The Wizard thrills fans as Hall of Fame Weekend begins with PLAY Ball

Written by: Bill Francis

This Wizard wasn’t in Oz but instead could be located at a Cooperstown ballfield, whose outfield was surrounded by corn. And with the help of three fellow legends, the quartet showed their benevolence by not only sharing their insights on the game of baseball but also raised funds for a worthy cause.

The 2016 National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend began Friday morning when, for the 15th consecutive year, legendary shortstop Ozzie Smith, in an event whose origins coincided with his 2002 induction, hosted his PLAY Ball event. With the contributions of fellow inductees Goose Gossage, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio, 42 Museum supporters enjoyed a sun-drenched session at baseball field at the Clark Sports Center, only feet from where Sunday’s Induction Ceremony will take place, able to hear stories from their sports heroes but also receiving on-field instruction.

“When we started out we didn’t know exactly where we were going and how long it would go, but it seems to have worked out great,” said Smith to the assembled media at the ballfield. “We’re growing as an organization and now it has become a pretty big fundraiser and hopefully we can continue.”

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

“I’m not sure about being the face of this event, because it really is just about developing and then maintaining that relationship with the fans. I guess you could say I’m the conduit in getting all of the guys together that come out here and take part in it,” Smith said. “Hopefully this will continue because something is certainly needed to help keep the education program going.

“For a lot of us, we lose that connection with the fans after we get away from the game. This is a way to keep us connected to the people because here it is just baseball. Everybody is here because of their love for the game. It makes it pretty nice.”

Since PLAY Ball’s inception, Smith has helped raise more than $150,000 for the Museum.

“When you are a not-for-profit educational institution like the Hall of Fame, you’ve got to find ways to raise money,” said Smith, “so there’s no better way to do that than being able to do what it is you do and have fun doing it.”

With Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. joining Smith and the others in a few days with their own bronze images in the Plaque Gallery, it was only natural that the 311th and 312th Hall of Famers came up in discussion.

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“They were two of the game’s best so that’s why they made it here,” Smith said. “When you talk about Griff, he certainly had one of the more beautiful swings in the game. And Mike, when you look at where he started, being drafted (in the 62nd round) as low as he (was) and to see where he is now, it speaks to how special a ballplayer he was.”

Smoltz, the longtime Braves pitcher inducted into the Hall of Fame only a year ago, also chimed in on his two newest Hall of Fame teammates.

“I was a down and away fastball guy and here comes this kid, Mike Piazza, that could smoke a ball away so I really had to change my approach to him. He was the scariest right-handed hitter, period,” Smoltz said. “I always said Albert Pujols and Gary Sheffield, there’s some scary right-handed hitters, violent, but Mike was unique in that when he hit the ball and put his head down you knew where it was going.

“As for Ken Griffey, I didn’t have the pleasure of actually facing him in his prime, meaning it would have been an unbelievable challenge to see him during his early years in the American League with the Mariners. I did face him a few times after he came to the National League with the Reds and gave up his 2,500th career hit (a Griffey single on July 18, 2007). And I almost watched him grow up because I played with his dad (Ken Griffey Sr.) on the 1988 Braves. His dad used to tell me about his son. Wow.”

Biggio, also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015, had a unique perspective on Piazza and Griffey Jr., being not only a contemporary but also starting at the two positions, catcher and center field, that the Hall’s latest pair of inductees were most noted for.

“Mikey was a heck of a player. He’ll go down as one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time,” Biggio said. “It’s a tough job behind the plate. You get beat up. But he was amazing and just did an incredible job and obviously he’s rewarded be being enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

“And the thing about Junior, and his numbers speak for themselves and they’re incredible, but I just loved his flair in the way that he played the game and the way that he had fun. Your nickname is ‘The Kid’ for a reason. He made the game fun like it was when you were a little kid.”

Later in the afternoon, back at The Otesaga Resort Hotel, the home base for returning Hall of Famers and special guests during the weekend, the fellow enshrinees often marveled at the past exploits of the two new members of the sport’s most exclusive fraternity.

“I played against Mike Piazza quite a bit,” said longtime Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg. “He was a very dominant catcher and a powerful hitter. I saw that firsthand against my Cubs on numerous occasions. Mike just had a knack of just being a big bat in the middle of the order. Tough to pitch to. Some of the quickest wrists that I’ve seen for a guy that swung a big bat. He had plate coverage with his longer bat that he used but he was very quick.

“You’d think that you’d be able to pitch him inside and get inside on him but he was so quick on it that he’d pull the ball. If you stayed away from him with his reach that he had he was able to drive the ball to right-center field. He was a big competitor and just a guy in the middle of the lineup that you didn’t want to face with men on base.”

As an opposing manager, Hall of Famer Bobby Cox saw the pair from a different vantage point.

Goose Gossage teaches some young baseball fans proper pitching form at the Hall of Fame's PLAY Ball event. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

“There’s always one or two guys in the lineup that you don’t want to let beat you,” Cox said. “We were the Mets’ opponents the first game in New York after 9/11 and I think it’s the first night in my life that I didn’t mind losing a ballgame. It was great to see Mike hit that big home run against us. It more than helped the city as much as anything, I think.

“As for Griffey, I saw him in play at Moeller High in Cincinnati. We, the Braves, knew we couldn’t get him because we were drafting too low but I wanted to see what a No. 1 prospect looked like. And I did.”

Randy Johnson, the 6-foot-10 southpaw elected to the Hall of Fame last year, was a teammate of Griffey’s with the Mariners for Junior’s first 10 big league seasons (1989-98).

“Griffey was a pretty amazing and a pretty special player at such an early age,” Johnson said, “being compared to Willie Mays and hitting home runs at a record pace and making some pretty unbelievable catches out in center field.”

Johnson also spoke about when Piazza and Griffey are now experiencing, with the Induction Ceremony less than two days away.

“Obviously I know what they’re going through as far as anxiety and all that. It will only get worse on Sunday but it’s a moment I won’t forget,” Johnson said. “It was pretty special to have that opportunity. And now being a year removed from it, which went by really quick, I’m just really excited to be back here.

“I’ve run into two of my fellow inductees from last year, Craig Biggio and John Smoltz, and I think it was unanimous that we’re all a little bit more at ease having gone through the actual ceremony and being inducted last year. This year is much more laidback and just enjoying the moments a little bit more.”

When asked his feelings on returning to Cooperstown, Phil Niekro, the famed knuckleball pitcher elected to the in 1997, was almost poetic in his response.

“I’m back home again,” Niekro said with a smile. “I live in Atlanta but Cooperstown is my second home. Those who have never been here, they’ve got to put it on their bucket list. Come see Cooperstown. See what this little place is made of. It’s one of a kind. This town always makes us feel like we’re the greatest ballplayers that ever walked the earth.”

And a return to Cooperstown for Knucksie also means a return to see his Hall of Fame Plaque.

“I go back there and dust it off and make sure it’s not getting loose or anything,” he said with a laugh and a wink. “I’ve got a nail and hammer with me just in case.”

This year, 48 Hall of Famers are scheduled to be in Cooperstown to honor the Class of 2016 at the Induction Ceremony, to be held Sunday, July 24, at 1:30 p.m. at the Clark Sports Center – located one mile south of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The Induction Ceremony will be shown live on MLB Network, as well as being shown via webcast at

On Saturday, July 23, the Hall of Fame Awards Presentation will be held at 4:30 p.m. at Doubleday Field and will feature the posthumous presentation of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters to Graham McNamee and the presentation of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for writers to Dan Shaughnessy. The Awards Presentation will also feature an appearance by New York City Fire Department Battalion Chief Vin Mavaro, who will share his thoughts and memories about baseball’s role in helping both New York City and the nation to recover from the 9/11 attacks. The Awards Presentation is free and open to the public.

Also on Saturday, the Hall of Fame Parade of Legends returns for a seventh year to provide fans with more thrills. Hall of Famers will ride down Main Street in trucks provided by Ford Motor Company en route to a private reception at the Museum during the 6 p.m. parade, immediately following the Awards Presentation .

The Sunday, July 24 Induction Ceremony will take place on the grounds outside of the Clark Sports Center, which is located on lower Susquehanna Avenue, unless severe weather cancels the event. Follow the Hall of Fame on Twitter @BaseballHall for the latest updates.

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