Hall of Famers relax and PLAY in Coop

Written by: Bill Francis

With the Wizard of Oz front and center, the 2015 National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend got off to a magical start.

For the 14th consecutive year, legendary shortstop Ozzie Smith, inducted into the Cooperstown shrine in 2002, hosted his PLAY (Players, Legends And You) Ball event during the baseball’s best weekend.

With the help of fellow Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Andre Dawson and Ferguson Jenkins, guests enjoyed a sun-drenched morning on Friday at a local ballfield – a cornfield located deep in the outfield, where they had the opportunity to not only hear stories from their sports heroes but also receive on-field instruction.

Smith, the Education Ambassador for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, uses PLAY Ball as a Museum fundraiser that supports the Hall of Fame’s educational programs and internship scholarships.

“I think it’s important for us to be able to give something back,” said Smith prior to taking the field sporting his Hall of Fame uniform. “And it’s an easy way to be able to connect with fans. I think they get a chance to see the players in a totally different light, up close and personal.”

Since PLAY Ball’s inception, Smith has helped raise more than $150,000. This year, with its 60 participants, was the second sellout (2007) in the event’s history.

“It’s all about raising money and keeping the program going,” Smith said. “It’s a very vital part of what makes this place so special. We try and get some guys together every year that are interested in connecting with the fans.

“And my role as the Educational Ambassador is just keeping people aware of the great history of this place and this sport. And keeping people updated on why we love this game so much,” he added. “We’re in the business of creating memories and for the people that make the trek up here it reminds them of all of those great times that they’ve been able to spend with their father, their mother, the family. It’s a very special day.”

Dawson, the onetime slugging outfielder who now works for the Marlins, was very happy to help Smith out.

“This is his project and it’s very dear to him,” Dawson said. “It’s the second time I participated in it. It’s good also to mix and mingle with the fans, answer some questions, and make it exciting for them.”

For Jenkins, who used his strong right arm to compile seven seasons of at least 20 wins, the day brought back childhood memories.

“When you put the uniform back on,” he said, “you feel like a little kid again.”

Some of the Hall of Famers also shared their thoughts on what it’s like to be back in Cooperstown.

“It’s always exciting anytime that we have the chance to come here and rub shoulders with the game’s greats. It’s always been very special to me,” Smith said. “Never did I dream when I was growing up that I would be considered a Hall of Famer. I consider myself very fortunate and very lucky to have had the opportunity to play baseball for 19 years and then be a part of this very special fraternity. It’s very rewarding.

“It’s very special to be considered a Hall of Famer. I’ve never taken that lightly. Hopefully, I’ll be healthy enough to come back for a few more years.”

Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith signs a baseball during the 14th annual PLAY Ball fundraiser Friday at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown. (Milo Stewart, Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Dawson admitted that every time he returns to Cooperstown he’s in awe because it’s great to see the best to ever play the game.

“To see the history of the game, and how it’s all encapsulated in such a small and serene environment, I look forward to it because now I get to kick back and I get to watch the guys do their thing,” Dawson said. “I knew what it was like when I was up on that stage, but to see then enjoy that moment and know what it means to them, that’s what makes it so exciting.

“I think on Sunday night they’ll kick their heels up and say, ‘Wow. It’s all over.’ This is a time when you enjoy this. This is your stage and you only get to do it once in a lifetime. So my advice is to enjoy the crowd and enjoy your family. It’s probably going to be a bit emotional, it’s going to be exciting, but you are with the elite of the elite to ever play the game.”

Dawson’s advice for new Hall of Fame electees will be shared with a new quartet on Sunday when the Hall of Fame’s membership increases to 310 with the induction of Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez and John Smoltz, who were elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in January.

Hall of Fame Class of 2015

See how baseball’s heroes are preserved forever.

Hall of Fame Class of 2015

See how baseball’s heroes are preserved forever.

“This is beyond … I mean I never dreamt of this,” said Smoltz, struggling with expressing himself, on Friday. “When I think about being here, I just feel like I’m in a fantasy world. I’m trying to take it in, every breath that I take. And obviously I know for the future, the rest of my life, I’ll be linked with the greatest players in the history of the game. I can’t even put into words right now.

“For the rest of my life I’m going to be linked with names that you only hear of the greatness. You know that they represented the game with … I just can’t, I can’t … I’m low on the totem pole and I’m OK with that.”

Smoltz and family arrived Wednesday night, the longtime Braves pitcher admitting he walked around trying to figure out what Sunday is going to be like.

“My speech has been done for a while but I don’t think you can have enough time to figure out how you are going to put into words a career that was so unique and with so many people to thank. I don’t know what it would take to get it completely right,” said Smoltz, who puts the number at more than 180 friends and family expected to attend the Induction Ceremony. “And I think the fact that it never crossed my mind to ever be part of this makes it that much more special. I just never pitched a baseball in my life thinking about the Hall of Fame. But at the end of the day that’s where I’ve ended up. I can’t believe it.”

Amazingly, Smoltz compared his upcoming enshrinement with getting the ultimate pitching assignment.

“They’ll be the same nervousness and anticipation as with a Game 7. I really believe the two are going to be the same,” said Smoltz, who famously started for the Braves in a 1-0 loss to the Twins and Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. “And I’ll try and approach it like I approached a Game 7 with nothing but enjoyment.”

Smoltz, a scratch golfer, has even made time to enjoy Cooperstown’s Leatherstocking Golf Course the last few days. Last weekend, he participated in the American Century Championship, a celebrity golf tourney in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, won by fellow hurler Mark Mulder.

“I played the last two days here and shot around par each time. I haven’t played the way … I’m in a little bit of a funk where I have a lot on my brain and probably not focusing that much on golf. Just using it as energy to relax,” Smoltz said. “I love the course here. It’s the shortest-longest golf course you’ll ever play and it’s the easiest-hardest golf course you’ll ever score on. It’s deceivingly long even though the yardage doesn’t show – it’s only 6,400 yards. I’m used to playing 7,400, 7,500 yards. But it’s sneaky hard, man.”

Pedro was a phenomenon. I remember facing him early, he got better and better, and then in the late 1990s he was lights out.

Hall of Famer Frank Thomas on Pedro Martínez

Former White Sox power hitter Frank Thomas is only a year removed from what Smoltz is going through. Thomas reflected on Friday about his induction in 2014.

“Becoming a Hall of Famer changes your life forever. Your respected nationwide when people see you as a Hall of Famer,” Thomas said. “It’s a special moment in time. I’m just happy to back to enjoy this year. Last year was so much stress but this is so enjoyable seeing the guys and having a good time.

“I’ve got to pinch myself sometime. A small town kid out of Georgia can only dream about something like that. And it happened. I just feel blessed.”

Thomas has firsthand knowledge of the three pitchers being inducted this year.

“Facing Randy Johnson was always an interesting at bat because if he got ahead of me he knew he was going to finish it. The key with him was not letting him get ahead of me,” Thomas recalled. “And Pedro was a phenomenon. I remember facing him early, he got better and better, and then in the late 1990s he was lights out.

“Smoltz, I faced him once. He walked me with a 3-2 count on a close pitch. Not only do I remember it but he remembers it too. We talk about that all the time. It was outside,” he added with a laugh. “He’s one heck of a competitor.”

Eddie Murray, inducted in 2003 after collecting more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, shuddered when thinking back upon his special speech.

“Oh gosh. That was the butterfly one. That was a tough one. But once you get in you really start to relax,” Murray said. “The thing is when you know someone who is going in you try and give them a heads up: ‘Hey, let the people here do what they do.’

“I think we all worry about our families. Once you know that your family is taken care of you start to relax. You’re not enjoying it yet because you’re worrying about your speech and it’s a little nerve wracking but you get through it. It just seems like sometimes there’s not enough time for yourself that first time.”

Pat Gillick, the longtime baseball general manager elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011, also can be excused if he has other things on his mind. As president of the Phillies, and with the big league trade deadline coming up next week, he might be involved in a transaction or two in the coming days.

“It’s busy all year round but I think there’s more emphasis put on this time of the year by the press. And then the public gets all up in arms that you’ve got to do something now or it’s the end of the world,” Gillick said. “It is an important time but there are many other important dates during the year that are just as important in my mind.”

When asked if the Phils might be making some moves, Gillick only said, “We’re going to try to. We’re going to certainly try to.”

On Sunday, 53 Hall of Famers are scheduled to be in Cooperstown to honor the Class of 2015. The Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, honoring the four newest members, will be held Sunday, July 26, at 1:30 p.m. ET at the Clark Sports Center – located one mile south of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Saturday’s schedule begins with Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda participating in a book signing at 11 a.m. in the Hall of Fame Library’s Atrium. The book, titled Tommy Lasorda: My Way, was released in April. Co-author Colin Gunderson will also be in attendance. Lasorda will only sign copies of the book.

Also on Saturday, the Hall of Fame Awards Presentation will be held at 4:30 p.m. on at Doubleday Field and will feature the presentation of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters to Dick Enberg; and the presentation of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for writers to Tom Gage. The Awards Presentation will also feature a tribute to the legacy and contributions of former Reds, Cardinals and Senators outfielder Curt Flood, whose test of the reserve clause via the United States Supreme Court in the early 1970s laid the groundwork for the advent of free agency several years later. Tony Clark, the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, will speak on behalf of Flood. The Museum will also recognize all the ballplayers who served in World War II, with United States Navy Secretary Ray Mabus speaking on behalf of all military branches. The Awards Presentation is free and open to the public.

Soon after the Awards Presentation, at 6 p.m., the Hall of Fame Parade of Legends returns for a sixth year. Hall of Famers will ride down Main Street in trucks provided by Ford Motor Company.

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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