect of an entirely different sort because he has elevated the defensive portion of the game.

He is, after all, the shortstop who practically forced the retiring of the trophy known as the Gold Glove; who amazed his new first baseman Gregg Jefferies last spring by routinely ending his practice double-play pivots by throwing to first base with his eyes closed -- and hitting the target. He is the player who opens the show each April with a back flip and routinely brings down the curtain with plays that would make Baryshnikov proud.

It is why he is one of the few All-Stars who does not require a last name by way of introduction, or even a first name, as his manager in the All-Star Game showed when introducing his batting order Monday.

"The Wizard of Oz, probably one of the great shortstops of all time, will hit eighth," Jim Fregosi of the Philadelphia Phillies said, correctly assuming that no further explanation was necessary.

While players and managers appreciate defense as much as power, fans are sometimes more fickle. Yet they pulled Smith back onto center stage. Why?

Perhaps, after losing for six years in a row, National League fans longed to have a veteran who remembered what it is like for the league to win. And perhaps it was merely to pay homage.

"It's the fans' way of saying we appreciate and we want to thank you for everything you've done," Smith guessed, "because I don't think people are really aware of how much longer I'm going to play."

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