Call them the Young and the Restless.
The Cincinnati Reds' Barry Larkin and the Cubs' Shawon Dunston, likely heirs to Ozzie Smith's title as the National League's premier shortstop, nearly have completed their apprenticeship.
"People always want to compare this guy with that guy and say that this guy is better than that guy, but everybody who plays this position does it his own way, with his own style," said Smith, 35, whose acrobatic defensive plays and overall consistency have been his signature since he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 1977.
"People who see Shawon play every day are going to see Shawon do some extraordinary things. So what are you going to hear? How great Shawon is. People who see Ozzie Smith play every day say, 'Wow, is he great!'
"It is a matter of personal opinion. Everybody has a job to do. You do whatever it takes to help your team win. All the other things take care of themselves. I don't worry about what this person did or that person did."
While Smith may balk at the notion of making comparisons, he admits to being a connoisseur of exceptional shortstop play.
"As peers, sure, we all talk all the time," said Smith, who tied the modern-day NL record for the most years (four, 1984 through '87) leading the league in fielding average by a shortstop. "If there is something that I know that I can pass along, that means the game is going to be that much better. I think I was given a talent to show other people. If I don't share it, then I have not done what The Man gave it to me to do."
Larkin has been among the league leaders in hitting all season, and Dunston's average has been hovering around .300 most of the year. Smith has struggled at the plate this year, hitting around .245.
"There are a lot of shortstops that I like, and I talk nationally about all of those people," said Smith. "When you talk about one more than the other, then you get in trouble. What they are doing, I think, is sort of self-explanatory. It is working, and it is beautiful.
"They both are great offensive players at this point in time, and they are probably better offensive players than I was at their particular age. My forte has always been defense, and they possess that offensive quality a little bit more than I did."
Dunston's 10 home runs and 12 doubles underscore his growing offensive prowess. Larkin has only two homers, but his average has been consistently around .330 and he is a constant threat to go deep. Larkin hit .342 last season in 97 games before an injury sustained in a pre-All-Star Game relay-throwing event cut short his season.
"Larkin can hit. He can be oh for three, but if there is a runner in scoring position his next time up, you had better walk him because he will beat you," said Cincinnati teammate Billy Hatcher. "He will find a way to beat you.
"Defensively, he is very smart. He knows where to play the hitters. And he knows his weaknesses. Nobody else knows them, but he knows them, and he covers them up very well."
Larkin, 26, who attended the University of Michigan, and Dunston, 27, the first overall pick in the free agent amateur draft in June, 1982, seem to be just hitting their stride.
"They both have a lot of poise; they both hit with a lot of power," Smith said. "Consistency is the biggest factor, how they perform over a course of time. They both have been very consistent at both phases of the game so far.
"I think it is time that determines greatness, though. You have to watch them over a period of 10 or 15 years to see if they are able to maintain the same consistency."
Of the three shortstops, Dunston is the only one who plays his home games on grass.
"Of course, the balls are not going to be as fast playing on a grass field. But I think the true measure of a man's ability as far as hands and eyes and such is the ability to play on grass," said Smith.
Dunston's strong throwing arm is beyond compare, and his range at shortstop matches Smith's when he was in his prime. He also has cut down on his mental and physical errors dramatically. Larkin is more renowned for his timely hitting, but his fielding should not go unnoticed. His .976 fielding percentage in 1989 matched Smith's and bettered Dunston's (.972). Smith had 100 more chances than Dunston (709-609), and Larkin missed significant time because of his injury.
Not surprisingly, Reds Manager Lou Piniella favors Larkin over Dunston at this point.
"Barry is an excellent defensive player," said Piniella. "People look at his offensive statistics, but he covers and he has great range. He has a very accurate throwing arm. And he has got good hands.
"Offensively, we have hit him third in the lineup. He is up there among the league leaders in average and among the league leaders in RBIs. He just recently has started to hit the ball out of the ballpark. He is just a great player.
"If I had to choose, yeah, I would say Barry would be my everyday shortstop. Dunston is a great player also. But I would vote for my guy."
It often has been suggested that Smith has relied more on guile and experience in recent years to position himself against today's hitters. Smith disagrees.
"I have always been a free-lance type of player. That was the ability that I was born with," said Smith. "That is the ability that I will die with."