Plainly, the game was over and the Astros had beaten the Cardinals. With one out in the last of the 17th inning, the score tied 1-1 and a runner edging off third, Houston's Alan Ashby hit a hard grounder deep into the hole. The ball would either go through to leftfield or Shortstop Ozzie Smith would flag it down too late to make a play at home.
Wrong. Smith took a couple of quick steps to his right, dived, speared the ball and rose in virtually the same motion. Then he checked the runner back to third and threw out Ashby by 10 feet. Galvanized, the Cardinals scored twice in the 18th to win 3-1.
Afterward there was a tumultuous celebration of Smith's feat in the Cardinal clubhouse—a kind of accolade that's becoming increasingly common. "Greatest shortstop in the history of the game!" croaked Pitching Coach Hub Kittle, who has been observing them for 48 seasons. "No one ever had his reflexes or quickness." As Smith's teammates wandered about smiling and chuckling, Ozzie said, "Anybody can make a great play. I get special satisfaction from making one with the game on the line." Outside, Astrodome fans lingered long after midnight chanting, "Ah-zee, Ah-zee!"
True, there's no more dazzling sight in baseball than Smith on the move. But his fellow members of the St. Louis infield are far from being eclipsed. Consider a recent week in the life of the Cards:
The night before the 17th-inning Smithian spectacle, Keith Hernandez demonstrated why he's the National League's best first baseman. The Cards were leading the Astros 4-0 in the first, but Houston had runners on second and third with only one out. Phil Garner hit a high bouncer to Hernandez. Textbook: Give up a run and get the sure out at first. Instead, Hernandez fired home and nipped the sliding Terry Puhl. "When you've scored, you don't want the other team to score in the same inning," Hernandez said later. "I saw Puhl out of the corner of my eye and thought I could get him. You can say that if the umpire calls the runner safe it's a bad play, but you have to take chances."
And on Tuesday Third Baseman Ken Oberkfell demonstrated the full extent of his versatility in one inning. A liner was hit to his left. He moved over smartly and grabbed it. Range. A grounder right at him. He made the play routinely. Reliability. A hard shot between him and the bag. He actually backhanded the ball behind his body before making yet another sure throw to first. Quickness. What's more, he led off the next inning with a base hit.
And that week, as most every week, Second Baseman Tommy Herr made no spectacular plays—and no errors. He just did everything that was needed.
While waiting for the next pitch with the bases empty, they seem like rag dolls on a shelf. Hernandez dangles his open glove in front of his right foot and scratches the turf with its tip. Herr stands almost straight up, like a man starting a deep knee bend. Oberkfell creeps stealthily forward, a cat burglar at the hot corner. And Smith, blowing bubbles, sways eerily from side to side. He's in an (All-) World of his own. But once the ball is hit, the St. Louis infield springs to life in unison, moving into action with common purpose and uncommon expertise. There's no finer Front Four in baseball.
Defense is the least appreciated facet of baseball—and also one of the most important. "Good pitching isn't worth a damn without good defense," says Ken Harrelson, the slugger-turned-broadcaster. And defense is baseball's esthetic keystone. Consider the greatest moments in World Series history: Who could omit Willie Mays's catch in 1954, Sandy Amoros' grab in '55 and the superb glove work of Brooks Robinson in '70 and Graig Nettles in '78?
There's no statistic adequate to evaluate defense. A player who commits numerous errors may also have excellent range. Total chances are a better barometer, but they don't reflect play under pressure. Double plays? "What counts," says Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog, "aren't the number of double plays but the ones you should have had but missed. You can't judge defense with a common denominator. You have to watch it day after day."
By any standard, day in, day out, the Cardinals' 1982 defense was one of the best ever. St. Louis tied for the National League lead in fielding percentage (.981), led in chances (6,558) and was second in double plays (169). The four starting in-fielders and the redoubtable utilityman, Mike Ramsey, deserved most of the credit. As a group, the other St. Louis defenders—Leftfielder Lonnie Smith, Centerfielder Willie McGee, Rightfielder George Hendrick and Catcher Darrell Porter—were slightly above average. Hendrick was, and is, the best defensive rightfielder in the league. Smith was surely the worst leftfielder, a distinction he has retained in '83 by committing nine errors through Sunday. McGee and Porter were, and are, capable. Ah, but those infielders: They averaged only 10.6 errors apiece and, astonishingly, made just one late-inning miscue that cost a game.
The 1983 Cardinals have been getting inconsistent work from their top starter (Joaquin Andujar) and reliever (Bruce Sutter) and have had sporadic hitting, yet they led the National League East at week's end with a 27-21 record. Score another one for the infield D. "You have to go back to the Orioles of the late '60s, when they had Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger on the left side and Dave Johnson and Boog Powell on the right, to find a comparable infield," says Herzog. San Diego's Dick Williams, who has also managed in both leagues, favorably compares the current Cardinals to the legendary Dodger infield of Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Billy Cox. And Cardinal Coach Red Schoendienst, a pretty fair second baseman himself in 19 seasons in the big leagues, can't remember its equal.
Herzog has been much acclaimed for acquiring Sutter and Porter and creating a line-drive offense to suit cavernous Busch Stadium, but his astute defensive moves have gone largely unnoticed. In 1981 he switched Oberkfell from second to third, replacing good-hands, poor-range Ken Reitz. Herr was installed at second. The Cardinals immediately ran up the best record in the division but won neither half-title in that strike-shortened season. Next Herzog cast about for a replacement for his unhappy shortstop, Garry Templeton. And lo, he found that the best shortstop in the game, San Diego's Ozzie Smith, was available. The result was St. Louis' first world championship since 1968.
All the Cardinal infielders have good hands—the prime requisite—and are equally sound on turf or grass. Ramsey, Oberkfell and Herr were signed as shortstops, the infield's most difficult position, and began working out at other spots when Templeton looked as if he'd be a fixture at short. Hernandez and Herr were high school quarterbacks; as a result, Hernandez makes baseball's best throw off the bunt ("It's like a look-in pass over the middle," he says), and Herr can take punishment and still get off a relay ("With the line I had, I got used to contact," he says).
The four are constantly talking and reacting to each other. "There's too little communication in baseball," Hernandez says. Theirs is more than the routine "I'll take the throw down" palaver of shortstops and second basemen. "Ozzie! Obie!" Hernandez calls out when he's playing far from the line with a righthanded pull hitter up. He's telling them to delay their throws until he reaches the bag. Herr gives a verbal signal to Hernandez, who can't see the catcher's sign from his spot at first, when a righthanded pitcher is about to throw a breaking ball to a lefthanded hitter; that way Hernandez can shade to the line. Smith sometimes, but not as often, tells Oberkfell when a lefty pitcher is throwing slow stuff to a righthanded hitter. "A lot of the time I'll tell him I don't want to know," says Oberkfell. "If it's a fastball, you have a tendency to relax. I want to be ready all the time." And with two outs and a man on first, Oberkfell will tell Herr to expect a throw on a grounder. Any time one player shifts position, the others will move too. "We don't want to leave too many holes," says Oberkfell.
Herzog will go over the hitters before each series, and Infield Coach Hal Lanier will take his own book on the hitters to the dugout. But they don't do much positioning during the game, because the Cardinal infielders know the hitters so well themselves.
Watch the St. Louis infield in action. Recently the Reds had men on first and second with none out. A bunt was in the offing. Time for the unique Cardinal version of the "wheel" play. Ramsey, subbing for Oberkfell, charged in while Smith covered third, but Herr remained at second to keep the runner close instead of covering first, as is usual. When the ball was bunted, Ramsey fielded it and threw to Smith at third. Normally it's all the shortstop can do to get there, and the result is a forceout, nothing more. Smith stretched like a first baseman to take the throw, made the briefest of crow-hops with his left foot and threw to Hernandez, who had returned to first after charging the plate, to complete a rare 5-6-3 double play.
Three nights later, with the Cards leading the Astros 4-2 and Houston's Ray Knight at second, Tony Scott singled to left. Lonnie Smith fielded the ball and fired home. The throw was slightly off line, so Oberkfell cut it. Seeing Scott trapped between first and second, he threw to Herr, who relayed to Hernandez for an inning-ending putout. It was the first time in Herzog's four seasons at St. Louis that the cutoff—usually a safety valve to prevent a runner from advancing a base—produced an out.
Remarkable when viewed as an ensemble, the Cardinal in-fielders should also be seen as separate, unique and historic figures. Let's capsule them, freeze them in time, honor them with plaques.
Wiz Osborne Earl Smith, 28, 5'10", 150. Winner of three consecutive Gold Gloves, has led league shortstops in assists four straight years. Paced National League by fielding .980 in 1982. Has percentage of .976 for five years in the majors. Needs total of 10 years service to qualify for a crack at the big-league record. (Current standard of .980 held by Cubs' Larry Bowa, who has played most of career on artificial turf; Smith has played four of his five full seasons on tougher natural grass infields.) Already holds one major league record 621 assists for San Diego in 1980. Considered unorthodox, often fields balls one-handed and throws with both feet in air. Atones for average arm with quick release. Named one of America's 10 best casually dressed men last year by a panel of California sartorial experts, and was featured on the fashion pages of "Gentlemen's Quarterly" and "Playboy."
The word usually used to describe Smith is "acrobatic," and he encouraged that practice by doing a front flip while running to his position before the seventh game of the '82 World Series. Though he has never competed on parallel bars or horses or rings and only occasionally works out on a trampoline, Smith has the musculature of a gymnast.
Asked to pick Smith's most extraordinary play, most observers select those diving stops in the hole. "He gets up like a cat," says Cincinnati's slick-fielding Shortstop Dave Concepcion, who's too tall to dive, much less make throws off" dives. Others favor the 6 to 3 plays behind second, when he throws strong and straight to his right while his body is moving to the left. In both cases, he seems to anticipate where the ball is going before it is hit.
Hernandez, for one, thinks Smith's best moves are his subtle ones: "On double plays, when he's taking a throw from me or Tommy, he'll straddle the bag. When he knows which side the throw's coming to, he'll fake in the other direction to draw the runner's slide. Bill Mad-lock of the Pirates is the best I've ever seen at taking out the pivotman, but Ozzie left him in the dust."
"I know I'm unorthodox," says Smith. "I do it the way I feel most comfortable. I still concentrate on the basics—catch the ball, throw the ball—but that may mean diving or catching it off balance." During batting practice, Smith stands as close as 80 feet to the hitter to test his reflexes and works on backhanding balls and taking them on short hops. During games, he stands deep in the hole, the better to pick off hard shots; he's still fast enough to run down slow rollers.
"I like to prepare myself for the element of surprise," he says. "I try to keep my weight evenly balanced so I can move to my right or left. I move around to get into the flow of the game with the pitcher. When it's hard to get into the rhythm, I bend lower." But don't judge Smith purely by logic and data: He's too elusive for that. He's The Wiz.
Mex, Taco Keith Hernandez, 29, 6 feet, 190. Handsome Californian of Spanish ancestry, but speaks little Spanish. Has won five consecutive Gold Gloves at first. Considered peerless on bunt plays and scooping throws out of dirt, has unparalleled range and such a strong arm he—and not the second baseman, as on most teams—takes relays on balls hit down the rightfield line...Has .299 lifetime average and was co-Most Valuable Player in 1979. Has played in all but nine Cardinal games since start of 1977 season. Noted Civil War buff.
"The ball's hit so fast, especially on artificial turf, that if I didn't have my glove down on the ground, the ball would go right under me," he says. He wrapped up a recent Cardinal victory by making three unassisted putouts on ninth-inning grounders, including one on a ball that bounced crazily off the bag. "It came up and hit the heel of my glove, then my bare hand," he says. "I clamped it back in. That's one for the youngsters—two hands all the time."
Hernandez relishes fielding bunts. On one play the other night he charged in so swiftly that he wound up intercepting the catcher's throw to the pitcher. "I field bunts with my arm cocked to go to second or third," he says. "I can always turn and get the batter."
Hernandez has an involved series of signals he uses with pitchers on pickoffs, and if the throw's off, he still has that goalie glove. In a game against the Reds, Andujar threw wildly. Hernandez tumbled over the base runner, Eddie Milner, plucked the ball out of the dirt and reached back to tag him out.
Obie Kenneth Ray Oberkfell, 27, 6'1", 185. Led National League third basemen with .972 percentage in '82, his second year at that position. In 1980 led the league's second basemen with .985 percentage. Has excellent range and arm, feels he could do better on bunts and slow rollers. Lifetime .290 hitter. Raised 15 minutes from Busch Stadium, in Highland, Ill.
"If I'm standing still and flatfooted," he says, "I'm not ready. If I'm moving, I'm ready to go either way. I try to land on my right foot when the ball's pitched so I can pivot off it.
"Playing second helped my range at third. Third's a much easier position; you don't have to make double plays or get hit—just react. I was leery of changing, but it's the best thing that ever happened to me." Indeed, to a man, the Cards feel Oberkfell should have been awarded the 1982 Gold Glove instead of Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt. "As long as my teammates know what I'm doing for the organization, I don't care about awards," Obie says with a shrug.
T-Bone Thomas Mitchell Herr, 27, 6 feet, 190. Has made only 14 errors in last two seasons at second, the league's best record over that span. Excellent pivotman. After last season had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and during '83 spring training on his left knee, costing him one-third of medial cartilage; has lost range to his left but still goes well to right. Reliable leadoff man. Collects antique furniture, reads Kurt Vonnegut.
"I stand up straight on turf because the ball takes high bounces," he says. "On grass I get lower. I've got a fairly good arm and good size for a second baseman. I don't play with much flair, throwing sidearm like Manny Trillo. I just get the job done." Let's rewrite a Pajama Game song. Herr is: steady and reliable, a gritty, traditional second baseman. Him is: gonna get a Gold Glove yet.
Rammer Michael Jeffrey Ramsey, 29, 6'1", 175. Played 112 games at second, short and third last season—no wonder he has been reading novel called "Schism." Highlight of season was errorless 14-game September stretch subbing at short for injured Smith. Team was 10-4 in those games. With both hands almost touching turf, takes position like spider. Gets inspiration from New Testament and "Powers of Mind" by Adam Smith.
"I just keep plugging away," says Ramsey, who plays some outfield, too. "I pride myself on being a good utilityman, like Derrel Thomas or Bob Bailor." Those are telling words. Two years from qualifying for the reentry draft, Ramsey could be gnashing his teeth and demanding playing time. "I'm thankful for the time I get—to complain would be self-destructive," he says. "He works as hard as anyone in baseball," says Oberkfell. "A utility player has to be like that."
Oh, that Cardinal infield. It's the boon of the St. Louis staff and the doom of opposing hitters. "The only thing I have to tell our pitchers is to throw strikes, keep the ball down and let 'em hit it," says Porter. "We're flat tough out there."
"How about that great Cardinal infield!" says St. Louis Pitcher Dave LaPoint. "Just creeps up on you. The ball finds the glove."
And the Cardinals just keep on winning.
Smith's elusiveness on double plays has made him a tough target for sliding runners.
Herr is steady, gritty and the keystone reason that the Cardinal infield turns so many DPs, including a division-leading 169 in '82.
With Gold Glove in hand, Hernandez has no trouble reaching out to make the difficult play.
First at second and now at third, Oberkfell always has the percentages in his favor.
Stooping low to conquer, Smith has more bubbles than bobbles.
When it comes to answering emergency calls at second, short or third, Ramsey is definitely the hands-down winner among utility men.
Hernandez doesn't have to be defensive about his offense.