Getting top billing, having your name appear above the title, that's confirmation of stardom in a play or a movie. Only a special few have the kind of marquee value that deserves and can demand such reverential treatment. In a Kansas City-St. Louis World Series, a regional theater showcase for inspired but limited companies, only two players have that certain sizzle: George Brett, the Royals' crowning jewel, and Ozzie Smith, the Cardinals' Wizard of Ahhhs.
Aside from his admitted embarrassment against John Tudor on Wednesday night, and considering the Cardinals' practical decision to pitch around him, Brett has performed on a distinguished, though not spectacular level, glistening in the field and reaching base 10 times in his 22 trips to the plate through five games -- including all five times in the first game the Royals won.
But Smith has had almost no impact on the Series. He has turned several nice tricks in the field, especially on double plays, but has been denied the chance to make the great play, to unwrap the wondrous acrobatics that are his trademark. Unfortunately for Smith, his most visible fielding play of the Series so far was an error in Game 5 that gave the Royals their fifth run. At bat, Smith has been mute. Hitting in the No. 2 spot -- where he figured to see more fast balls than he would have had Vince Coleman not been injured freakishly, forcing Smith up from his customary No. 8 spot -- he had just one hit through five games, the easiest out of the Cardinals regulars.
Going into the Series, with St. Louis a hearty favorite, it seemed all the Wizard need do to stake his claim to a brand new ignition key (and the car that went with it) was hit in the .200s. But through five games he isn't even in the .100s. This from a man who had batted .435 in the playoffs and set personal bests, however nondescript, in average (.276), home runs (six) and runs batted in (54) during the season.
"I haven't had the greatest Series," a passive Smith shrugged and said the other night. "There comes a time when things aren't always going to go your way. They don't happen when you want them to." He stood straight up in a shielded hallway on the fringes of the St. Louis clubhouse, and as thin as he is looked like an exclamation point. "I believe in destiny," he said. "If I only get one hit in the Series, that's what's meant to be. I know I'm a much better offensive player than I've displayed here. But you can't be great all the time."
There followed the usual athletic disclaimer we've grown so used to: that "the bottom line is winning," and that personal frustrations, although annoying, are mitigated as winning "takes away your lack of contributions." And for all the truth in that -- and it becomes increasingly true with the passage of time between the event and the self-evaluation -- there are other truths to tell about Smith. Taking his bat out of the lineup won't dent a team. Taking his glove out can wreck it.
Ozzie Smith is the best shortstop in baseball.
Maybe not just now.
"He has reached the point," Roger Angell said, "where Johnny Bench was as a catcher. First there's him, in a separate place. Then you debate the rankings of the others."
Royals Manager Dick Howser, who played some short himself, has said of The Wizard, "He turns me into a fan."
It should go without saying that it's a pleasure for a pitcher to have The Wizard behind him. "A ground ball is a double play, and you're out of the inning," Jeff Lahti gushed appreciatively. Bill Campbell, who has played for 13 seasons, for five teams and in both leagues, raved about Smith, saying, "He is by so far the best I've ever seen that there's no comparision I can make. If you're playing on another team, you come in to play the Cards three games, you know he's great. But playing here, seeing it all year long, you simply can't believe it. It's not just because he's an acrobat at getting to the ball, it's what he does after he gets it. I can't describe how tough the plays he makes are, and how ordinary he makes them seem."
Who'd suspect such greatness just looking at him? (Well, maybe if you saw him the other night, standing and chatting, and at the same time juggling two baseballs one-handed.) They list Smith at 5-10, 150, but he seems much smaller, much slighter, and as elastic as something in Pat Benatar's closet. Put him in a lineup with a varied group of pro athletes and you'd say "soccer player" first.
But here he is, in a World Series, ready, willing and eager for your compliments. That pregame flip should have been the clue you needed, but if you want it spelled out: Yes, Ozzie Smith likes the light. It is not for nothing that he wears No. 1. The expectations that come with it are no burden. "I brought them on myself with the way I play," he said. "I won't run and hide." Because he has put in just eight years, he is recent to the drawer of the Aparicios and the Belangers, but many suspect that he will leave the game on a shelf of his own. "Comparable worth is determined by time," Smith said admiringly. "Time determines greatness. Give me 10 or 15 years to look back on. If I'm still able to perform like this, I'll make my claim."