Time to PLAY Ball

Written by: Bill Francis

Acrobatic and sure-handed shortstop Ozzie Smith, whose 8,375 career assists at the position are tops in big league baseball history, is continuing to assist his latest team.

Smith joined the national sport’s most exclusive squad when he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002. Though the longtime St. Louis Cardinal has been retired from the major league playing fields for almost two decades, he is continuing a longstanding tradition by lending his support to the Cooperstown institution’s educational department.

Now in its 14th year, PLAY (Players, Legends And You) Ball is an annual fundraiser hosted by Smith, a 15-time All-Star and winner of 13 consecutive Gold Glove Awards, and held during Hall of Fame Weekend. This year the Wizard of Oz will be joined by Hall of Fame teammates Andre Dawson, Ferguson Jenkins and Greg Maddux for the morning event, beginning at 8 a.m. on Friday, July 24.

Wonderful Weekend

While Smith won’t replicate one of his famous Opening Day back flips at the start of PLAY Ball, the informal beginning of Induction Weekend features over two hours of non-stop interaction, including personalized instruction and the chance to turn double plays with the baseball legends. Each participant receives time on a local diamond with these baseball legends, as well as a personalized photo and special mementos of the occasion. Prior to the on-field activity, the participants and former major leaguers will share a special breakfast in the Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery.

“It’s just having the chance to give people the opportunity to get to know us a little bit better,” Smith said. “I think this gives them a totally different view of who and what we are and what allowed us to do the things that we did. And I think that people are here because we all love the game of baseball. That’s what makes this special.

“I’ve been very fortunate, very blessed to have had the opportunity to do something I love. 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.”

Last year’s PLAY Ball not only included Smith, who has headlined the fundraiser every year since his 2002 Hall of Fame induction, but also a trio of enshrinees that included pitcher Bert Blyleven, catcher Johnny Bench and third baseman Mike Schmidt, who all shared stories and instructional tips on the game. Since Smith has begun hosting the event, he has helped raise almost $150,000 for the Museum’s educational outreach programs.

“It’s really about taking your celebrity and taking it into a community and being able to help some people who are less fortunate,” said Smith, the Hall of Fame’s Education Ambassador. “The Education Department here at the Hall of Fame certainly is one of those things that’s ongoing.”

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt limbers up during PLAY Ball in 2014. (Milo Stewart, Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Giving back

According to Ron Gant, the longtime big league outfielder and current new anchor in Atlanta who was covering the 2014 event, Smith, his teammate with the Cardinals in 1996, has always been willing to give back.

“Ozzie was always one of the guys that was in the community helping children,” Grant recalled. “I think any chance he gets to work with children, he just absolutely loves it. These kids benefit a lot from hearing from guys like Ozzie Smith and being able to be around that positive influence.”

Back in 2013, former Giants pitching staff stalwarts Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry lent Smith a helping hand.

“Anything that Ozzie does I want to be part of because Ozzie was a great baseball player, great human being, and he loves the game,” Marichal said. “And I think that’s the most important thing – when you love something you give back something. And that’s why we’re here.

“And I think that every member of the Hall of Fame should give back something to the Hall and to the Museum and to the fans.”
Bruce Sutter, a famed closer and former teammate of Smith’s with the Cardinals, didn’t need to be convinced to participate in PLAY Ball back in 2010.

“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.”

Return trip

In some cases, fans who have participated in PLAY Ball return year after year.

“It’s one of the great events and I love it,” said Paul Terry, from Baldwin, Long Island, who was taking part in his sixth PLAY Ball event in 2010. “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.

In 2009, three members of the Pfieffer family – father Ned and sons Matt and Brian – returned for the third straight year.

“You always find new questions to ask these guys. It’s a lot of fun,” said Matt Pfieffer, wearing an Ozzie Smith Cardinals jersey. “It’s nice that these guys come out here and do something like this and get the fans involved. It’s really quite an experience.”

According to Ned Pfieffer, while it’s a tremendous opportunity to meet the Hall of Famers, an added benefit is seeing his sons’ reactions.

“It’s fun for me, as the dad, to spend the time with them and just watch them see these guys up close,” he said. “For me personally, the most fun of the whole morning is just playing catch with these guys. It just brings you back to being on the sandlot. It’s just a real thrill to throw a ball to a Wade Boggs or an Eddie Murray and have them throw it back to you.”

Boggs, the five-time batting champion, didn’t hesitate when he received a letter from Smith back in 2010 asking him to participate.

“I think it’s great,” Boggs said. “Come out and meet the fans and have some little kids look at you and smile. That’s always neat.”

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

How To Participate

PLAY Ball is open to fans of all ages but space is limited. Interested participants can register by calling the Hall of Fame’s membership department at 607-547-0397.

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