Hall of Fame shortstop Smith suits up with Cards
JUPITER, Fla. (AP)
Ozzie Smith suited up with the St. Louis Cardinals as a spring training instructor for the first time, saying it was nice to breathe ''good baseball air.''
A rift with manager Tony La Russa over the way Smith's playing career ended led to a lengthy estrangement, aside from formal functions, following his retirement in 1996. But the Hall of Fame shortstop has been welcomed back into the fold by new manager Mike Matheny.
General manager John Mozeliak also called Smith to see if he was interested in helping.
''It was an iron curtain, but you know what, it's behind us now,'' Smith said Saturday. ''As I said a long time ago, when the time was right I'd be more than willing to come back and hopefully find my place with this organization.''
La Russa chose Royce Clayton as the starter in 1996 over a 41-year-old Smith, who was coming off an injury-shortened season and facing criticism for reduced range in the field. The 13-time Gold Glover batted .282 but made only 50 starts behind a player who was gone by 1998 and played for nine more teams.
Smith announced he'd had enough in June 1996. The feud still simmers.
''You normally don't want things like this to happen the way they do, but unfortunately they do,'' Smith said. ''When the opportunity presents itself again, you've got to be ready to step into it, and here I am.
''It's really like coming home. It really is.''
The 57-year-old Smith will be with the team for a week, primarily helping with infielders and baserunning. Smith said he's open to making this a yearly thing, and said it was nice to be wanted.
''It should have been a natural transition but unfortunately it wasn't,'' Smith said. ''That stuff's behind us now and we can move forward.''
Smith predicted managerial success for Matheny, a friend for several years. Reading between the lines there might have been a knock on La Russa, who ended a 16-year run with the Cardinals by retiring the day after the World Series victory parade.
''He's always been a very respectful guy and stuff, and I think he'll do well,'' Smith said of Matheny. ''I think he has the right temperament, I think he has good baseball knowledge.
''One of the big things about being a manager is being able to handle people and he's good with people.''
Not long after putting on the uniform, Smith reconnected with another star from the 1980s in town as a guest instructor. Outfielder Willie McGee arrived Friday for his first spring stint with St. Louis, although in his case it was delayed because he was busy raising a family.
Like McGee, Smith said his role was not clearly defined.
''I'm open to anything right now, it's just a matter of getting myself re-acclimated to being in this environment,'' Smith said. ''I've been on the premises but not under these conditions.''
Anything, that is, except backflips.
''No, no, no, no, none of those temptations,'' Smith said. ''None of those thoughts.''