NEWARK, NJ— Ozzie Smith’s cleats barely left the Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium grass as he jogged out to shortstop.
No backflips accompanied Smith as he took his position during the Atlantic League’s All-Star pregame celebrity exhibition softball game. The 54-year-old said his crowd-pleasing acrobatic ways are a thing of his playing days.
“I play too much golf now. My back is stiff,” Smith said with a laugh inside Newark’s home dugout. “Don’t get old.”
Smith last played a competitive game in 1996 before retiring from the Cardinals. After getting inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002, the 15-time All-Star is relishing his role as an unofficial ambassador to the game.
Current players like Armando Benitez, who was representing the Bears, flocked over to Smith for a hug and a picture. Newark’s Michael Hernandez also wanted to pose with the 13-time gold glove award winner. Behind the backstop, fans clamored for autographs on baseballs, programs and ticket stubs.
Smith said the attention was hard to envision when he first came up with San Diego in 1978. After getting traded to the Cardinals, Smith earned a plague in Cooperstown, playing in St. Louis from 1982-1996, registering 2,460 career hits. That hit total is still impressive considering Smith’s claim to fame was his defense, where he finished his
career with a .978 fielding percentage.
“There’s a positive legacy that you want to leave to where you had a positive impact on the sports,” Smith said. “I tried to conduct myself in a manner that would hopefully get me to this point to where people would come up to me, as they do now, and tell me how much they appreciate the way I went about my business.
“I’ve always taken a lot of pride in the way I’ve approached this game. I’ve never taken the game for granted and now I’ve reaped the rewards of it.”
Smith reached base with a first-inning single, where he immediately fist-pumped a mascot. It was just one of many light-hearted moments in a game featuring entertainment personalities and current big-name athletes like Justin Tuck from the Giants and the Jets’ Thomas Jones and Kerry Rhodes. Newark native Queen Latifah also participated as a team captain.
The softball comparisons brought up comparisons to a favorite off-the-field Smith memory. The famous 1992 episode featured Smith on the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant team that included then-major league stars like Steve Sax, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens.
So, what softball moment did Smith enjoy more?
“Oddly enough, that’s one of the most-asked questions, people ask me a million questions about the Simpsons episode,” Smith said with a chuckle. “It was all a voice over. None of us were in the studio at the same time.”
Playing in Newark’s home ballpark brought Smith back to an independent league. It’s the same type of set-up for which Ozzie’s son Dustin is playing, as the younger Smith is currently leading United League Baseball in steals for Coastal Bend.
“He’s been in the league for a little bit,” Smith said. “A lot of people think it’s easy for sons or daughters of professional athletes to get in the business. It’s tough to break in. I had to take a different route to the big leagues and I’m hoping it’s the same case for him.”