'Play Ball With Ozzie' event a success
Fans get to turn a double play with Smith or Sandberg
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Neither a little bit of early morning rain nor George Brett's missing glove could stop the "Play Ball With Ozzie" Smith and friends event from being staged as scheduled on Friday at Doubleday Field.
The rain began overnight and drenched the little hamlet where baseball was purportedly born about 170 years ago. But that didn't stop some 70 diehard fans, who donated $500 to $750 for the privilege, from lining up in a steady drizzle outside the old ballpark tucked away off Main Street hoping to "turn two" with the Hall of Fame shortstop.
The Wizard had some help this year from fellow Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg and Brett, who arrived without a fielder's glove.
"Hey, can I go down the street and grab the one that Babe Ruth used out of the Hall?" Brett quipped to Jane Forbes Clark, the chairman of the red-bricked National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum just two blocks away.
Clark laughed and told Brett he could go down in the basement to rummage through any of the artifacts that are not currently on display.
"I've got the easy job," said Brett, who played third base and first base during his 21-year career, all with the Kansas City Royals. "All I have to do is stand there on first base and take the throws."
Ageless Buck O'Neil also was on hand to lend his presence, if not his physical skills. But at 94, how much more can anyone expect from the former Negro Leaguer who is this weekend's representative of the 17 deceased players and executives from that long-gone league to be inducted on Sunday?
Smith's former St. Louis Cardinals teammate, reliever extraordinaire Bruce Sutter, will be the only former Major Leaguer inducted in this year's class, the largest in Hall of Fame history.
"Bruce has never been much to manage a lot of words," Smith said, referring to Sutter's much-anticipated Sunday induction speech. "I'm sure he's going to be pretty nervous. The only time I didn't seem him nervous is when he came in and pitched."
This was the fifth year of Smith's little event, which already has raised about $100,000 for the Hall's education fund. The Hall, which is a non-profit institution, uses the money to stage such events as clinics, lectures and book signings throughout the year.
Smith was named the Hall's education ambassador after he was the lone electee in 2002.
"It's a great way to give back to the game and has been a natural transition for me to just continue what I've always done, but just do it on this stage," Smith said.
Smith began taking part in the event before he became one of the chosen 260 players, managers and executives enshrined in the Hall. Brett was with him last year, and Sandberg, the All-Star second baseman, became a new participant after his induction along with Wade Boggs in 2005.
"I told Ozzie last year when I heard about it that if he was looking for another player, I was willing," said Sandberg, who played 15 seasons for the Chicago Cubs. "I played so many years against and with him during All-Star Games, I thought it would be a perfect match."
And for two hours, the fans seemed enthralled by their company.
For the first part of the session, the would-be ballplayers met in small groups with the three retired Major Leaguers, taking ground balls, asking questions and listening to old war stories.
At last came the big moment -- stepping behind second base to turn a double play with Smith, then Sandberg. The diamond, in uncommonly good condition considering all the rain, played true as a hitter fungoed grounders to each middle infielder. They, in turn, flipped the ball to the fan, who then completed the phantom double play with a relay throw of some proportion to Brett.
Many of the tosses were on the mark, although the now 56-year-old Brett, who was inducted in 1999 along with Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount, didn't make many of those good stretches to grab the errant ones.
In the end, Adam Saturich, a 12-year-old from Illinois, said there was no doubt which Hall of Famer he favored.
"Sandberg," Saturich said. "I'm a Cubs fan."
Even the rain didn't dampen those kinds of loyalties.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.