Ozzie Smith : biography
Smith began 1978 as a non-roster invitee to the San Diego Padres’ spring training camp in Yuma, Arizona. Smith credited Padres manager Alvin Dark for giving him confidence by telling reporters the shortstop job was Smith’s until he proved he can’t handle it.Smith and Rains 1988: 17 Even though Dark was fired in the middle of training camp, Smith made his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut on April 7, 1978.Smith and Rains 1988: 18
It did not take long for Smith to earn recognition in the major leagues, making what some consider his greatest fielding play only ten games into his rookie season. The Padres played host to the Atlanta Braves on April 20, 1978, and with two out in the top of the fourth inning, Atlanta’s Jeff Burroughs hit a ground ball up the middle. Smith described the play by saying, "He hit a ball back up the middle that everybody thought was going into center field. I instinctively broke to my left and dove behind second. As I was in the air, the ball took a bad hop and caromed behind me, but I was able to catch it with my bare hand. I hit the ground, bounced back up, and threw Burroughs out at first."Smith and Rains 1988: 21
During a roadtrip to Houston, later in the season, Smith met a part-time usherette at the Astrodome named Denise while making his way to the team bus outside the stadium.Smith and Rains 1988: 24–25 The couple developed a relationship that was sometimes long-distance in nature, and eventually decided to marry. It was also during the 1978 season that Smith introduced a signature move. Padres promotion director Andy Strasberg knew Smith could perform backflips, but that he only did them during practice before fans entered the stadium. Strasberg asked Smith to do a backflip for fans during Fan Appreciation Day on October 1, the Padres’ last home game of the season. After conferring with veteran teammate Gene Tenace, Smith went ahead with the backflip, and it proved to be wildly popular. Smith finished the 1978 season with a .258 batting average and .970 fielding percentage, placing second in National League Rookie of the Year voting to Bob Horner.
After working with a hitting instructor during the offseason, Smith failed to record a base hit in his first 32 at bats of the 1979 season.Smith and Rains 1988: 28–31 Among players with enough at-bats to qualify for the 1979 National League Triple Crown, Smith finished the season last in batting average (.211), home runs (0), and RBI (27).Spatz 2007: 141 Off the field, conflict developed between Padres’ ownership and the combination of Smith and his agent, Ed Gottlieb. The parties entered into a contract dispute before the 1980 season, and when negotiations lasted into spring training, the Padres renewed Smith’s contract at his 1979 salary of $72,500Smith and Rains 1988: 34 Smith’s agent told the Padres the shortstop would forgo the season to race in the Tour de France, despite the fact Smith admitted to the The Break Room on 96.5 WCMF in Rochester, NY he had never heard of the Tour. Angered by the Padres’ attitude during those contract talks, Gottlieb took out a help-wanted ad in the San Diego Union, part of which read, "Padre baseball player wants part-time employment to supplement income."Smith and Rains 1988: 35 When Joan Kroc, wife of Padres owner Ray Kroc, publicly offered Smith a job as an assistant gardener on her estate, Smith and Gottlieb’s relationship with the organization deteriorated further.Smith and Rains 1988: 35–36
Meanwhile, Smith was winning recognition for his accomplishments on the field. In 1980, he set the single-season record for most assists by a shortstop (621), and began his string of 13 consecutive Gold Glove awards.Smith and Rains 1988: 37 Smith’s fielding play prompted the Yuma Daily Sun to use the nickname "The Wizard of Oz" in a March 1981 feature article about Smith.Smith and Rains 2002: 22 While "The Wizard of Oz" nickname was an allusion to the 1939 motion picture of the same name, Smith also came to be known as simply "The Wizard" during his playing career, as Smith’s Baseball Hall of Fame plaque would later attest.Smith and Rains 2002: 25 In 1981, Smith made his first All-Star Game appearance as a reserve player.