Nobody beats the Wiz

Day in and day out, for 19 seasons, Ozzie Smith almost always had some baseball skill to practice. Hard work, together with his acrobatic grace, propelled the 47-year-old Smith to his place among the best shortstops ever. The sole player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this July 28 worked at it.

Smith retired from baseball after the 1996 season. Since then, the longtime St. Louis Cardinal’s competitive fire has been fueled by golf. But it comes with one major caveat: If becoming proficient at golf requires as much work as he put forth in order to become a 13-time Gold Glove shortstop, he’s not sure he is prepared to make such a huge commitment. After all, isn’t that the precise purpose of retirement, to get away from all that work?

“When you do get exposed to competition, as I have been in baseball, and then you give it up, you look for something else that’s going to present that challenge,” he says. “I think that’s why you see a lot of retired guys turn to golf.

“I know, like anybody who has ever excelled or achieved at anything, you are only going to get out of something what you put into it,” adds the 15-time All-Star, who won more Gold Gloves for fielding excellence than any other shortstop in major league history. “If I’m going to get better at the game of golf, I know I have to practice. I’m one of those players who was looked upon

as a one-dimensional player in baseball, so I had to work harder at the other aspects of the game to make me better.

I know that’s what it’s going to take if I’m going to become a better golfer.”

When Smith was growing up in Mobile, Ala., and after the age of 6, in south-central Los Angeles, Calif., golf was neither affordable nor accessible. Despite having had very little formal instruction and not taking up the game until he was 42 and his baseball career had ended, Smith has tasted golf’s addictive possibilities. And he’s been tantalized by them.

Smith says that his career best is a 78, but more often than not a round in the mid-80s is like a 4-for-4 day at the plate with a few fielding gems thrown in for good measure. In other words, those days don’t come along too often.

“If you have a competitive bone in you, you never want to allow something like this to get the most of you,” he says. “As frustrating as it is sometimes, it’s tough to break away from it. The fascination with this game is that it’s an imperfect game. It’s not something that I don’t think can ever be mastered, and knowing that is one of the forces that pulls you to it.”

On the surface, hitting a stationary ball appears to be far easier than a Nolan Ryan fastball, or going deep into the hole and throwing out Rickey Henderson at first. But, says Smith, a member of two golf clubs near St. Louis, where he played 15 of his 19 seasons, things aren’t always as they seem.

“The easier it looks, the tougher it is,” he insists. “Certainly if you can hit balls at 90 miles per hour, balls that are sliding or breaking away from you, then you can hit a little ball that’s sitting still. At least that’s the thought process going in, but one of the things I’ve learned is that hitting this golf ball is much tougher than it looks, to get that ball to go where you want it to go. People ask me all the time, ‘What’s easier, golf or baseball?’ and I say, ‘Baseball.’ “

Smith’s introduction to golf came when he put his name on some charity events in the 1980s. Perhaps his most vivid memory in golf came after his retirement, when he made a commitment to finally put his golf game on display in a tournament.

“Even though we’ve performed in front of so many people for so long,” Smith says, “it’s still about going out there and being able to perform well and not embarrass yourself.”

He took a few lessons in the days immediately preceding the event, but as the tournament drew nearer he realized just how out of his element he was.

“I know I was really nervous,” Smith recalls. “I was shaking. Getting on that first tee is always kind of nerve-wracking because people expect so much from you.”

And then? Pure magic. “I took it back slowly and I hit it square,” he chimes, “right down the middle. Looked like I knew what I was doing. You remember things like that.”

Now those first-tee butterflies fly just slightly more in formation. “It’s tough because what you bring to this is a level of high expectations,” says Smith. “People expect that because you were so good at the other thing, they expect you to be just as good if you say you play golf. So with that in mind, there’s always a lot of pressure standing up there on that first tee because the one thing you don’t want is to muff one right off the first tee.”

If Smith gets his competitive fires going, he knows that way out there on the horizon looms the celebrity tour. But that’s probably putting the cart before the horse. First, he says he needs to increase his playing frequency and eliminate some of the major kinks in his game. Smith wields a long putter – but definitely not with the grace and wizardry with which he played shortstop.

Both of the clubs where Smith is a member – Fox Run Country Club in Eureka, Mo., and The Country Club of St. Albans, west of St. Louis – offer expansive facilities where players can practice virtually any shot they like. But through May of this year Smith, who recently moved into a new house on one of the two courses at St. Albans, had visited the practice facility there exactly once. He’s a busy man, especially with the various activities and appearances leading up to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

The results, Smith admits, show for themselves. “Putting, the short game, the inconsistency with driving,” he says, rattling off components of the game that cause him trouble. “I guess I could say, ‘All of it.’ You get into those ruts where you can’t stay in the short grass; you’re always hitting out of the rough. That’s me.

“Is [the celebrity tour] something I’ll want? I don’t know yet,” he continues. “I just enjoy getting out and competing with a buddy of mine and right now that competition is plenty for me. But if at some point I see that my game is improving enough that maybe I have a shot at the circuit, then you put more time and effort into it.”

Smith’s excitement about Cooperstown has been building, and it is not solely focused on the hubbub of his induction ceremony. During a visit with the Hall of Fame folks, he learned of Leatherstocking Golf Course, located in Cooperstown, and the tournament for the Hall of Famers that is part of the induction festivities.

It appears as though the Wizard of Oz has found yet another good reason to get his game in shape.