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A Wizard’s view on the Cardinals’ road ahead

ST. LOUIS — He razzled-dazzled fans with his acrobatic catches and vacuum-like glove. His name became synonymous with the Cardinals. When you said one, you could easily think of the other, and because of his play and his name, he soon was labeled with the nickname “The Wizard”, and rightly so, since the defensive play of Ozzie Smith seemed very magical to all who observed it.

It’s been 13 years since Ozzie graced the old Busch Stadium turf with his back-flip entrance to a ball game, and seven years since his induction to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002, but he still has a passion for the game that gave him 19 years of great enjoyment as professional ball player, 15 of which was in a Cardinals uniform

On Tuesday, Ozzie came to St. Louis to help in a special promotion for Bank of America for the upcoming All-Star Game and its festivities, and it was on Tuesday at the bank’s Creve Couer facility where Ozzie granted an exclusive interview in regards to his outlook on the rest of the season for this year’s Cardinals (the Cardinals are currently battling for first-place in the Central Division of the National League).

Question: How well do you project the Cardinals can do for the rest of this year?

Ozzie: “Well, they play in a (Central) division that I think that the fact they have a (Adam) Wainwright and they have (Chris) Carpenter, and I mean if those two guys can stay healthy, they’re going to be in the race. We’re fortunate to get Carpenter back now, and you can see the impact Carpenter has when he pitches, and if we can keep Albert (Pujols) healthy, they’re going to be right in the race.

“Now whether or not that’s enough to win the World Series, I don’t know, but I believe it’s good enough to win this division.”

Question: The division itself has been a little on the low side for the past few years. Can the Cardinals be a team that jumps out to the front, or are they a team that just has to keep striving to be ahead?

Ozzie: “I think the Cardinals right now are in a perfect position. You don’t necessarily want to be the team that is always out in front. You want to be the team that is in second position, and it’s all about who gets hot at the right time. Something that Whitey Herzog used to always say ‘If you stay close, you have a chance’.”

Question: Is he first half of the season before the All-Star Game, just a prelude of things to come or does it say to a team, we need to put it together now?

Ozzie: “Well, you know, what you try to be is a team that is on an even keel, and remain on that even keel. You don’t want to be one of these teams that are up and down.  You want to be as steady as you can possibly be, and that lends itself to being consistent.

“If you are a consistent team and you go out there and you pitch well, you play good defense, then you give yourself a chance to win. The teams that do that are ultimately the teams that come out on top.”

Question: You mentioned pitching and defense. The Cardinals do have a little problem on the hitting side. With the exception of Albert at .324, the next batter is at least 50 points below him and it goes down from there. Is their hitting going to be sufficient enough?

Ozzie: “We’re not fortunate enough to be a team that has eight or nine players that hit .300, so you have to do the best with what you have. The fact of the matter is that you still have to pitch and play good defense, and if you’re not a great offensive team, those two things become paramount.

“They certainly have been good enough from a defensive standpoint to hold themselves (in contention), being only a game out of first place at this particular time is great. You look at the Cubs. They probably had the most wholesale trades in the off-season, but they’re tanking. The Cardinals are in a good spot as long as they play good defense and pitch well they should be in the race.”

Question: We went through an era where the home run ball was all the talk of the MLB. Now that it’s not, is pitching going to be the dominant thing?

Ozzie: “No, I don’t think it will be the dominant thing, but as a baseball purist, pitching has always been one of the most important parts of the game. When you think about it, no one can do anything on the field until the pitcher lets go of the ball. So, it’s very, very important to any team.

“When we talk about defense, if you watched the NBA finals, the one thing that Kobe (Bryant) talked about when he was asked what was it that got your offense in position to win, he said ‘Defense, it was our  defense that put our team in position to win’. If the Cardinals do that, if they pitch and play defense, they have a chance to win.”

Question: Why is it that the Cardinals have been able to make the playoffs many times, but winning the whole thing has often escaped them?

Ozzie: “The tougher it is to win. It’s not easy. The higher you go in the play-off charts, the better the competition and they do a better job of preparing themselves, that’s why they are at the top. It’s a matter of execution. The team that executes day-in and day-out over a 162 game schedule is the team that wins.”

Question: You have been involved in many ventures since you retired, many of them with kids. Is there any desire to get back in the game as a coach, player or even in administration?

Ozzie: “I don’t know. Right now, I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I like my freedom. People don’t realize that when you are in a baseball schedule how much travel  is involved. You’re home for maybe a week, and then on the road for two weeks.

“For a lot of us, who once we do retire  and get away from the game, we basically get away from that travel schedule. Before I get back in the game, I have to be completely settled in my mind that it is something I want to do. Right now, I play so much golf, I have no real desire to get back.”

Question: Are there times when you think it would be good to be back on the field again?

Ozzie: “Let me say, I have a 22-year old that plays and I have a chance to throw the ball around a lot and batting cages and all of that. I’m not that far removed from it. I’ve been very fortunate from a health standpoint that I’m still functional as a player, so. . . you know, I’m as close to it as I want to be. I don’t know what the future holds, but we’ll see.”

Observation: One of the things that I thrilled at for a particular reason is that I had the privilege in June 1989 to take my 70 year old father, who was visiting with me, and my son, 10 years old, to a Cardinals game against the Pirates. You came out and did a flip at the start of the game, but later in the game you made a diving catch of a grounder in the hole, bounced back up off the ground, and threw the runner out at first which just awed the fans. Everyone erupted with applause.

My dad, about two innings later said to me ‘This is the first professional baseball game, I’ve ever been to’, and I’m just so pleased you thrilled him and also my son who is a big fan of yours through and through, because he grew up while you were playing, and he really wanted to see Ozzie play ball.

That was a thrill for me and that’s one of the things you have been able to give to others is this thrill of the baseball game. To make it something. . .

Ozzie: “A memory. Those are the things that we hold onto. In those special moments, that’s one of the special things about playing baseball here in St. Louis.

“People hold onto those great memories that are part of the Cardinal lore, and they don’t have a problem in expressing that as you go out in the public, which I do a lot. It’s one of those things that says I have had an impact on the sport.”

Ozzie Smith was in St. Louis representing Bank of America, the official bank of Major League Baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals, and MasterCard, an official sponsor and preferred card of Major League Baseball, to offer baseball fans a terrific All-Star Week opportunity.

Between now and July 7, fans who sign up for Cardinals Banking at St. Louis-area Bank of America banking centers will receive four (4) tickets to an exclusive sneak preview of the 2009 MLB All-Star FanFest, hosted by Bank of America and MasterCard.

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