JUPITER, Fla. • As Cardinals management, players and fans hold their collective breath waiting for shortstop Rafael Furcal to test his non-surgically repaired right elbow, another Cardinals shortstop remembers how he dealt with a torn rotator cuff for the last 11 years of his career.
Like Furcal, who has a torn ligament in his right elbow, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith did not opt for surgery after the 1985 season. “I didn’t see that as a viable way to play,” said Smith. “I knew I could change and do a lot of different things.’’
Instead of surgery, Smith strengthened his shoulder and compensated as best he could, even shading more to the second base-side of the bag because he had a third baseman in Terry Pendleton who was excellent to his left.
Smith, who joined the Cardinals’ instructional staff Monday, said he didn’t know the specifics of Furcal’s previous elbow situation but would be happy to talk with him about easing the problem.
“There has to be precaution every day you go out there,” Smith said. “It lends to always putting yourself into a good throwing position, so that you don’t always put any added stress on that particular part of your arm.
“It’s almost as if you have to re-learn how to get yourself into that position. You don’t want to get into the position again where you expose yourself to total annihilation of the ligament. That’s the thing that can destroy you, where you make one of those awkward throws.”
Smith said besides throwing position, a player dealing with an arm injury has to be smarter about defensive position, i.e., anticipating where the batter is going to hit the ball. Smith said after he suffered his shoulder injury that he handled the grounder into the hole by going “around the ball” in a circular-type motion as he approached it to put himself into a good throwing spot.
“It became important that I did that it that way so I would have some momentum going into my throw,” Smith said.
Running “around the ball” isn’t necessarily a tenet of the infielder’s manual but Smith said, “You’ve got to get it done. There’s no book that says, ‘This is the way you’ve got to get it done.’
“When I knew a ball was hit in the hole, I made a very conscious effort of rounding it and getting my momentum going in the direction I was going to have to throw.”
Smith said it was much easier to have Pendleton on his left to “cover” for any difficulty he would have in the hole toward third. “It’s about being able to protect each other,” said Smith.
“When you have a third baseman who can cover a lot of ground to his left, like Terry and Obie (Ken Oberkfell), I could play up the middle a little bit and that’s always your strong side, going to your glove side.”
Cardinals third baseman David Freese doesn’t have the range of a Pendleton, with Smith saying Freese has “heavy feet.”
Smith and Freese discussed this last spring when Smith made his first appearance in Cardinals uniform in camp since he retired after the 1996 season. By “heavy feet,” Smith meant that Freese was on his heels more than on the balls of his feet but that Freese had improved in that aspect during the season.
“The thing that gets you into the position of doing what you want to do is your feet,” Smith said. “That’s the first thing I look at — a guy’s feet.
“If a guy has good feet, he can play almost anywhere. If my feet are in a position where my hips go toward my target, I’ve got half of it licked.
“(Freese) is getting better,” said Smith.
Freese, save for a poor September, said he thought he had improved his defense with a better first-step move to his left. “When Ozzie talks, all I do is listen,” said Freese.
“He obviously was a heck of a ballplayer, but he’s a great teacher, too. When you get him and (coach Jose) Oquendo, there’s no better tandem to learn from.
“The key for me was being on the balls of my feet. Then, your head is not bouncing. I’ve always felt I had a good glove, but battling the feet injuries I’ve had, I got into some bad habits for a couple of years.”
Smith, who also is assisting in basestealing drills along with Willie McGee (the pair stole 932 bases between them), said he didn’t want to “re-teach the game” but rather issue reminders about foot position, etc.
After hurting his arm, Smith went on to win seven more of his 13 Gold Gloves. “It’s about being able to improvise,” Smith said. “You’ve got to be able to improvise.”
Smith said he was interested in seeing the potential conversion of corner infielder Matt Carpenter into a second baseman. “The first thing I asked Jose is, ‘How are his feet?’ Jose said that he was coming along,” said Smith.
Manager Mike Matheny said that Carpenter would get some work at third base later in the spring but would be exclusively a second baseman early in camp.
Matheny, who emphasized baserunning and base-stealing last spring, will focus on that again this spring, notably with Smith and McGee on hand for a couple of weeks.
“Contrary to popular belief, this is not going to turn us into a 150 (stolen-base) club,” said Matheny, whose team swiped 91 bases last season, ranking 13th in the National League.
“But, if somebody is taking 1.5 or 1.6 (seconds) to throw to the plate and if we’ve got somebody who can run, we’re crazy not to take advantage of it.”