PLAY ball

Annual Museum fundraiser with Ozzie Smith thrills fans in Cooperstown on Friday

July 22, 2011
Ozzie Smith plays catch with some participants at PLAY Ball on Friday. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

View a transcript of Saturday's press conference with the Class of 2011

Read more about PLAY Ball and Saturday's Hall of Fame Weekend events

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- While Ozzie Smith didn't replicate one of his famous Opening Day back flips, he did informally launch the 2011 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend.

PLAY Ball with Ozzie Smith, an annual fundraiser for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's education programs, began bright and early Friday morning. The longtime St. Louis Cardinals shortstop, aided by fellow Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Andre Dawson and Whitey Herzog, were joined by 21 participants who first spent time with the quartet of enshrines at the Plaque Gallery before heading to a nearby ball field for on-field round-robin interactions.

After the three-hour event, the four Hall of Famers, seated under a tent to shield them from some unusually hot weather, shared their thoughts on a number of subjects. Since being enshrined in 2002, Smith, the Museum's Education Ambassador, has been headlining similar events during Induction Weekend now for 10 years.

"I think the participants enjoy it and for a lot of us we enjoy it as well," Smith said. "It's all about raising funds for the education department."

Director of Museum Education Anna Wade called this year's PLAY Ball event a great success.

"We certainly appreciate all four of the Hall of Famers taking their time on Friday morning to spend with the participants of the event," Wade said. "And the event's success benefits the Museum's education department. This year we celebrate our 10th year of the program, in which we've raised over $100,000."

While Smith has been a Hall of Famer for a decade, Dawson and Herzog are back in Cooperstown a year after they shared the induction stage with umpire Doug Harvey as the Class of 2010.

"Oh, this is much more relaxing," Dawson said. "You get to sit back and relax and really enjoy this weekend. I've looked forward to it probably as much as I did last year."

"When you come here, and this is my first year back, I know I won't have to make a speech on Sunday," Herzog added. "But I know I'm going to enjoy this weekend."

When asked how this year's inductees – Bert Blyleven, Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick – are feeling, Dawson shared a story involving himself and another slugging outfielder.

"They're probably trying to get their feet underneath them and get their nerves right," Dawson said. "It's winding down now, as Frank Robinson told me last year. He said, 'You're getting close.' Then the day of he said, 'Almost there.' And then after I got in he said, 'You're still on probation for a year.'"

"It's having a chance to come back and spend time with these guys and spending time with the fans, as we just did here today," Smith added. "I think all of us get a chance to relax – we don't have the pressures when we have to give a speech – so we can enjoy it a little big more."

For Carew, elected 20 years ago, the best thing about coming back to Cooperstown is the dinner the Hall of Famers have Sunday night after the Induction Ceremony. "Every corner of the room, we've got the line-drive-hitter table, the power-hitters table, the managers table."

Asked the best part of being a member of Hall of Fame, Herzog said, "I think anybody that's ever played professional baseball, the one goal is being a member of the Hall of Fame. Little did I ever think that I'd be a member. Like I said (in his induction speech last year), it's like going to heaven before you die."

Rod Carew takes a double play ball from a participant at PLAY Ball. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)"When we started out as players, I don't think that we thought of going to the Hall of Fame," Carew added. "Me, as a young player, I just wanted consistency. But I think that over the years of having consistency and doing the things that we did enabled us to be here. But to say that when I was a kid I was aiming for the Hall of Fame, I can't say that."

After Sunday's Induction Ceremony, the Hall of Fame membership swells to 295 with the addition of a trio of new electees.

"Robbie Alomar started in the Padres organization, as I did. They have a knack for finding infielders, I guess, over there in San Diego," Smith said. "Very deserving for him. I haven't had a chance to see him, so I'm looking forward to congratulating him and welcoming him to the Hall.

"Robbie was one of those players who had a lot of range and covered a lot of ground," Smith added. "There was always talk about us getting a chance to play together. It never happened but it was a good thought. The problem when you have two people that cover so much ground is you have to stay out of each others way. So I don't know how good that would have been."

As for Blyleven, Smith shared a seldom heard historic fact.

"Only one time in my 19-year career I struck out three times in a game and it was against Bert Blyleven," Smith said. "He had one of the best curveballs, and when his curveball was working it was going to be a long night. You could hear the snap on it."

Carew saw firsthand Blyleven's talent as a Twins teammate from 1970 to '76.

"When I first saw him as a 19-year-old kid, I was amazed at the poise that he had," Carew said. "And he wasn't afraid to pitch. He'd throw his curveball at any time, any count, it didn't matter. It just didn't bother him at all.

"I thought that he should have gotten in to the Hall of Fame a long time ago," Carew added. "If you go back and look at what he did it's really incredible. I don't know why it's taken him this long but I'm just happy that he's here, I'm happy that he's going to be joining us, and it's just a tremendous honor for me to be part of this."

While there was plenty of good-natured joking among the four Hall of Famers, the tone got serious when the topic came to the deaths over the last nine months of fellow members of the game's most exclusive fraternity: Dick Williams, Harmon Killebrew, Bob Feller, Duke Snider and Sparky Anderson.

"There will be a lot more serious hugs this weekend because when you get to know these guys on a personal level it hurts a lot more when we do lose guys now," Smith said. "It's something I think we all feel."

"Harmon played for me his last year in Kansas City and I was his teammate in Washington, so I was very close to him over the years," Herzog said. "And I lost a very good friend about two weeks ago in Dick Williams. He and I were teammates at Kansas City and Baltimore. And of course I managed against him a number of years, coached for him with the Angels one year."

Saturday's schedule of events includes: the Spotlight Series, where a number of Hall of Famers will be at Doubleday Field between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to participate in interactive discussions on a variety of subjects; the Awards Presentation at Doubleday Field at 4:30 p.m.; and the Parade of Legends, which runs down Main Street beginning at 6 p.m. All three events are free and open to the public.

The Induction Ceremony will be held at 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown.

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