by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

ST. LOUIS — They would not leave.


Not one. Not a soul dared move. The game was over, but all 53,708 were on their feet, screaming for him to come back out, and if they had to stand there until the start of next season, damn it, they would.


What in sports is more dramatic than a home run in the bottom of the ninth? What raises an explosion in your larynx more than a home team’s sweep of three straight playoff games? What goose- bumps you more than a little man getting a big hit when he’s not supposed to, watching the ball arc high, high, high . . . gone!

Ozzie Smith, little Ozzie Smith, singles hitter Ozzie Smith, did all that for St. Louis Monday with one left-handed swing of lumber.

It was quick death. A screaming bullet across a Midwestern sky. This game had been tied, 2-2, for six innings — it felt like a week — and Smith had two strikes on him and there was nobody on base. To be perfectly honest, people were squirming in their seats, figuring this game was going into extra innings for sure.

And then — bang! It was over. It was victory. The ball caromed high off a right field pillar — home run! — the crowd sprang to its feet, singing the name as he circled the bases and was swarmed by his Cardinals teammates.

The players disappeared quickly. But the people would not leave. Not a one.

“OZ-ZIE! OZ-ZIE! OZ-ZIE!” Hurrah for little guys! The man they were waiting for had began the game by running out to his shortstop position and doing a backspring, flipping his body in mid-air, like happy people do in the movies. Happy Ozzie Smith. Bouncy Ozzie Smith. Fielding Wiz Ozzie Smith.

But Slugging Ozzie Smith? Wait a minute. This is a man with a whopping total of 13 home runs in eight major league years, a switch hitter who had never hit a home run left-handed before in his life.

“I wasn’t trying to do that,” he would later admit, “I was just trying to get a hit and I got under it and the next thing I know, I’m seeing the umpire giving the signal.”

And fireworks were being sent airborne, and the scoreboard was flashing:
“California Here We Come!” and the Cardinals were suddenly one game away from the pennant.

And the chant began.


Oh, for a moment like that. Smith would later call it the highlight of his career, and there was even a glaze of vindication on that home run ball. Smith signed a contract before this season worth $2 million, and people had questioned how a lifetime .238 .hitter warranted such money, no matter how great a wizard he was in the field. He bristled inside every time he heard the criticism.

But glory comes in all sizes. Even to a player with Smith’s build — roughly that of your average high school junior. What little guy hasn’t dreamed of winning a big game with a home run? This was the dream personified.

Someone would ask him what the difference was between that left-handed at-bat and all the previous ones.

“The end result,” he would say, and everyone would laugh.

But there was more. For no at-bat mattered as much since he’d put on a Cardinals uniform three years ago. His team had dropped the first two games to Los Angeles in this series. They had lost their star rookie, Vince Coleman, to a freakish accident. This was possibly his last appearance in St. Louis this year.

And the crowd wanted one last look, just in case.

“OZ-ZIE! OZ-IE! OZ-ZIE!” He flipped for fans Finally, he came back out, sprang out, like a novelty snake from a can, raised his hands above his head and shook to the thunder of his own name.

What a roar! The arch itself was shaking.

Thanks to Smith’s home run, the Cardinals had won three straight games in unusual fashion, and had risen from the ashes of a 2-0 deficit to pull ahead in this series, 3-2.

Anything seemed possible now. A home run in the bottom of the ninth has that effect.

Thirty minutes later, in the din of honking horns and distant screams of celebration, a handful of people still lingered atop the Cardinals’ dugout. One was a white-haired man in a dirty jacket. His eyes were half-closed and he had had a twisted look on his face that said he’d been drunk for hours.

No matter. He slapped his hands together in a feeble attempt at rhythm.
“Oz-zie! Oz-zie! Oz-zie!” he gurgled.

The song will last a long time.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!