Ozzie Smith, God, and Memories that Make Us
Updated: Feb 24
By: Matt Gordon
I’ve read that human beings only use a small portion of their brains and that we really remember everything. The trouble is in the recall. But further details of that reading are lost to me, so maybe that proves it or disproves it; I don’t recall. What I do recall is, at the age of 3, stepping away from my first house and being told, “We’re moving away,” and plucking up a yellow flower—or was it a weed?—on my way down the front concrete steps.
I did not want to leave. At that tender age, how much of my forging life had been spent within the confines of that ugly blue home and its diminutive backyard? But it took one comment from my father to sway my compliance and avoid a futile tantrum. He said, “Come on, Matt, if we hurry we can make it home in time for the Cardinals game.”
I didn’t pause to argue the definition of “home” in my limited but forcible vocabulary. I didn’t go in for a final vigil or attempt to hide away in my now vacated bedroom. No, I plucked a souvenir flower because it was the first thing I saw that was easily moveable--that is what post-baby hands do, after all--and scuffled on toward his awaiting pick-up truck.
He knew he had me with that comment. For me, home was not where the heart is. The heart is great and all, but it couldn’t compare with Jack Buck calling out the details of an exquisitely turned 6-4-3 double play. Home firmly resided wherever the St. Louis Cardinals happened to be available, whether the friendly haven of Busch Stadium, the KMOX-filled cabin of my dad’s ancient Toyota, or this new abode he had strategically mentioned.
And just as home was with the Redbirds, the father, the mother, the brother, the consummate king of the household was the king Cardinal himself, the aptly numbered Wizard of Oz: NUMBER ONE, Ozzie Smith! The very name of the slick-gloved, back-flipping shortstop made my own heart leap upon its feet in its own acrobatic ovation. This is another lucid memory from youth: I was Ozzie Smith’s biggest fan, however small my stature was. My father knew this; I made it no secret. When games were on TV, I watched and played along, mimicking Ozzie’s deft movements in the field and at the plate. If I was sent to bed before the final out (as those pesky West Coast trips often prompted) I would sneak the small radio in my bedroom up to the top bunk. The same device used to bore me with the alphabet via sing-song cassette tapes during the day captivated me on summer nights, and did so with a quiet containment making the moments all the more thrilling. Oh, what a feeling indeed to muzzle the desire to shout out at a game-winner and instead flail my arms wildly, sending dark shadows reminiscent of some tribal dance gyrating across the ceiling. It was seldom I was caught, but when a parent would approach my doorway to inquire about the clamor, I always blamed that rapscallion Teddy Ruxpin for the hubbub.
One Christmas I got an Ozzie Smith video tape. It was a training video and I had the hour of instruction memorized before Christmas came to a close. On that white-decked December day, Jesus’ birth was again kicked to the stable yards for a bearded personage informing me never to circle my arms backward while stretching and always to keep my off hand over the glove for a quicker transition or in preparation to corral a bad hop. If there could be a pure form of idolatry I would say it was my five-year-old version, bowed down before the god of groundball. Of course, now I know better, but those were joyous, simple times.
In an interview on Oprah, Ozzie revealed that growing up his family had been poor. According to my mother, we were kind of poor, so that lined up. Because of his family’s destitute state, Ozzie hadn’t attended formal camps and couldn’t play on the best teams because of the expenses involved with traveling, uniforms, and whatnot. Ozzie did have a garage, though, and there on the studio couch his memory ranged, much like his coverage at shortstop, to countless afternoons spent hurling a tennis ball against the garage only to gather it up and hurl it again. That was where he learned to field, and that was where he produced the summer schedule for a wide-eyed boy inches away from his first and last viewing of the Oprah Winfrey Show.
As soon as school released its captives to their assortment of summer freedoms, I abandoned the frog-catching, tree-climbing, and club-forming for more ambitious pursuits. Armed with a small collection of ragged tennis balls, I stood before—not one but two!—brown garage doors. I lowered my red cap and lifted my pale arm . . . Play Ball! For hours, I would sling the yellow orb and then recover it into the sweaty leather palm of my makeshift Ozzie inscribed glove: the Ozzie printed gloves were too expensive so Sharpee and ingenuity went a long way in setting things right. I would throw enough formerly Voit-inscribed tennis balls to make my arm ache, as my skin garnered enough sun to cause similar pain to my reddening body. Dinner, sunset, and the appearance of my dad’s van kicking up dust on the long driveway of our home, the only factors worthy of ceasing my labors. My father had explicitly prohibited my abuse of the garage in this manner: “You’ll make marks,” he claimed. But I did not see it as disobedience. It was make marks now on a garage to be able to make marks later on America’s Past-time. When I became the Cardinals shortstop, I would buy my dad a hundred spotless garages if he so wished.
Despite my resolve, my hind end was one area on my body adequately rare—spared from that cruel summer sun—and in its best interest that van, promising the eventual presence of my father and certain corporeal punishment, was the equivalent of a rain delay.
My growth was in no state of delay, and as I got older my skills developed. I was an average player, but lauded for my defense, only increasing my fascination with the Wizard, whose own skills had steadily diminished. He had become a part-time player, but this did not deter my allegiance. If anything it prompted reverence. Ozzie had become like a horse put out to pasture after winning a Triple Crown. Let that horse have whatever it wants! Ozzie was that horse, but so much more: he was a man, in fact! Full of sentiment, he announced his retirement from professional baseball. His final weekend at Busch Stadium would be a celebration, complete with both joyful appreciation and a tinge of somber awareness, as a living legend walked away from the game forever.
I looked forward to paying my respects that weekend. I would watch the game on TV and, like flipping channels, scan the memories of the greatest icon of my youth. But my dad had other intentions. He came by the house early in week—by that point in my youth he had found the Cardinals in another place. Earlier on the phone, he had mentioned a surprise. When he handed me an envelope I was crestfallen, the hype of surprise squandered by insufficient size and packaging. I pulled out tickets to Ozzie’s final game. I don’t remember anything after that, but I’m certain excitement was doled out in no small dosage as I looked on my dad in a new light: beams worthy of a stadium.
We went up the night before and stayed in a hotel downtown. It was all a surreal experience. The professional football team had a home game that weekend and the team was actually taking residence in the same hotel. There I sat, mountainous men coming in and out of the lobby like a train station for giants; though, the most precipitous persona awaited me the following day. All I could do was sit, wait, and wonder, swirling musings carrying me away like a ball aloft in a stiff wind.
The stadium opened two hours prior to game-time and not much before my father and I barreled in past the whirring turnstiles. We took seats in the first deck, near the first base line, pretending loftily (and un-loftily) that they were our seats. With the sun shining down and the sound of ball and bat from the batting practice below, it almost became real; that this was my life: father and son together and elite. Happy. Whole. Shielded from confusion and anger and pain and doubt. No, those things were for upper deck families. Not here. Not us.
My trance was interrupted by a player popping up from the Cardinals’ dugout. A small throng of people descended upon him prompting me to ask my dad what was happening. I had never been so near to the bench and seeing the ballplayer, who was little different than my father save for the baseball garb, was like walking into one’s home and seeing a dinosaur taking up residence on the sofa, reading a magazine and drinking coffee. It was eerie, this professional baseball player doing anything other than throwing or swinging, much less doing it in such ordinary fashion. “He’s signing autographs,” my dad explained. “You should go get one,” he added glancing at the ball positioned in the pocket of my month-old glove. I started on my way before turning and asking if he was coming. “No,” he stated simply before leaning back in his seat with a smile. He wanted to pretend a little more. It was the youngest version of my dad I ever saw, and maybe a version that never really even got to exist beyond that moment.
I took the stairs like they were hot to the touch, gliding recklessly yet gracefully toward the dugout. A heavier sort might have gained enough momentum to bumble over the dugout and spill onto the field, but spritely agility allowed me an instant stop and gradual approach. The crowd was not dense, and I wedged my way to its front with ease. I recognized the player as a formerly decent starter who that year had aged into a lackluster reliever. I wasn’t delirious to see him, but an autograph is an autograph, and like nearly anything it made sense to start small. I called out to him, a squeaky twelve-year-old who looked ten, and perhaps it was the angelic nature of my feminine voice, but he locked eyes with me. He motioned with those eyes in partnership with a head nod, Throw it here, Son.
Trepidation filled me. How do I toss it to him? Underhanded would look like one of my sisters. Should I shoot it like a basketball? That seemed preposterously out of place. If I threw it like a baseball, it could hurt his hand and he was an asset as a big league pitcher and all. And then there were the scouts. Anyone who has paid attention to the movies knows that in a major sports stadium of any kind there are hidden scouts, bent on finding the best unknown resources for their ball teams from amid the fans. I decided to show all the technique I could and styled a perfect baseball throw which halted at the release point and gave way to a light flick of my dainty wrist. It was like a cannon firing off a pillow. Clearly it was comical, based on the snickering of those around me, and a move I instantly wished to retract.
The hurler snapped up my ball and signed it and underhanded it back . . . I knew I should’ve underhanded it! I reached out to catch it and watched my hand snatch it without the usual connection to my mind. Had I magically sprouted a third hand? Flummoxed, I glanced at the hand momentarily and then said hand and my ball were yanked away by an arm. That arm was attached to a body belonging to a woman with long brownish, blonde hair. She was old in my youthful eyes, putting her anywhere between 20 and 106, but if I were guessing in hindsight I would wager for late thirties. “Ma’am, that’s my ball,” I urged, thinking she must be in some sort of confused state. Whatever her confusion was, it was brief, for she broke out of it with a brisk jog up the aisle and toward the concourse, apparently excited to show her sinister companions her haul. I darted after her, and while I was fast for my age, I was no match for her stately strides: she was like a two-legged gazelle. I made it to the concourse, a din of red-donning fans arriving and moving and scattering and blurring.
I returned to our hijacked seats downtrodden. My presence stirred my father from the children of his idle mind. “You ready to find our seats?” he asked. I nodded hoping he would ask me to recount my tale. He did. When I told him of my exploits, I stared at my glove hoping it would ward off the tears. He was disappointed with the events and we joined the merry crowd, a dejected pair.
We scaled Everest to reach our seats. The altitude only heightened my father’s agitation.
Every now and then he would spout a question only partially to me: “So she just took it?” I would nod even though he never sought it. Suddenly he popped up. “I’ll be back,” he barked.
It is a strange feeling, wondering if your dad was off somewhere challenging a female stranger to hand-to-hand combat. Would he get arrested? Would she beat him up? How was I gonna get home? These were dicey moments indeed.
As the lineups were being announced, he returned with an entirely different woman who was wearing a crimson Cardinals polo. Her name is a mystery and she made me recount my tale anew. With each telling the shame grew. What would Ozzie, a guy who never misplays the ball, think? I hated the whole sordid affair and was beginning to hate this new helper for her constant questioning: What happened? What did she look like? What was she wearing? Where did she go? I mean, the gal was nice, but how many ways is there to say a lady wearing red stole my baseball? Oh yeah, did I mention the perpetrator had long hair? And a face? And had the strides of an Olympian? What else do you want from me, lady!
Oh, she wanted more though. For the first inning and a half of the game I had so longed to see, the one that would hit my recent sorrows out of the park, I walked around the stadium with my new “friend” looking for the lady in red. I was turning bitter, too. Even as a boy sarcasm was a refuge and I wanted, after lap one, to suggest we toss a signed baseball into the air to see if the woman would be summoned from the depths in order to snatch it up. You see, and I know this sounds just nutty, there were multiple ladies in red there that day: this was Chris De Burgh paradise. Of the 40,000 fans, I had successfully described about half of them.
Finally the dogs were called off; the search ended. I returned to my seat empty-handed, empty-hearted. But there was still baseball to be played and I watched with rapt attention. The details of the game have hidden themselves away, eclipsed by a tap on the shoulder that came in the bottom of the seventh inning. It was Madame Sherlock again, and I prayed she hadn’t reopened the case. She gave a small speech that closed with, “And here is a token of our appreciation for your loyal following.” A ball was placed in my bony hands. She explained that someone had been sent to the dugout to recount my misadventure to the team . . . during the game! Many of the players had signed this replacement ball, she explained. I turned the ball and my eyes seized on one name as she provided the play-by-play of the action: “Oh yeah, and that is Ozzie’s signature. He doesn’t even do autographs anymore either!”
The legend of Ozzie continued for me. He was retired, so while he faded from the forefront, that ball, centered on my dresser, symbolized the Wizard’s centrality in my youth and permanence in my memory. When a person witnesses a blazing shooting star, the recollection keeps him or her looking each night skyward. I looked on at baseball with Ozzie always in mind. And then out of nowhere the star shot through the night sky again.
This time it was not backflips at Busch Stadium but a book-signing at our local Buffalo Wild Wings. I had read about the visit in the paper and had been keeping an eye on Ozzie’s Hall of Fame bid. His induction instigated a book, which launched a tour, which prompted a visit. As I waited in line with Nate and Jeff, two of my best friends, I recounted my tale from Ozzie’s last game to them and we edited it together in preparation for the story’s unveiling to the Wizard. We had also scrounged our families’ storage areas for our old baseball card collections and had a stack of Ozzie cards ready to be inked along with our assorted Cardinals attire.
The lengthy line moved along speedily. We reached the on-deck circle, so to speak, and were greeted by a stern lackey informing us that we could have one picture with Mr. Smith and that he would only be signing his official hall of fame book. We didn’t have a book, but, would you believe it, ever so conveniently she had a stockpile of them for sale for $15 right there! It is a desperate scene to witness 19-year-olds trying to dig through linty pockets and anemic wallets as if multiple tries could somehow magically multiply money. In all, we came up with just over $15, a mixture of bills and coins, and were rewarded with a lone thin hardback souvenir to share. Approaching Ozzie, the book was snatched from my hands—stirring up the jarring trauma of past stolen souvenirs—and a picture was hurriedly snapped by some goon in the corner, while another employee pushed us along. At the door the book was returned with Ozzie’s hurried signature on its front. All said, the visit was slightly longer than a lightning flash, as we and our thunderous confusion were squeezed out the door by the gathering of dismissed fans collecting in our wake.
We were cussing-mad back at the car. There in the parking lot we spouted a deluge of curses on Buffalo Wild Wings, the pompous wannabe publicist, the camera guy, the stupid $15 books, and even began bringing Ozzie’s name into the storm. The umbrella of loyalty extended, though, and I made excuses for him—I couldn’t help it: it was like Stockholm Syndrome or some such thing. My companions wanted none of it. They called him names and blamed his wealth, his success, his echo chamber of yes people. Probably, they reasoned, he was a jerk and liked causing misfortune on the likes of nobodies like us. I fought on though, reasoning that he had a Hall of Fame banquet that night in the Northeast, and it was more scheduling than schadenfreude. His loose travel itinerary had been in the local paper and, I reasoned, his burgeoning docket was at fault for our callous dismissal. “He is in a hurry. It’s obvious!” I reassured . . . both them and myself.
And that is the comment that woke us up. Nate, driving toward his home, whipped the car around, explaining his action with one word: “Airport.” It was lucid to all of us. The nearest real airport was two hours away, without taking into account traffic; however, there was a tiny local outfit just down the road. If Ozzie needed to hit the East Coast in adequate time for his banquet, and his signing wasn’t slated to end till mid-afternoon, only one option existed. Now sure the paper could have been wrong or I could have misquoted it, but as we pulled into the private county airport we felt destiny had come to us like a big easy hop from an approaching rolling tennis ball.
Airport security has really changed too. This two-runway airport sat in the middle of an open field with only a chain link fence standing guard. If there were any planes out there, it would be pretty easy to hop aboard and take a flight. But probably no one worried much with this, as there were almost never any planes to be seen—why put in a security system in an abandoned house, after all. There were a few other cars in the parking lot and we pulled in and waited. Most of our talk centered again on what we would do when we saw Ozzie. The minutes dripped away. To take our minds off what felt like certain defeat, we got our gloves and a ball out (we had hoped to get these and pretty much all of our other possessions signed earlier that day), and there near the airport entrance let our love of baseball carry us along, a steady catching and throwing, as ceaseless as the tide.
I’m not sure what time it was, but it had been long enough for all three of us to know he wasn’t coming. The castles made of sand were gulped up. We prepared to leave after our strange hours spent at the airport, when we saw the first moving vehicle of any kind—plane or car—slowly approach. It was a black Escalade with large steel rims, and it pulled up and parked right next to us. We, by this time back in the car and buckled in, were speechless as a huge man exited the driver’s door. He looked us over skeptically and then moved around to the passenger side. As he opened the passenger door, our doors opened too, almost like his strength was enough to compel compliance across very time and space simultaneously. We walked around to the back of the Escalade as the two sets of footfalls mirrored our movement on the other side of the vehicle’s tinted glass. At the back, there face to faces, we stood gaping at Ozzie Smith. As the wordsmith of my party, I offered the poetry: “You’re Ozzie Smith!” The precise dumbest thing one can ever say to a celebrated figure.
He smiled graciously, and even the big fellow relinquished his steely gaze. “I am,” he responded coolly disregarding the prominent likelihood of us being stalkers. His companion then opened the back of the SUV and Ozzie offered words I will never forget: “Hey, you guys want to carry our stuff in? I’ve gotta take a leak.”
You would have thought he had asked us to accept a million dollars! As they walked into the dainty airport, we high-fived, wide-eyed and trembling. Ozzie Smith takes leaks! Ozzie Smith wants us to carry his stuff! Ozzie Smith confirmed that he is Ozzie Smith!
Unloading their baggage was not difficult. It was three bags, two of which hardly outranked briefcases. We strutted across the parking lot, into the building, and there, leaving the bathroom, was Ozzie. “We have to wait a few minutes for our plane to be ready,” he piped.
“You all fans?” He smiled knowingly, eyeing our assortment of Cardinals gear and my Ozzie Smith retirement weekend t-shirt, pretty much a belly shirt by this point in my life. “Can I sign some things for you?” It would be like when Dorothy, the Lion, and the Scarecrow meet the Wizard of Oz only if the Wizard had been everything they had fantasized about and then some. Jeff ran back to the car and got a pile of baseball cards, our baseball gloves, and probably the Owner’s Manual to his car, and then Ozzie commenced with the signatures.
His bodyguard, the huge fellow, then offered to sign our things. Honestly, I wanted to turn him down, as I had no clue who he was. But seeing how he was the largest man I’d ever seen, discretion seemed the better part of valor. How else does one deal with a giant? He signed my hat: “Big Time.” Yup, you got that right, sir.
We stood in that hangar for ten minutes, talking with Ozzie. I don’t remember much of the conversation. That’s the thing about memories. You don’t always need the details. Can’t heaven just be heaven without needing an address or detailed description?
What stayed with me from that memory hit me on the car ride home and hasn’t left me since. Ozzie was still nimble and athletic that afternoon, and that big guy with him could have bench-pressed the Escalade they rode in on. And that is what hit me: Ozzie Smith didn’t need me and my friends to carry his stuff. He could have handled it just fine. To me this became something of a spiritual quandary. One of my problems with God had always been that if He is so powerful and created everything and all the rest, why did He need me? Do it yourself, Chief, I had decided to say to him. But suddenly I realized how I had magnified one truth and missed another. In doing so, I had formed a logical mistruth that went like this: God doesn’t need me; I value what I need; therefore, God doesn’t value me. I was right, perhaps, that God didn’t need me—He was surely capable, just look to the night sky, telescope or not.
But where I went wrong was assessing His view of me in terms of my utility to Him. Or, in plainer speech, God didn’t need me, yet in church and Scripture I was inundated with rules and requests by Him for my life—what was His motive? Ozzie Smith didn’t need us that day, yet he had done us a kindness by requesting our service. What if that had been God’s motive for me all along: “I don’t need you, but I want you. I want you involved in this, and in this you’ll have joy, you’ll have peace, you’ll have purpose. In this you will come to know me, to be with me.”
Then I thought, with a sardonic chuckle, What if I had said no? When my childhood idol had asked me to carry his things, what if I, with raging petulance and bravado, said, “Get lost!” or “Handle it yourself.”
No, I didn’t hesitate for one millisecond when a former Major League all-star asked me to jump in, yet time and time again I suspect a whisper belonging to the God of the universe, gently asking me to carry something small about the earth for Him, willing me into the cosmic get-to, and I roll my eyes, say “carry your own bag,” and walk the other way. Missing the moments with Him in the hangar and all the sacred rest.
It is strange what one remembers. Each day the stories of our life go more and more from a pristine afternoon to a misty morning—hazy and uncertain, beautiful yet shrouded in mystery and veiling so many forgotten things. I hope to never forget that day, and with every passing day, it has less to do with the past and the details, and more to do the present choices before me and the promises of a hopeful future. The encounter with the hero remains, it has just become a different hero altogether that I came upon that day. There is still baseball and all the rest. The lovely past-time with its summertime memories. But there is more too--there is the great recall. Not of something gone and past, but a whisper that goes on, rounds third, and lumbers toward home.