The hearty laugh which echoed from the coaches room gave him away well before there was a glimpse of the familiar number one on his back. Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith had arrived in Spring Training.
“That’s what this is all about,” smiled Ozzie. “It’s about giving the young guys an opportunity to mingle with and talk about how we got to where we are and what makes this organization so special. I’m just doing my job and having fun doing it.”
The fun is amplified by working alongside former teammates Bryan Eversgerd, John Mabry, Willie McGee, and Jose Oquendo. Factor in that some of the other coaches are also former teammates and it’s even more understandable that a few good stories are bound to be shared when they’re in the same room together. More than once the volume has escalated to where players in the adjoining clubhouse glanced up in wonder of what the story or joke was being shared.
And that same enthusiasm has carried over to the instruction in the field. The laughs and jokes have been mixed in with the lessons and improvement.
“Let me say this, I think the last couple of years I think they realized they’ve gotten away from what has made the organization successful and they’re just trying to get back to it,” explained Ozzie.
“It’s unfortunate that you have to work your way back to it, but if you’re going to be successful then there’s certain things that this organization always did. And those were little things that they did that they got away from. Now they’re trying to correct them. I think the attitude is great and certainly going in the right direction.”
On his first day in camp last week, Ozzie was among those who watched Marcell Ozuna take a few informal swings in the batting cage. He was impressed. But more noteworthy was infield prospect Tommy Edman. Not for his swings, but walking up to introduce himself to Smith and share he was looking forward to working with him. Little did he realize, that wish would be fulfilled a few minutes later.
Working on the short field named in honor of The Wizard, Edman went through some routine infield drills of turning double plays with Jedd Gyorko. Jose Oquendo was in charge and hit the grounders, but Ozzie was there to help with complete the plays. When the drill finished, he summoned Edman back over to shortstop for some additional work.
“That was awesome,” smiled Edman. “Getting the experience to work with probably the best defensive shortstop of all-time, that was just a once in a lifetime opportunity. Definitely pretty special.”
A 2016 6th round pick out of Stanford, Edman advanced from Peoria (A) to Palm Beach (A+) to Springfield (AA) last season. He hit a combined .261 in 119 games playing predominantly shortstop.
“Pretty much the main thing we were working on was getting my feet moving a little bit more,” shared Edman. “Kind of just attacking the ball. Obviously, if you watched him play his feet were always active. He always got the good hop because his feet were moving. He offered me some tips on that.”
“Activating” the feet is a common theme from Smith.
“We were talking about that last year,” said Paul DeJong. “The flow and energy with your feet. Keeping them moving. Ozzie’s an athlete you know, so that’s how he tries to instruct.”
“It’s your feet that put you in a position to be able to make a play, so if you’ve got lazy feet then consequently, you’re always chasing the ball,” explained Ozzie. “I guess in many ways, it’s great that those guys hold onto that because it’s so very important to being a good fielder. Most of the guys have good hands, you couple that with having good, quick feet–lively feet. It makes for a degree of consistency.”
Back when he arrived in St. Louis a few seasons ago, Jhonny Peralta shared he received the same kind of advice from Ozzie. Activate the feet.
“You’ve got to always be moving,” continued Smith. “You don’t ever want to be in a situation where you’re starting flat-footed, that’s the kind of stuff we reiterate to the guys. You’ve got to be moving. Even when you’re taking throws, or whatever, you’ll see that there’s some type of movement. Having some type of movement is always very, very important. They’ve adhered to it and you can see that it pays dividends.”
Now in the role of starting shortstop, DeJong has also been the beneficiary of one-on-one instruction from Smith this spring.
“Ozzie’s always been friendly with me and informative,” said DeJong. “I try to call on his experience. Ozzie’s just a big believer in doing the little things right. So Ozzie will tell us, he thinks all the easy plays–those are ones we don’t even have to think about. We’re good enough already to do those. He just wants to make sure we do the little things right like getting to the base on time, receiving throws, anticipating situations.”
Besides talking shop, there was also the topic of the new Topps baseball card which features the two shortstops.
“When I saw that card, I was really just taken back by it,” said DeJong. “Just really cool. Ozzie brought it up to me, ‘they made me sign a bunch of cards with your face on it’ just joking around. But yeah, it’s a super cool card.”
Sitting down with Kolten Wong, he had not yet had the opportunity to catch up with Smith but it was on his list.
“I guarantee you, I’m going to get in there at some point,” stated Wong. “Just because of the fact that I get to have guys like Ozzie, and Willie, and Jose constantly around me now I’m going to do whatever I can to soak in as much information as I can.”
Besides applying the lessons to his own craft, Wong hopes to pass the information along at some point, to help keep the tradition moving forward.
Later that afternoon, Wong enjoyed the walk from the backfields to the clubhouse with Smith and McGee.
“Worth more than gold,” he smiled.
“There’s no reason with his speed that he shouldn’t be a better base runner,” shared Ozzie of their conversation. “That’s going to be one of the projects for Willie this year, making sure he stays on top of him to make sure that he gets the most out of his talent. The one thing I shared with him today was that hitting eighth in the lineup is not a bad thing. It’s kind of the second lead-off spot and you’ve got to take a lot of pride in that because if you can steal a base, you can keep yourself in good situations. Especially late in ballgames, where it means something when the manager has to use a pinch-hitter or whatever.
“I think he understands that. He’s working hard on it and all the guys are working hard. They’re being very efficient, which is important. You can work hard and not get everything out of it but when you’re doing the right things, you’re working on the fundamental aspects of the game as they are now, only good things can happen.”
So perhaps it was more than coincidence that on Friday, Wong stole third in the Grapefruit League opener.
Good things. Good things indeed.
photo credit: Brian Stull/STLBaseballWeekly.com