JUPITER, Fla. -- If Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith could still do his trademark backflip at age 57, he surely would have done one as he entered the field Saturday morning.
Fifteen years after a feud with manager Tony La Russa contributed to his retirement, Smith suited up in a Cardinals uniform and returned to the field as a guest instructor.
"It's nice breathing good baseball air," Smith said. "It's really like coming home. It really is."
Smith accepted an invitation from new manager Mike Matheny to join the club in uniform this spring, something he hasn't done since he retired following the 1996 season. He'll stay about a week, working with infielders, base runners and in any other areas the Cardinals see fit.
The 13-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner walked out to the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium Saturday morning after practice had already begun. He found former teammate Willie McGee, who is also back as a guest instructor, and the laughs began almost instantly.
"It will be up to Mike and (GM John Mozeliak) to utilize me in any way they see fit," Smith said. "I'm open to anything right now. It's just a matter of getting myself re-acclimated to this environment.
"This was strictly from the invitation of Mike and 'Mo' and them feeling that it was important for me to reconnect with the club. I thank them for the opportunity to be able to come out here and put the uniform on again."
The source of the strained relationship between Smith and La Russa occurred in 1996, when La Russa took over as Cardinals manager and announced an open competition at shortstop between the incumbent Smith and Royce Clayton, who the club acquired during the offseason.
The 41-year-old Smith appeared to clearly win the competition, hitting almost .100 points higher than Clayton in spring training and committing no errors compared to Clayton's eight errors.
But it was Clayton who saw most of the playing time in the regular season, prompting Smith to announce midway through the season that he would retire at the end of the year.
Smith has returned to Busch Stadium to be honored at events such as Opening Day and during the playoffs with the other Cardinals' Hall of Famers. But unlike Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, Smith's sour relationship with La Russa kept him from any official duties with the club such as appearing at spring training.
That is, until La Russa announced his retirement following last season.
"I think everybody wants to be wanted," Smith said. "Having the opportunity to come back and getting the invite like I did was a great feeling. It's nice to be back in this uniform.
"It's been kind of a weird thing because I was still part of it but not to this degree because I still participated in Opening Days and the ceremonies and all that. When I say reconnect, I mean from a baseball standpoint. Being around it, getting to know some of these young kids that are coming up through the organization, I think that is the part that was missing."
Smith was a 15-time All-Star during his 19-year career with the San Diego Padres and Cardinals. He played 15 seasons with the Cardinals from 1982-96, leading them to three National League pennants and the 1982 World Series title.
The former switch-hitter hasn't discussed a position with the club beyond this spring but said he would be open to joining the fold in more of a regular, official capacity, if that conversation arises.
Smith and McGee are two of several former prominent members of the Cardinals organization that are expected to be guest instructors at some point this spring.