Leading off

Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith thrills fans at PLAY Ball event as Hall of Fame Weekend gets under way

July 23, 2010
Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith, Paul Molitor and Bruce Sutter participated in PLAY Ball with Ozzie Smith on Friday.(Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame)

The skies opened up with a torrent of rain on Cooperstown on Friday, but didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of either the participants or presenters at the 2010 Baseball Hall of Fame Weekend’s inaugural event.

The annual PLAY Ball with Ozzie Smith fundraiser for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s education program was scheduled to take place on historical Doubleday Field, but a continuing downpour necessitated some improvisation. Originally, Smith and fellow Hall of Famers Bruce Sutter and Paul Molitor were to interact on the field with the participants, but Mother Nature brought the show under the grandstand roof – where an intimate question and answer session took place.

Beforehand, Smith – the acrobatic shortstop for both the Padres and Cardinals – talked inside the third base dugout to the assembled media about the importance of what was to happen this day.

“Being the Hall of Fame’s Education Ambassador, it’s a way for us to give the fans an opportunity to come and get close to some of their heroes,” Smith said. “I try and use different guys every year and give people the real experience of what it is to get close to the guys that they’ve admired from a distance. This year I was able to get Bruce Sutter and Paul Molitor.”

A former teammate of Smith’s with the Cardinals, Sutter didn’t need to be convinced.

“Anything for Ozzie,” Sutter said. “Ozzie asked me if I would help out with the pitching. He had wanted to bring a pitcher into the fold and talk a little pitching to some people. I’m happy to help him.

“He saved my butt a lot of times.”

Smith assumed the role as the Museum’s Education Ambassador after being elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002 and started the PLAY Ball event in 2005.

“It’s a great opportunity for members and non-members of the Museum to participate in usually a three-hour program with Ozzie and some of his Hall of Famer friends,” said Anna Wade, the Hall of Fame’s Director of Museum Education. “The experience is wonderful for the participants. They get to have an intimate conversation with these Hall of Famers, who, for many of them, are their heroes.

“We’re grateful to Ozzie for setting up this program and, of course, to all the Hall of Famers that participate in PLAY Ball every year.”

But with the rain came a change in plans.

“In baseball, as in life, adaptability is key,” Wade said. “Weather is out of our control, so we changed the format and created an intimate interview setting.”

No one seemed disappointed.

Work it did, at least according to Paul Terry from Baldwin, Long Island.

Ozzie Smith serves as the education ambassador for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)“It’s one of the great events and I love it,” said Paul Terry, Baldwin, N.Y. resident who was taken part in PLAY Ball six times over the years. “You get to find a side of the players that you don’t normally see. And the best for me is that the money goes to a charity.

“I’ve been coming to the Hall of Fame for 31 years, and it’s more and more like home every time that I come. And this event is just really special.”

So what about not being able to get on the field this year?

“I’m 63, so I don’t need to field a lot of ground balls.”

Sporting a T-shirt of 2010 Hall of Fame inductee Andre Dawson was participant Matt Pfeiffer from Chicago. His brother and father were here for the fourth time.

“It’s always fun to come up here and talk to these guys,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s always good to just hear their stories.”

The three Hall of Famers, their backs to the field, sat near the bottom of the stands only a few rows from the PLAY Ball participants. For over an hour, the fans peppered the enshrinees with a wide-range of queries, from how they dealt with rain delays during their careers, to their thoughts on pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, to what kind of signing bonuses they received.

PLAY Ball is one of the many examples of how the Baseball Hall of Fame connects generations, preserves history and honors excellence,” Wade said. “This program truly connects generations because what you saw here today was a grandfather, his son, and their children, so we had three generations of one family all participating in this event.”

Wade also talked about how the fundraising has tangible results within the Cooperstown institution.

“What’s incredible for the education department is that this event is at absolutely no cost to the institution,” Wade said. “All of the Hall of Famers generously donate their time. This is just their dedication to the Hall of Fame and to the education programs.

And what that means, according to Wade, is that all the revenue that’s generated goes directly into a scholarship fund for interns to spend their summer in Cooperstown.

“Ozzie designated that cause for the revenue because he felt it was something that was very important to the education department,” she said. “So we are now able to offer scholarships to students of ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds that would not otherwise be able financially to participate in our internship program. The scholarship covers the cost of their travel, housing for the summer, and participation in the 10-week, fulltime, paid summer internship.”

Smith said that giving back has been part of what he’s tried to do his whole life.

“I’ve been very fortunate, very blessed to have had the opportunity to do something I love,” Smith said. “And people have always been very respectful of what it was I was trying to display when I was on the field. So it’s just a way of thanking them. This is always fun, a way to stay connected.”

HALL OF FAME WEEKEND NOTEBOOK: Saturday’s schedule includes the popular Connecting Generations trivia game with Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Tommy Lasorda at 11 a.m. at the Clark Sports Center, a New York-Penn League minor league baseball game between the Tri-City ValleyCats and Connecticut Tigers at Doubleday Field at 1 p.m., and the brand new Hall of Fame Parade of Legends at 6 p.m. on Main Street in Cooperstown…The Class of 2010, featuring Andre Dawson, Doug Harvey and Whitey Herzog, will be enshrined at 1:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown…Admission to the Induction Ceremony is free, and the event will be televised live on MLB Network.

Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum