Once upon a shortstop

On December 10, 1981, the San Diego Padres traded Ozzie Smith to the St. Louis Cardinals for Garry Templeton. Other players were involved on both sides—Steve Mura, Sixto Lezcano (who had a fantastic year for the Padres in ’82), Al Olmsted, and Luis DeLeon (who went on to enjoy a couple nice seasons in San Diego as well)—but at its heart, this was a swapping of two young shortstops.

At the time, it appeared that the Padres were getting the better one:

Smith vs Templeton, pre-trade
  Age G AB BA OBP SLG OPS+
Smith 26 583 2236 .231 .295 .278 66
Templeton 25 713 2990 .305 .325 .418 104

This doesn’t account for defense, where Ozzie is unrivaled in baseball history. Still, if you’d had to guess which of these guys would end up in the Hall of Fame, you’d have gone with the player who looked like a poor man’s Rod Carew and not the one that looked like a poor man’s Bud Harrelson. (It tickles me to no end that Calvin Schiraldi hit more home runs in a Padres uniform than Ozzie did.)

Unusual circumstances surrounded the trade. Templeton wore out his welcome in St. Louis after making an obscene gesture toward fans at Busch Stadium on August 26, 1981. After first being suspended and then placed on the disabled list (he was hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation on August 31), Templeton apologized to fans on September 15 and returned to the active roster.

Over in the Smith camp, relations between his agent, Ed Gottlieb, and the Padres had become strained. At one point, Gottlieb placed an ad in the San Diego Union that read, in part, “Padre baseball player wants part-time employment to supplement income.” Club owner Joan Kroc responded by offering Smith a job as assistant gardener on her estate.

Despite this friction, Smith initially considered invoking his no-trade clause to remain in San Diego. Cardinals skipper Whitey Herzog eventually convinced him otherwise.

The deal wasn’t officially completed until February 11, 1982. That’s when Smith, the Cardinals, and an arbitrator determined how much Smith’s new team would pay him.

After the trade, Smith and Templeton saw their careers head in opposite directions. Smith learned to hit, while Templeton’s knees inhibited his ability to maintain the high level of performance that defined his early career. Although he collected more than 2,000 big-league hits, Templeton was not the player in San Diego that he had been in St. Louis.

Smith vs Templeton, post-trade
  G AB BA OBP SLG OPS+
Smith 1990 7160 .272 .350 .344 93
Templeton 1336 4731 .250 .291 .338 76

Smith played nearly half again as many games as Templeton and beat the latter by about 60 points of OBP. Smith also stole 433 bases at an 81 percent success rate and…well, you know about the defense.

A not-so-brief tangent

While flipping through the Bill James Baseball Abstract 1982, I came across his shortstop rankings. Not surprisingly, James ranked Templeton ahead of Smith. Others ahead of Smith included Craig Reynolds and Chris Speier. Here is the complete list, along with selected comments from the book (and my annotations in brackets):

  1. Robin Yount, Milwaukee—His defensive statistics, which have always been good, were nothing short of sensational in 1981, actually better than the much-noted stats of Ozzie Smith in 1980. And, of course, offensively there is no comparison. He has estimated 30 percent chance of getting 3,000 hits. [That number is now 100 percent.]
  2. Rick Burleson, California
  3. Dave Concepcion, Cincinnati
  4. Bill Almon, Chicago White Sox—The mishandling of Bill Almon by the San Diego Padres was classic in design and pathetic in progress. [James then discusses at length the problem with shifting an offensively limited player with strong defensive skills to a position—in Almon's case, third base—that demands more from a hitter while wasting his defensive utility. Why was Almon shifted? Because of Ozzie Smith, of course.]
  5. Garry Templeton, St. Louis—Templeton is never going to be the ballplayer he should be unless somebody confronts him with the fact of his misbehavior and makes it clear to him that talent is not an excuse for immaturity. [Templeton became a team leader with the Padres, including on their 1984 World Series squad.]
  6. Alan Trammell, Detroit
  7. Craig Reynolds, Houston
  8. Bucky Dent, New York Yankees
  9. Larry Bowa, Philadelphia—The Phillies have a minor league shortstop, Julio Franco, who is believed by some to be the best player in the minor leagues today. [Irrelevant to our discussion, but I remain amazed that Franco continued playing up until a couple years ago.]
  10. Chris Speier, Montreal [He fathered a big-league reliever.]
  11. Ozzie Smith, San Diego—He has as much business batting second as he does mowing lawns for extra money… He will probably hit better if he gets traded.
  12. U.L. Washington, Kansas City
  13. Johnnie Lemaster, San Francisco
  14. Bill Russell
  15. Rob Picciolo, Oakland—He looks perfectly normal at the plate, but he doesn’t know the strike zone from a hole in the ground. His major league career total is 12 walks with 1,310 at-bats. If it’s not a record it ought to be. [For his career, Picciolo walked 25 times in 1,720 plate appearances. His personal best came as a rookie in '77, when he drew nine walks in 446 plate appearances. Bonus points for a surreal 1980 season: 63 strikeouts against two walks. As for a record, one man in big-league history managed to draw fewer walks in 1,700 or more : Phil Niekro (17).]
  16. Tim Foli, Pittsburgh
  17. Rafael Ramirez, Atlanta [He ended one of my all-time favorite games.]
  18. Mario Mendoza, Texas [This is the man after whom the "Mendoza Line" is named; thank you, George Brett.]
  19. Glenn Hoffman, Boston [His brother was a decent shortstop, too, before becoming a great reliever.]
  20. Tom Veryzer, Cleveland
  21. Frank Taveras, New York Mets
  22. Ivan DeJesus, Chicago Cubs [Somehow the Cubs managed to turn this guy into Bowa and Ryne Sandberg.]
  23. Alfredo Griffin, Toronto

Several of the above guys also made or just missed the list of top 100 shortstops presented in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:

  • Yount, #4
  • Smith, #7
  • Trammell, #9
  • Concepcion, #26
  • Templeton, #42
  • Bowa, #44
  • Franco, #46
  • Burleson, #56
  • Speier, #68
  • Russell, #69
  • Dent, #94
  • DeJesus, #99
  • Ramirez, #100
  • Griffin, #108
  • Reynolds, #112
  • Taveras, #115
  • Washington, #123
  • Foli, #125

That book was published in 2001, so things have shifted since then. Still, as of just a few years ago, 18 of the 23 starting shortstops in 1981 ranked among the top 125 ever to play the position. If you include the three teams with “vacancies” (i.e., no established shortstop), two more guys make the list: Cal Ripken Jr. (No. 3) and Roy Smalley Jr. (No. 55).

Meanwhile, back at the trade…

Believe it or not, there was a point to that tangent before it took on a life of its own. I wanted to find out what James said about Smith and Templeton in his Historical Abstract. Well, let’s take a look:

On Smith:

Ozzie Smith’s teams, in his career, had almost exactly 500 more assists by shortstops than expectation … I would be surprised if the teams of any other shortstop in history would have a positive assists record as strong as Ozzie’s.

On Templeton:

As a shortstop, he was erratic but immensely talented, with a great arm and as much range as Ozzie … I began to get a funny feeling about Templeton when I saw him interviewed before a Game of the Week in 1978. The interviewer asked him what he was doing to improve his game, to bring about the superstar future that was envisioned for him. There was nothing to do, Templeton replied; he just had to wait for it to happen … To Templeton’s credit, he turned himself around in San Diego; he was never a problem child after the trade. He was never a superstar, either … He is one of the fifty finest shortstops ever to play the game, and perhaps does not deserve to be remembered as an unruly kid who blew off superstardom. Unfortunately, he won’t get a chance to try it again.

The trade benefited the Cardinals much more than it did the Padres, but it made sense for both teams at the time. Smith was a defensive wizard who couldn’t hit and who wasn’t happy with his contract in San Diego. Templeton was a talented hitter whose behavior irritated St. Louis management.

For both men, it seemed that a change of scenery might do some good. For Smith, it did, and he ended up in Cooperstown. Templeton, meanwhile, turned into his generation’s Royce Clayton. And although there is no shame in that, there isn’t much glory either.

References & Resources
Bill James Baseball Abstract 1982, New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Baseball-Reference.

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