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Saturday, July 27, 2002
Don't let the numbers fool you
By Jim Caple
When people talk about Hall of Fame numbers, they never mean 6-4-3. Instead, they focus on home runs, hits and RBI, which is why Jose Canseco becomes a Cooperstown candidate even though he was such a poor fielder that he allowed a flyball to bounce off his noggin and over the fence for a home run.
So forget all the hyperbole about this era's so-called Holy Trinity of shortstops and pay proper respect to the player who turned the position into an art form.
You want some numbers? Here are some numbers. Ozzie led the league in assists and total chances eight seasons, a major league record for shortstops. He won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves. He played in 15 All-Star Games. He turned 1,590 double plays, most ever by a shortstop. He fielded 12,624 chances, most ever by a shortstop, including 8,375 assists, also a record.
The numbers don't come close to capturing his greatness, though. To fully appreciate Ozzie, you had to see him in the '80s when he was baseball's own personal Cirque du Soleil every night. He would take the field with his signature backflip and then top that feat by suspending credibility.
He covered more ground than the Lewis and Clark expedition, swallowing up every groundball hit in the National League. He reached so deep into the hole he could practically shake hands with the fans in left field and ranged so far beyond second base that it looked like the Cardinals had a left-handed shift on for every player. No matter whether he shoveled the ball with his glove, flipped it backward or simply fired it on a line, his throws were as accurate and true as a Kodachrome print.
The Cardinals traded Gary "The Finger" Templeton for Ozzie in 1982 and he wound up fitting in as snugly as the Busch Stadium carpet. With his speed and range, he was the perfect man for the great St. Louis teams of that era, helping the Cardinals to the World Series three times. His graceful fielding was as much a part of St. Louis as summer heat, the Gateway Arch and Judy Garland and the "Trolley Song."
Ozzie had the goods at the plate as well. True, his .262 career batting average ranks 126th out of the 132 position players in Cooperstown and his 28 home runs rank 125th. But he hit .303 in 1987 (when he should have won the MVP award), scored 1,257 runs, stole 580 bases and finished with 2,460 hits and 1,072 walks. He also hit one of the more dramatic home runs in postseason history when he hit his first career left-handed home run to beat the Dodgers and prompt Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck to shout, "Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!"
Buck, alas, died last month and St. Louis pitcher Darryl Kile died suddenly in his hotel room. But in this summer of loss and tears, at least this weekend Ozzie briefly again gives St. Louis fans the same thing he provided for so many wonderful summers in the past: a reason to stand up and applaud the finest shortstop to ever field his position.
"Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!"
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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