PLAY Ball fundraiser begins festivities on Friday at Hall of Fame Weekend in Cooperstown
For the 19th year – and first since 2019 – the Wizard of Oz, the Hall of Fame shortstop, spearheaded an event whose origins coincided with his 2002 induction: PLAY (Players, Legends And You) Ball. With the help of three fellow Cooperstown legends – ironman shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., record-setting first sacker Eddie Murray and powerful slugger Jim Thome – this year’s event was a sold-out success.
With their decades of diamond experience, the heralded quartet shared their wisdom with a group of 50 participants during a sun-drenched session at historic Doubleday Field.
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With the generosity of the Hall of Famers and those fans attending, PLAY Ball raised almost $40,000, which is also earmarked for diversity scholarships for the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development.
“It's great being back and it's nice to see people all together again after we missed this for the last couple years,” said Smith, the Hall of Fame’s Education Ambassador. “I think the goal here is to give the fans an opportunity to visit with the guys one-on-one, up close and person, the guys they’ve admired for years. We're continuing and it's a good program and a great story.”
Hall of Fame director of education Stephanie Hazzard reflected on the importance of Friday’s fundraiser, which began in the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery before moving to the ballpark.
“We had a great turnout here today for Ozzie Smith’s PLAY Ball event. Because of events like this that raise funds for Ozzie Smith’s diversity scholars, we have four interns here this summer as part of that program,” she said. “We've had over $250,000 raised for our education department and internship program over the years. These Hall of Famers as well as the participants are such great supporters of the Hall of Fame and everything that we do in Cooperstown.”
With the numbers of Hall of Famers arriving in the small upstate New York village growing as the weekend goes on, Smith had a bit of advice for the three living members of the Class of 2022: David Ortiz, Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat.
“Just be yourself,” said the longtime Cardinals great. “You know, it's always nerve-wracking when you have to stand up and talk in front of people, but you'll get through it.”
The 2022 inductees – which also feature Bud Fowler, Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil – will be enshrined at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown.
The Village of Cooperstown was also getting prepared for Induction Weekend, with Main Street closed off to traffic and fans walking around sporting jerseys of their favorite teams and players. Even the Hall of Famers arriving for the occasion were overjoyed to be back for the celebration.
Bert Blyleven, the curve-balling right-hander with 287 career wins and 3,701 strikeouts, was inducted in 2011. He said, in an interview at The Otesaga Resort Hotel, that it’s an “honor to be back. This is a very elite fraternity and I’m very proud to be part of it.”
“Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat’s elections were both overdue. I'm glad that both of them got elected,” Blyleven said. “When I came up in 1970, Jim Kaat was my mentor. He kind of took me on as a little brother and showed me the ropes. I'd watch him pitch because he was a ‘pitcher.’ As for Tony, when they put the designated hitter rule in in 1973, being a pitcher and having Tony Oliva hit for me was great. I might face their best hitter (as a DH), but I don't care because we had Tony.”
Pat Gillick, who captured a trio of World Series titles during his 27 years as a big league general manager and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011, appreciate the easy camaraderie and collegiality the longtime opponents come to appreciate after they’ve received their bronze plaques.
“It’s always great to be back in Cooperstown and be around all the people that are involved in baseball and the greats that you know,” he said. “I had the opportunity to work with and also I had an opportunity to see so many of them play, so it's always wonderful to come back. We have a good time here and kick around a lot of baseball stories. It's a lot of fun. I think that's the great thing about baseball. There's a lot of different stories. I was with Bert Blyleven and Dave Winfield and Craig Biggio this morning and everybody had a story, whether it was something that happened in the past of something that happened recently.”
Currently an advisor with the Phillies – the team he joined as GM in 2006 – Gillick still keeps abreast of today’s game.
“The game has changed a little bit different than when this group here was around, but it's still an interesting game,” Gillick said. “There's some good athletes, there's a lot of home runs hit and a lot of excitement.”
Hall of Fame Weekend 2022 runs through Monday in Cooperstown. The Class of 2022 will be inducted at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 24, at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, and the ceremony will be broadcast live on MLB Network. Admission to the Induction Ceremony is free.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum