Clayton Got a Little Dizzy Trying to Be the Next Ozzie
“Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.”
Have you ever heard of George Selkirk? Probably not.
Have you ever heard of Babe Ruth? Of course!
Well, George Selkirk, poor devil, replaced Babe Ruth in the Yankee outfield.
Can you imagine anything cheekier than that?
Selkirk was almost a Hall of Fame player in his own right. Batted .290 lifetime. Respectable. Not Ruth’s .342 but respectable. Hit 108 home runs. OK. Not Ruth’s 714 but OK. Played in six World Series.
It didn’t matter. He was always the-guy-in-right-field-who-wasn’t-Babe Ruth. The fans kept him at arm’s length. They grumbled a lot.
It’s never advisable to take the place of a legend. Anywhere. Perhaps you remember Andrew Johnson, the president who replaced the slain Abraham Lincoln. They brought impeachment proceedings against him, the only president they ever did that to. He barely got off.
There are hundreds of examples, but you get my drift. It’s a good idea in life to replace mediocrity, not precocity.
Royce Clayton never knew that when he was growing up. All he ever wanted to be was Ozzie Smith. He saved Ozzie Smith mementos. He got Ozzie Smith’s autograph. He had photos and box scores of his idol all over the house. He became a shortstop because Ozzie Smith was a shortstop. It’s a good thing Ozzie Smith was a good role model because if he turned to bank robbery--well, Clayton might not have known what to do.
It was a pretty heady idol to have. Ozzie Smith is a mortal lock for the baseball Hall of Fame when his incubation period is finished (five years). Ozzie wasn’t a ballplayer, he was a magician: led the league in assists eight times, in fielding percentage eight times. He threw out the world. He only made eight errors in 150 games one season. The wizardry of Oz was the stuff of baseball fables.
Clayton was his biggest fan. He wanted nothing more than to move into the land of Oz. He was a first-round draft choice of the San Francisco Giants but, when the Giants, after three years with them, traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals, Ozzie Smith’s team, after the 1995 season, he thought he had died and gone to heaven.
Instead, he began to think he had merely died.
First of all, his idol wasn’t ready to leave the job to him--or to anybody. Ozzie Smith was 41 but was still doing back flips when he took his position on opening day last season, was still making two-base hits disappear in his glove, still making the pitcher work till he was exhausted to get him out.
Ozzie was not ready to go gentle into that good night.
And the fans of the Wizard were not ready to see him do it. The Bible tells us there is a season for everything. And surely there is a time to retire.
But Ozzie was stubborn. And his understudy was confused. The situation went from idolatry to rivalry.
“No man should be put in that position,” Clayton said with a sigh the other night in a Dodger Stadium dugout. “No human being could live up to it. The crowds were the worst. You expect to be booed on the road. I was getting booed at home. When I’d have a miscue, they’d let me know it.”
He heard plenty of “Ozzie would have had it!” on ground balls he couldn’t quite get to.
“I hit .340 on the road,” Clayton said. He hit .277 overall, which means to him that “at home” was a road trip for him.
“It was a no-win situation. Peoples’ attitude was ‘Why are you doing these things to poor Ozzie?’ If I had to dive for a ball and make a desperate play, they’d say ‘Oh, Ozzie could have made that play standing up.’
“I used to tell my mother, ‘Some day, I’d like to take over for Ozzie Smith.’ ”
When he did, he was made to feel like the grinch who stole Christmas. In addition to batting .277, he stole 33 bases and had a near-Gold Glove type of year. “In a funny way, it may have made me a better player,” he observes.
He now has shortstop all to himself. Ozzie has gone to the broadcast booth.
He is like his idol in one other respect: He is aware of obligations to the community at large. Ozzie Smith was noted for that, winning almost as many citizenship awards as Gold Glove awards in his career, always on tap for worthwhile charities.
Royce Clayton emulates him in that too. And Clayton will be host to a celebrity golf tournament at the Pointe Hilton golf club in Phoenix on Nov. 7-9 to benefit the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, which combats the dread blood disease that affects almost exclusively the African American population and usually results in childhood deaths after prolonged suffering. Willie Mays will be honorary chairman of the tournament and, with Clayton, hopes the golf-playing marquee names of Hollywood will sign on.
Meanwhile, Clayton hopes he will become the Cardinals’ Rolls-Royce. And, maybe somewhere, there’s a kid collecting Royce Clayton memorabilia, photos, autographs, albums, batting gloves, etc., who will someday show up in a Cardinal uniform and approach him at spring training and say, “Hi! I’m your biggest fan! You’ve always been my idol! I’m here to take your job!”
Royce swears he’ll say, “Hey! Good for you, kid! Here’s my glove. Good luck to you--and always play Barry Bonds deep and cheating a little toward second. Have a great career--and if you need me I’ll be at CNN!”
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