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Fallen Heroes

Posted on December 1, 2012 at 8:12 AM
Filed Under: St. Louis Cardinals
It's an old chestnut, the idea that sports figures shouldn't be heroes or role models.  While completely understandable (especially the latter--there are so many athletes that you'd be horror-stricken if your children tried to live like), it's also the case that, so often, that advice is discarded.  After all, when you are young and impressionable, you don't necessarily care that your father or the affable person at your church might be a better person to admire than the guy hitting .320 on your television screen.

This idea of not elevating sports figures is a newer concept as well.  We all remember the Charles Barkley commercial making news, but that was just 1993.  In the '50s and '60s, at least reading back over that time in baseball, it seemed like people were almost encouraged to make the players their role models.  The media coverage wasn't as intense and there was less need to "dig up dirt" on the players that were playing.  (Of course, that was also the era of Stan Musial, so we know that at least some of those players were incredible human beings.)

I came to baseball late, not really starting a close following of the game until 1987.  (I'd like to think I've made up for lost time since then.)  Of course, I already had a grounding in the Cardinals and I obviously picked a good year to follow them, as they made it all the way to the World Series before falling to the Minnesota Twins.

It was also Ozzie Smith's finest year.  Even before that, though, I was a fan of Ozzie.  1987 was also the first year that my brother and I started buying baseball cards, and I remember I was jealous when he got an Ozzie before I did.  Obviously, with the way cards were printed back then, it wasn't long before I got one of my own.  Just as certainly, it wasn't the last.

In fact, one of the highlights of my collecting career back then was being in our local card shop (now long gone, of course, after the card bubble burst) and hearing the proprietor mention on the phone that he had an Ozzie Smith rookie card.  I was up front immediately after his phone call asking about it and walked out that day extremely proud to be the owner of said card.  In fact, it's in a card frame and still on the shelf above this computer as I write (along with Ozzie Starting Lineups, stadium giveaways, and other cards.)

I latched on to Ozzie as my favorite player, reading all I could about him (including his autobiography Wizard), cheering when he won the Gold Glove over and over again, deriding anyone that compared Barry Larkin or Omar Vizquel to him.  This still holds true today; I felt that naming Pete Kozma "The Wizard of Koz" was much more insulting to a legend than calling Albert Pujols "El Hombre".  At least Pujols had put up a career that put him in Musial's general ZIP code.  Kozma had had three good weeks that were completely out of sync with the rest of his career.

I've even had a couple of personal interactions with Ozzie over the past few years.  In fact, they both happened in 2009.  In June, I got to interview him for the UCB Radio Hour and he was very nice and patient with someone who was quite obviously way too nervous to be interviewing him.  Then, in July, we were in St. Louis for FanFest around the All-Star Game and went with friends to his restaurant.  Ozzie actually came in that night and was amazingly gracious.  He spoke to our table coming in without prompting, engaged in a conversation with my son from the private room behind us while he was waiting on his other guests (which included Willie McGee, we found out later) and then stopped by our table again on his way out when we weren't even looking.  When I asked him then if he'd take a picture with my son, he not only agreed, but put him up on a chair and got on his level, talking to him all the while.  It's one of my favorite pictures ever.

All that said, I never thought Ozzie was perfect.  (You know, beyond the fact that none of us are.)  I remember reading Wizard and thinking he had a bit of an ego, which I guess you have to have to be a professional baseball player.  There was the whole Tony La Russa thing, which no matter which side of the argument you took, you have to admit that it could have been handled better by both sides and Ozzie was the one that kept picking at the scab.

So there were mixed feelings when it was announced a month or so back that Ozzie was selling all of his memorabilia.  Without any context it was hard to know what to think about the situation.  There was some indication that it was more for estate planning and setting up things for his kids and grandkids, which is definitely a laudable goal.  

Of course, Ozzie had spent a lot of money in the restaurant business, but I don't know how successfully.  I know the Westport location (which I had gone to a couple of times and was the setting for the picture above) had closed but he'd reopened in a different location.  I'm not sure if that one is open still or not--I've heard both and I can't seem to find out definitively on a search.  If that was the case, it was a sad but understandable thing to have to do.

Those emotions are still valid, but then I started to hear about what exactly he was selling off. "Everything" really did seem to cover it, which was his right, of course.  However, Derrick Goold pointed out on Twitter when the news broke that Ozzie was even selling his 2006 and 2011 World Series rings, rings that were given to him as a gift by the Cardinals.  He didn't earn them, he wasn't a part of the team, but the organization gave him one (as they did with all the Hall of Famers) because of their importance to the St. Louis Cardinals.  It seemed wrong to be profiting off of that.

However, recently I got the chance to look through the auction catalog and what I found there disappointed me even more.  There are uniforms and Gold Gloves and things of that nature, which you would expect (and, if I'd won the Powerball, I'd be bidding on).  There's his first major league check, which would be pretty neat to put on a shelf.  There are even some All-Star Game rings, which I don't think I realized was a thing.  All that was understandable and pretty interesting.

The disappointing part was the fact that he was also selling the gifts he was given during his farewell tour.  An autographed Atlanta Braves jersey.  A crystal number 1 from the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The number 1 from the Wrigley Field scoreboard.  All of these things given in honor of who he was and what he had done.  (I see the Marlins were comparatively cheap even then, giving him just a framed picture of himself.  Still, it was a gift!)

It seems wrong to take things that were expressly designed for you and try to make a profit off of them.  I understand it's been 16 years, that it's not like he was hocking them in a pawn shop after the game.  I also understand that he has the right to do whatever he wants to with such gifts.  They are his, after all.

But how would we as Cardinal fans feel if we saw Chipper Jones selling his autographed Musial jersey that the team gave him as a retirement gift?  Wouldn't we like to think that something like that would be memorable enough, would mean enough to him that he would want to hang on it it?  For all we know, he keeps in the back closet, but at least as fans we can imagine that it mattered to him.

Not only did he sell off the gifts, but he's selling things that, as Cardinal fans, we would hope that former players would cherish deeply because, well, WE would cherish them deeply.  An autographed picture of Musial.  His 1992 Jack Buck award.  A seat back signed by himself, Lou Brock, and Red Schoendienst.  Things that those that respect the history of this franchise would pass along from generation to generation.

Again, I understand that Ozzie has the right to do all of this and it doesn't keep me from admiring the player that he was or the ambassador for the game that he is.  Every statue, given time, develops cracks and chips.  Heroes can be the same way and while we don't necessarily appreciate them the way we used to, that doesn't mean that we discard them either.

In other words, I'm not clearing my shelf of Ozzie-related items.  Not even if someone makes an offer.

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