Ozzie Smith, the littlest St. Louis Cardinal, the Wizard of Oz, the hand-springing acrobat of defense who couldn't hit a ball over a fence lefthanded if you let him toss it up himself, beat the Los Angeles Dodgers out of a playoff game, and maybe a pennant, with a home run in the ninth inning today.
In eight seasons, Smith has 13 home runs. Never, not in 3,001 at bats, had he hit one left-handed. Until, at 5:45 Central Miracle Time, Smith dead flat crushed a belt-buckle fast ball from 6-foot-5, 230-pound Tom Niedenfuer.
When his hooking drive finished its assault and battery on a concrete pillar above the fence in the right field corner, the Cardinals had won, 3-2 -- the same margin by which they now lead this best-of-seven National League pennant series.
"Who came up with this seven-game format?" joked Manager Whitey Herzog whose Cardinals have won three straight games here. "I'd like to play five."
"I'm dumbstruck," said Los Angeles Manager Tom Lasorda. "In baseball, you learn one thing: never expect the unexpected . . . I just don't understand."
The Cardinals will tell you this was poetic justice, virtue rewarded. The $2-million-a-year Smith both leads and epitomizes the Cardinals with his defense, speed, brains, intensity, prickly pride and cocky daring.
"He deserves this because he works his heart out every day," said Tommy Herr who had a two-run first-inning double for St. Louis. None other than Smith carried home the second run on Herr's hit, going through a coach's stop sign.
The Dodgers will spit in your eye and tell you the ending was the rottenest fluke that ever threatened to decide a pennant. Niedenfuer's pitch was a textbook jam. "I've given up trying to figure things out in this game," said disgusted Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia.
If Smith, at 150 pounds the lightest regular in the major leagues, was heroic, what was Fernando Valenzuela?
The game started about 40 minutes late because of earlier rain. And before the Dodgers' left-handed ace got an out, two St. Louis runs were home, a man was on third base, and he'd already walked the first two batters of the game and thrown a pickoff into center field.
Yet Valenzuela left after eight innings with a 2-2 tie, thanks to a two-run 'round-the-foul-pole homer by Bill Madlock off Bob Forsch in the fourth inning.
Six times Valenzuela, who walked an NL Championship Series record eight men, stranded runners in scoring position.
Lasorda broke every rule of managing in leaving his clutch horse on the mound. The ancient rule is: "Always let your starter work out of two jams, sometimes three, never four. For Hall of Famers, add one."
Cesar Cedeno and batting champ Willie McGee were fanned with men on third and one out. Maybe Valenzuela just used up all the rabbits' feet in the dugout.
Throughout the tense late innings, the Cardinals' bullpen of Ken Dayley, Todd Worrell and winner Jeff Lahti ran up a streak of 5 2/3 shutout innings. Hail to the St. Louis Save Committee. Herzog said, "Our bullpen was the key again."
Lasorda critics moaned for innings that Niedenfuer should be in the game as Valenzuela threw line-drive outs. So much for smart strategy.
"I questioned him leaving Fernando in so long," said Landrum. "We (on the Cardinals bench) figured he must know something we didn't."
Niedenfuer threw only seven pitches. McGee popped up, but Smith had wicked swings on the first two pitches, fouling both back.
Said Tito Landrum, whom the Cardinals started in left field once more for Vince Coleman, "We were all buzzing about those cuts."
Had injured Coleman been playing, Smith would have been batting eighth, not second.
On 0-2, with no need to challenge, Niedenfuer exercised the big man's prerogative again.
Smith did not do his famous hand-spring tumbling routine as he ran the bases. "There were too many Redbirds around home plate for me to think of that," he said of his huge welcoming committee.
As a team, the Cardinals are easily slighted, almost grumpy about their lack of fame. Smith is, too.
"I keep hearing that I'm not an offensive ballplayer. We listen to all these negatives," said Smith, who hit .276 this year with 54 RBI, 65 walks, 31 steals, 22 doubles and six homers. "I've been pumping iron every winter to work on my strength . . . I was trying to get an extra-base hit on that at bat to get in scoring position, though I never thought of a home run."
Once this year, off Rick Sutcliffe, Smith hit a ball he thought was off the yellow stripe atop the fence here for a homer, but the umpires said no. Like any great performer, he was just waiting for the perfect stage.
The Dodgers have much to rue, but the seventh inning will haunt their flight west. With two on and none out, Steve Sax faced reliever Worrell.
Sax may have wanted revenge too much. His previous at bat, he tried to climb into the stands to belt a fan who'd splashed rainwater off the dugout roof into his face after he struck out.
"He's in jail now," said Sax. "Hope he's having a good time."
Sax isn't, either. Worrell threw three balls as Sax turned to sacrifice.
"He looked wild, like he hadn't warmed up enough," said Lasorda, who then put the take sign on twice. On the second take on 3-1, Sax showed bunt -- a real mistake. That allowed Worrell to lay the ball in, since a bunt was what he wanted at that point. Showing "hit" might have helped prompt ball four. Sax struck out swinging on a full-count fast ball
Next, having ensured two days' worth of public insults on California radio call-in shows, Lasorda let Valenzuela bat for himself. He grounded to the mound. Mariano Duncan popped up.
Lasorda, who made a half-dozen questionable moves, won't get a goat's horn out of this game, but Niedenfuer, who did little wrong, will.
Smith will be a hero, yet in the first inning on Herr's double (which ticked off Madlock's glove), he ran through the stop sign of coach Hal Lanier. Had Duncan made a quick accurate relay, he'd have been dead at home.
Now, the Cardinals must go to Chavez Ravine for games Tuesday, and if necessary, Wednesday.
Tuesday they face Orel Hershiser, of whom Lasorda said "I don't think they can beat him."
"We haven't played well out there," said Smith. On the other hand, they'll have two 20-game winners on tap -- Joaquin Andujar in Game 6 and John Tudor, perhaps, in Game 7.
But for Andujar's ineffectiveness in recent weeks, topped off by his miserable showing in NLCS Game 2, journeyman Forsch never would have gotten today's start.
"It'll be Joaquin in Game 6," said Herzog, "because Danny Cox has a tender elbow. If the playoff go seven games and we win, he'd be ready to start the World Series. I want to give him as much rest as possible."
More good Cardinal news came from Coleman, who said, "Hopefully, I will be able to play Wednesday . . . I wouldn't wish what happened to me on my worst enemy . . . I got my show caught in the tarp . . . and it just continued to grab me. There I was with 1,500 pounds of tarp on my leg. Thank God the grounds crew person managed to shut it off when he did.
"When I went home last night, I dreamed . . . that the tarp went right over my head."
Who ever thought the fastest player in baseball would be caught and half-eaten by a tarpaulin? Or that a man who hadn't hit a lefty home run in 3,001 at bats would beat the Dodgers in their most crucial game with a homer?
If Coleman thought he had nightmares, what will the Dodgers have tonight?