(Author’s Note: my apologies for not writing about this sooner; the website nationalpasttime.com erroneously lists this play as occurring on 28 April 1978. In reality, it occurred on 20 April 1978.)
As Padres fans, we’re all quite familiar that the team’s history tends to veer closer to ineptitude rather than greatness. However, 20 April featured a moment of individual greatness that shines through the otherwise gloomy team prospects. With that, let’s hop into the Way-Back Machine and journey all the way back to 1978.
The 1978 Padres entered their 10th season of play looking to turn around their fortunes. Though the team had yet to record a winning season, the ‘78 club had reason for optimism. The team brought in OF Oscar Gamble and his sweet afro to the team to complement sluggers like All-Star OF Dave Winfield and 1B Gene Tenace, while the pitching staff featured the original Padres crafty-lefty Randy Jones, who paired up with Gaylord Perry (who’d go on to win the 1978 Cy Young). The bullpen featured reigning Rolaids Relief-man of the Year Rollie Fingers (who would also take the award in 1978). The team also debuted a rookie at Shortstop, only 1 year after the team had drafted him in the 4th round of the 1977 MLB draft. Yep, that’s right; 1978 featured the beginning of what would become a Hall of Fame career for one Osborne Earl “Ozzie” Smith.
Though born in Mobile, AL, the lanky Smith grew up in the Watts neighborhood of southern Los Angeles. Originally drafted in 1976 by the Detroit Tigers, an inability to come to a contract agreement allowed the Padres to swoop in and select the infielder in 1977 out of Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo, with the team inviting Smith to Spring Training in 1978 as a non-roster invitee. Smith quickly impressed then Padres manager Alvin Dark, with Dark telling reporters the shortstop job was Smith’s until he proved he can’t handle it. Despite Dark getting fired shortly thereafter, Smith held on to the job, and broke camp with the team as the starting shortstop. It did not take long for Smith to show why.
The 1978 season started much like the previous 9 years, with the Padres dropping 7 of their first 9. The Padres welcomed the Atlanta Braves to town for the start of a 3-game set, with Randy Jones taking the hill against Phil Niekro in front of 10,256 fans in San Diego Stadium for the Thursday day-game. As most expected, the game turned into a pitcher’s duel; by the time Braves 3B Jeff Burroughs came to the plate in the 4th Inning, the teams had combined for only 2 hits, both by the Braves. With so few opportunities, each team was looking for any sort of offense. So when Burroughs smashed a sharp grounder back up the middle, he certainly thought he had a base hit.
Ozzie thought otherwise.
Ranging to his left, Smith dove for the ball. As he was in mid-air, the ball took a wild hop, hitting either a rock or a divot, heading up over Smith’s head. Despite being fully extended, Smith reached up with his bare right hand, caught the ball, landed and, jumping quickly to his feet, fired to throw Burroughs out at first and end the inning. Check it out below.
The Padres would score 2 run in the 5th inning to take down the Braves, but all anyone was talking about the next day was Smith’s play. Smith later said “The play really didn’t hit me until the next morning when I got up and people were talking about it on the radio and calling it the greatest play that they had ever seen.” Indeed, film of the play made the weekly national highlight shows, and would become a staple for years to come. In fact, when MLB.com featured its “75 Most Spectacular Defensive Plays in Baseball History,” Smith’s 1978 play came in at #1.
Ozzie Smith would go on to finish 2nd in the 1978 National League Rookie of the Year voting, and also debuted what would become his signature move, the back-flip. The Padres as a team would go on a tear later in the year, and post their first winning season, finishing the year at 84-78. While Smith’s defensive prowess would eventually earn him the nickname “The Wizard,” this play during his rookie year would go down as probably his best ever, made in just his 10th MLB game as a rookie for our San Diego Padres.