JUPITER, Fla. • After more than a decade away, Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith pulled on a Cardinal uniform and returned to the field Saturday for what was a mutually welcome reunion between club and its exiled icon.
"It's really like coming home," he said. "It really is."
Smith reported to the Cardinals' complex at Roger Dean Stadium on Saturday to start a weeklong stint as a guest instructor. New manager Mike Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak reached out to Smith this past winter to extend an invitation to, in Smith's words, "reconnect." Although he appeared at team functions and in opening day ceremonial roles, Smith had not put on a Cardinals uniform and worked with the major league team since his retirement 16 years ago.
Smith and former manager Tony La Russa's relationship had deteriorated to such a point that an invitation to be around the team and spring training was neither offered nor sought.
"It should have been a natural transition and, unfortunately, it wasn't," Smith said. "It's behind us now, and as I said a long time ago, when the time was right I'd be more than willing to come back and try to find my way with this organization."
The acrimony between Smith and La Russa dates back to how Smith felt he was used during his final season, La Russa's first with the Cardinals. Smith said five years ago that he would not assist the team "as long as the current management is in place." La Russa responded, telling the Post-Dispatch that Smith was "not welcome" at spring training and that "when my time is up, they can welcome him with open arms."
The chill persisted. Matheny's hiring brought the thaw.
Shortly after his hiring, Matheny contacted Smith and extended an invitation to join Willie McGee, former manager Whitey Herzog and perhaps a few others as guest instructors this spring. It took one glance Saturday for Smith and McGee to break into grins and share laugh after laugh beside the batting cage. Smith also spoke with first-round pick Zack Cox about fielding, and he aided McGee in an instruction about identifying pickoff moves.
"It is nice breathing good baseball air," Smith said.
In recent years, Smith, 57, has worked with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and he has done some individual coaching for other organizations when asked. He said he hopes this stint signals a renewed relationship with the Cardinals, and he plans to be around the ballpark and the team more often in a "defined" role. He said his contact with the next generation of Cardinals was missing from retirement.
"It's been kind of a weird thing," Smith said. "I was still part of (the organization) but not to this degree. … Hopefully, this is all behind us now and we can move forward and get it back to where it's supposed to be."
While lefty J. C. Romero was collecting two wins in relief during the 2008 World Series, he was trying for a much bigger victory off the field. Romero said Saturday that during October 2008, as he and the Phillies won the title, he was going through the appeals process to fight a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug. Romero's 50-game suspension was upheld, one of 12, according to The New York Times, before Friday's announcement that Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun had successfully won the first appeal against a positive drug test.
That didn't mean Romero stopped his fight.
He served his suspension but took his argument that he used a tainted supplement to civil court and settled in December.
"My mind-set has always been that I know I was innocent and that the decision they took in my case wasn't the right one," Romero said. "I hope that people can accept that. I feel I got a really bad deal."
Romero said he did not watch Braun's public comments Saturday and felt only that it was good "an MVP gets that chance to clear his name."
"I know how it wasn't a good experience," Romero said.
MABRY ON "MONEYBALL"
During the offseason, Cardinals assistant hitting coach John Mabry went with his kids to see "Moneyball," a movie about a team that he played a supporting role in. The film, which follows the 2002 Oakland Athletics and GM Billy Beane's expanded use of statistics, is up for the Academy Awards' best picture Sunday. Mabry, who is played by David Hutchinson in the movie, said that the team wasn't "test-tube babies" for the statistical revolution as portrayed by Hollywood and that any retelling falls short when it minimizes the role of the team's top three pitchers, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder.
"They took a lot of literary liberties," Mabry said of the movie based on Michael Lewis' book by the same name. "The fact that we had Mulder, Hudson and Zito going out there and pitching their butts off — we won a lot games, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1 just because they were real good at what they did. There were a lot of good players, not (misfits), on that team."
early CAMP OPENS
Twenty-five of the Cardinals' top minor-league players participated in the first day of the club's invitation-only early camp for prospects. For the second consecutive year, the Cardinals have brought a select group of younger players in to receive individualized attention, additional workouts and workshops on such topics as talking with the media.
The early camp is held each day after major league workouts, allowing major leaguers and major league coaches to interact with the prospects. On Saturday, Carlos Martinez, one of the team's top pitching prospects, threw in a bullpen session. Fifth-round pick Sam Gaviglio, lefty Anthony Ferrara and hard-throwing righty Victor De Leon also drew attention from major league coaches. The early work continues until the opening of minor league camp in early March.