My five Gold Glove awards are still my prized possessions, and half the world doesn't know I have them. When I won my first one in 1986, I jumped up and down on the bed.
I had to work more on my defense than my offense. When I first got to the big leagues, I didn't have the strongest throwing arm, so I worked on my mechanics and accuracy. Everyday, I took both grounders and flyballs. I paid attention to the pitchers and tried to get into a good position to make a play. I had to be more mentally involved on defense, while some players are just naturally talented.
Ozzie Smith wanted to be a complete player, and that's what he became through hard work. He hit .303 in 1987 and stole 580 bases in his career, but unfortunately, no one will remember much about what he did on offense because he was such a great defensive shortstop.
When he first broke into the major leagues, he was an all-field, no-hit player. Defensively, he made all the plays -- and then some. Offensively, he had to keep working. With the Padres and then the Cardinals, he would generally bat second or eighth. While he was playing Gold Glove defense, he would hit no better than .258 his first seven seasons.
But Ozzie wasn't satisfied. Sometimes, it takes a while for a player to understand what he needs to do at the plate, and Ozzie figured it out. Going to St. Louis helped him because Busch Stadium at the time had Astrotruf, a friendlier surface for his style of hitting.
He put the bat on the ball, didn't strike out much, took his walks and made his style work. Consistently putting the bat on the ball made it difficult for the defense, and people didn't want to pitch to him.
In the beginning, people gave more credit to the artificial surface, but Ozzie deserves it the most. He just made himself into a good hitter.
-- Tony Gwynn
Early in my career, I had more than 10 assists in six out of seven seasons, but they came mostly because players were running on me. Then, players didn't try to test my arm as much, and my assist numbers went down. I made myself into a better defender, and they started to respect me more.
Everyone works on their hitting, but a few outfielders and I made a game out of working on our defense. We played wall ball against the padded wall in San Diego. Everyday, Rob Picciolo would hit balls against the wall, and we would have fun with it. I got good at playing the corner and charging the ball.
I worked at it enough that the coaches around the league recognized me for my craft and rewarded me with a Gold Glove five straight years (1986-1991). While not everyone is talented offensively, players can make a spot for themselves in the big leagues if they are strong defenders. Then they don't pull you out of the game in the late innings, as they did to me at the end of my career when my knee was bothering me. I became a seven-inning player.
It was hard work to become a great hitter, but it was an even bigger challenge to be a great defender.
In honor of Ozzie Smith's induction into the Hall of Fame, here are the best defensive players I saw during my career at each position:
Catcher -- Ivan Rodriguez
I saw Johnny Bench at the end of his career and on TV. But Pudge is the best I've seen. I played against him in interleague play and in All-Star games. He just shuts down the running game with his strong, accurate arm. Players always have to be cautious on first base because he likes to throw behind the runner.
First Base -- Keith Hernandez
Like Ozzie, Hernandez enjoyed playing defense. He could take the bunt away and pick balls in the dirt. He was different in that he didn't play like a conventional first baseman. If he had a hunch you were trying to do something, he would try to take it away from you defensively.
Second Base -- Manny Trillo
Hitters just couldn't get a ball through the hole on Trillo. He had a quick release and was as smooth as silk. He didn't make the acrobatic plays; he was just steady Eddie.
Shortstop -- Ozzie Smith
I've never seen anybody who had the timing, glove work, hands and acrobatic ability around the bag that Ozzie had. You could never take him out on the double play. He is just the best I've seen. If Ozzie got his glove on the ball, you were out. On the turf in St. Louis, he had a habit of throwing you out by a half-step.
Third Base -- Mike Schmidt
The thing about Schmitty is that he could make the steady plays or the acrobatic plays. He could go down the line, back-hand the ball and throw you out or cut across the infield. He was tough to bunt on. He was a great all-around player.
Left Field -- Barry Bonds
When I came up to the plate, it was always a challenge with Bonds in left. He almost dared you to do something. He is a much better defensive player than he's given credit for. He can go down the line and make the spin throw back to second base, either holding you to a single or throwing you out. He is good with his glove. He gets erratic at times with his arm, but he is a great defender.
Center Field -- Andruw Jones
He constantly takes base hits away from players because he covers so much ground. He is not bashful about playing shallow because he goes back on the ball so well. He takes great angles to cut balls off. He can go over the wall, come in for the diving catch or go left or right. He has a good, accurate arm. He may style a bit too much at times, but he can make a play when he needs to. He doesn't have any weaknesses.
Right Field -- Andre Dawson
I have played agaisnt some great right fielders, like Larry Walker, but no one was better than Dawson in his heyday. He could go down the line, or charge a ball, and throw you out. He had a great, accurate arm. You just didn't run on him. Walker is in the same category, though.
Pitching -- Greg Maddux (right-handed); Mike Hampton (left-handed)
I never played against Jim Kaat, whom I hear was the best of all time. But Maddux and Hampton are both like hockey goalies on the mound. If you hit the ball up the middle, they can get a glove it. They are always in good position to make a play. Both are like lightning coming off the mound; you can't bunt on them.