Tures: Chatting with a great over the future of baseball

Published 10:00 am Monday, May 1, 2017

When we think of baseball in its glory days, we think of men like Ozzie Smith dazzling crowds with his defense and backflips and shocking his opponents with timely hitting, before the steroid era. Perhaps that’s why he’s the perfect person to talk with about helping America’s pastime stay great.

“Interested in doing an interview with Ozzie Smith?” a media executive emailed me. I confess that my jaw just about hit the keyboard. How many political science professors who are lifelong baseball fans get such luck?

For a fan of the game, appreciating good defense, Ozzie Smith was the player to cheer for. And who could forget how this star, known more for a great batting average than power, would smash a walk-off home run to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a key NLCS Game, earning MVP honors for that 1985 playoff series (voted the best moment in Busch Stadium history by fans).  Getting to interview him was like a dream come true. And I got permission to have several LaGrange College students, Dan Garrett, Wesley Dismuke and Hank Harrison, participate.

But the St. Louis Cardinals shortstop wasn’t on the phone just to relive the glory days. “I’ve teamed up with Kingsford Charcoal to find out what the fans want, and what they’re talking about when they gather ‘round the grill and talk baseball,” he said.  It’s about coming up with ideas to change the game to get more action in baseball, with rules to make the game more fast-paced, as it was in Ozzie’s day.  “It’s also about saying this:  what are the things that we like about the game?” he added.

In fact, fans who think up some ideas and send them to #BestofBaseball even get the chance to win a trip to the 2017 All-Star Game, going to Miami in VIP fashion. To enter, go to this site (http://bit.ly/2ozMmHs) for more details.

One idea that’s oft-debated by fans involves instant replay. “The game has its own pace and time,” Smith told us. “It can speed up a game, but also slow it down. It’s the right idea, but used for nearly everything, which slows a game down. I kind of liked seeing the umpire argue a call, though, seeing Lou Piniella throw a tantrum. But you don’t get that with instant replay.”

Even though Smith was a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, primarily based on his defensive gems, he thinks the game needs more offense. “The game was built from offensive plays, seeing the ball fly out,” Smith said in the interview. “The defense can be the momentum changer, to stymie a rally and give the pitcher the confidence that the team’s got his back.”

Another rule change that’s been kicked around the grill by fans is the ban on sliding hard into a base, into a player. “The player’s union has to play a role on any rule change,” Smith claimed.  “If you’ve never played the game, it’s hard to understand the parameters and come up with the rule changes.”

The interview took place a day after Jackie Robinson Day, so my student-athletes who crowded into my office to hear Smith couldn’t resist asking a question about baseball outreach, getting more kids to play the game. “We improved our strategy,” Smith claimed. “There are a lot of single-parent households, and it’s hard to get them to play in a league or go to the game. But we’ve tried to make it easier for these parents and kids.”

Then, Smith launched into his own story, and tied it to what really matters, while giving my students and son in the office listening on speakerphone some good advice. “I got into baseball by playing with an uncle, and a plastic ball and bat,” Smith told us. “I got into Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo on a partial academic scholarship, and had to be a walk-on for the baseball team.”

We looked around in amazement…I mean, aren’t all Hall-of Famers just born into being “bonus babies?” But Smith continued. “We always tell the kids this: if you get a good education, they can’t take that away from you. On one play, your career can be over, but it’s not the same with an education.”

My son Zach, a 9-year-old Little Leaguer who plays the infield, and also got to attend the interview, couldn’t resist asking a question about how to practice. “I took lots of grounders,” Smith told him. “I’d throw the ball against the wall, practicing short-hops. I’d close my eyes and try to develop that natural feel. It’s all about developing skills and coming up with creative ways to practice. Basketball was my best sport, but I loved the game of baseball.”

If you love the game as much as Ozzie, the student-athletes in the room, fans across the country, as well as my son and I do, then join in the conversation. Your ideas could help revolutionize the game, and you could see that 2017 All-Star Game if you’re lucky.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College.  He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu or via Twitter, JohnTures2.