Last weekend, we got to attend the Cardinals Sunday night game as a guest of Anheuser-Busch. And while it was cool enough that we were watching from the Ozzie Smith Suite, it was about a thousand times cooler when The Wizard himself appeared. He took a seat and started signing baseballs next to a black-and-white photo of himself doing a backflip, so naturally we had to ask, “When was the last time you did one of those?”
“Oh, 2002,” he replied. “When I got inducted into the Hall of Fame.” He went on to tell the story of the backflips, which he used to practice as a kid, into sawdust piles at a neighborhood lumberyard in Watts, California. Then as a young player, just to show his teammates he wasn’t tired after conditioning runs, he’d throw one. After flipping for the fans on October 1, 1978, during the Padres last home game of the season, it became his signature move.
Of course, becoming a 15-time All-Star and a World Series champ involved a lot of substance to go with that style. So with the MLB playoffs beginning this week—and the Cards looking like serious contenders—here are some of his thoughts about peak performance…
“I’ve had players ask me after I signed some big contracts, ‘Why do you work so hard?’ My response was, ‘Why do you not work so hard?’ ”
What advice would you have for young guys coming up in terms of making something of themselves and being successful?
You know what? It’s all about applying yourself and working to be the best that you can be.
When I was young my mom always said, “If you want to be a sanitation engineer, be the best sanitation engineer that you can be.” It just so happened that baseball was what I wanted to do. So I said to myself, “I’m going to walk away having no regrets.” I wasn’t one of those guys that took anything for granted because I knew it could be taken away from me very quickly. I treated every game as if it was the last game that I was ever going to have a chance to play, and if that was the case then it would be something that would be memorable for me. We had questions about ourselves too. You really don’t know until you get put into a situation, how will you respond? Some guys don’t respond when the game is on the line. Nerves take over. When I came over to St. Louis from San Diego, people said, “You know, you’re not going to be able to cover as much ground on the Astro-turf.” When I got here, I found out that I could cover more ground because I could play deeper. So I think that I realized that I have to be me, and that’s what I did.
I’d say so…
I came to work every day and put in my best effort. Every day that I left the field, I asked myself, “Did I do the best I could that day?” The answer was yes for 18 years. It didn’t mean we won every day but I know that I put forth my best effort every day.
Was that harder to do after you had established yourself?
No, because to me when you get here the work begins. Most people felt that once you get [to the Major Leagues] you can relax. No. No. No. It’s just the opposite. You have to work harder. I’ve had players ask me after I signed some big contracts, “Why do you work so hard?” My response was, “Why do you not work so hard?” Experience should allow you to apply yourself every day to continue to play at a high level. One of my greatest achievements was being able to play, from 1985 to 1996, with a torn rotator cuff.
That to me was my greatest accomplishment.
Yeah. I’d say so.
Because you’re not able to guarantee [makes throwing gesture].
You had to kind of sidearm.
Right. Rather than overhand. It wasn’t until after I retired, probably about nine, ten years ago, I finally got it operated on because it started to affect my golf game.