In their first year of winning baseball, the Padres were graced with a player who would eventually go down as one of the greatest shortstops of all time. But like most good in San Diego, Osborne Earl Smith‘s tenure would not last long.
Ozzie Smith was not highly touted. He wasn’t a first round draft pick. He wasn’t a second or a third either. However, in the fourth round of the 1977 draft, the San Diego Padres picked Smith with the 86th overall pick. The baseball world thought 85 players were better than Smith during that draft. The baseball world would soon be proven wrong.
Smith played 68 games for Walla Walla in the Northwest League in 1977. Then, in 1978, he found himself with San Diego making his Major League debut. On April 7, 1978, Ozzie Smith was penciled in as the Padres opening day starting shortstop. On a cold day in San Francisco, Smith took the field in front of a crowd of 36,000 at Candlestick Park. His debut would be short-lived, but it was just the beginning to a career that would span 19 seasons.
In the top of the second inning, facing John Montefusco of the Giants, Smith reached on a force play. He grounded to Giants’ shortstop Johnnie LeMaster who threw out Bill Almon at second base. Smith had reached base, and he would later reach via the walk, but that would be it for his debut game. In the top of the sixth, Jerry Turner pinch hit for Smith. Smith’s debut line read 0-for-1 with a walk.
Of course, Ozzie Smith’s career line would look much better than his debut. In 19 seasons, Smith compiled a .262/.337/.328 line with 580 stolen bases. However, he was most known for his glove. In a 1978 article published in The Sporting News, Phil Collier wrote,
The Padres are beginning to believe rookie Ozzie Smith may someday be compared with baseball’s all-time great shortstops.
Foreshadowing at its finest. Smith, known for his spectacular plays in the field, snagged a sharply-hit ground ball up the middle during one exceptional defensive game. However, the ball took an awkward hop causing Smith to turn his body in the middle of his dive just to get leather on it. He got leather on it indeed, and he threw out the batter. Jeff Burroughs was that batter and he conceded, “It was the greatest play I’ve ever seen.”
A star was born during that 1978 season. Smith finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Bob Horner. He played in 158 games and hit .258/.311/.312. He made 25 errors in that season, but would never make that many again. While defensive metrics were in their infancy in the 70’s, Ozzie Smith surely would have ranked toward the top of the league in UZR and DRS. According to Baseball-Reference, Smith was worth 3 runs in Rtot, a metric that measures the number of runs a player was worth above or below average based on plays made.
Smith only spent four seasons in San Diego. In that time, he was worth 6.3 WAR, and he was really just getting started. However, his true star years would come in St. Louis. While Smith made one All-Star Game with the Padres in 1981, he would go on to make 14 more in St. Louis.
On December 10, 1981, the San Diego Padres traded Ozzie Smith, alongside a player to be named later (Al Omsted) to the St. Louis Cardinals for a player to be named later (Luis DeLeon), Sixto Lezcano, and Garry Templeton. It was a move that brought one of the Padres’ most familiar faces to San Diego in Templeton, but it sent away a player who would one day end up in the Hall of Fame.
Templeton went on to spend 10 years in San Diego, but he failed to put up the type of numbers that would have made him an even replacement for Smith’s talent. In his time with San Diego, Templeton hit .252/.293/.339 with just 46 home runs. He was worth less than 1 WAR per season. Smith, on the other hand, played 15 years for the Cardinals. In that time, Smith hit .272/.350/.344 and was worth about 3.89 WAR per season.
While San Diego received four successful years from Ozzie Smith, he almost never made it to St. Louis. Maybe that’s an over-statement, but there were hiccups. Smith had a no-trade clause as part of his contract, and while the Padres thought that clause ended at the conclusion of the 1981 season, it did not. According to a December 26, 1981 article in The Sporting News,
San Diego sources said the major stumbling block, however, was that even though Smith was on a one-year contract, he had a blanket no-trade clause in his contract, a clause that apparently did not end when the season ended as it was supposed to.
The deal did get done. What St. Louis got was a future Hall of Famer. What San Diego got was an infielder with knee issues and a history of depression. San Diego surely did not realize their earlier prediction that Smith would become the best shortstop in the game was about to come true. If they did, they may have worked harder to keep him. The interesting fact here is that unlike may other players the Padres lost in their history, Smith appeared ready and willing to stay in San Diego. It was the Padres who forced the deal.
As outlined above, Smith had a no-trade clause. He could have vetoed the deal, and he considered doing so. Yet, he was left with very few options according to Collier. He could have killed the trade and risked San Diego cutting his pay by 20% (the maximum allowed for a fifth year player), he could have rejected the 1982 contract the Padres sent him and filed for arbitration, but that would have caused him to waive his no-trade clause, or he could accept the trade. San Diego really forced his hand in this matter, and they paid for it.
In the time Smith spent with St. Louis, the Cardinals enjoyed 10 winning seasons, three National League pennants, and one World Series title. In the same time, San Diego fought its way to seven winning seasons, one National League pennant, and no titles. Would Ozzie Smith have changed that? Perhaps, but the Padres chose never to find out.
Smith’s run with San Diego was a short one, but it all began with an April game in the windy Candlestick Park of San Francisco.