BY CHARLIE M. HOLMES
In the movie “Field of Dreams” there’s a famous quote. “Is this heaven?” a baseball player asks the main character, Ray Kinsella. “It’s Iowa,” Kinsella responds. Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, would disagree. Baseball heaven, Smith says, is Cooperstown.
“That’s what makes this place so special,” Smith explained. “Everybody comes together, and it’s about the love of the game.”
It was Friday morning, the first day of the 2012 Hall of Fame weekend, and Smith was standing parallel to the third baseline on a field located at the Clark Sports Center. He was about to kick off his 10th annual PLAY Ball event for the Hall of Fame, an event he introduced to Cooperstown. Before being inducted into the museum in 2002, Smith had been doing this same sort of thing in St. Louis for years. For fans, it’s a chance to play ball with legendary Hall of Famers, and for Smith it’s an opportunity to raise money for the education programs at the Hall of Fame.
“I think we’ve raised over $125,000,” Smith stated.
The money from the program goes to the Ozzie Smith Diversity Scholarship, which is part of the internship program at the Hall of Fame. Two of the scholars were with Smith that Friday morning a student from University of Minnesota and one from St. John’s University. Also joining Smith were Johnny Bench, Paul Molitor and Carlton Fisk.
“I try to get a different group every year and these guys have been very gracious of their time to come out and help out,” Smith said.
As many Cooperstown residents realize, Smith spends more time in Cooperstown than most of the other Hall of Famers, but they may not know what keeps Smith coming back. “Well it’s things like this year,” Smith said with a smile. “I’ve been working with the education department. It’s all about giving people the experience, especially people who are interested in baseball.”
Now that Smith is retired, he’s frequently asked if he will ever manage a team.
“No,” Smith responded in a tone of voice that left no room for doubt. “No, I don’t want to manage. I enjoy my life. I enjoy my life away from it. Spring training is perfect. You know, being able to go down there for a couple of weeks and spend time with the young guys as Willie [McGee] and I were able to do this year.” How about the front office then?
“Not right now. Play too much golf,” Smith replied with a laugh, “but maybe down the road.”
What does Smith think about his former team, the St. Louis Cardinals, this year?
“I thought they would be a lot more persistent,” Smith admitted, “but, you know, here again with Matheny’s first year,I think he’s gotten a first-hand view of improvisation, which is probably the greatest asset to have. You’ve got to be able to improvise because you never know who’s going to get hurt or what you’re going to have from day to day. I think he’s done a good job. I think this type of year, his first year, is going to do nothing but help him as he goes forward.”
What did Smith think helped Larkin get into the Hall of Fame? “I think he was one of the first guys to come along as a shortstop to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in the same season,” Smith recalled. “At that point, I think the game was starting to change a little bit, and we were starting to see the position much more from an offensive standpoint, rather than the emphasis being put on defense. He was one of the first guys able to blend those two things together.”
How will Smith feel if someone who was accused of using steroids gets into the Hall of Fame?
“It’s a real tough time now because, you know, there’s so much uncertainty,” Smith pointed out. “I think for most of us this has been a game where you had an idea. Like you say, when you watch people and you say, ‘Oh! This guy certainly is a Hall of Famer.’ Then we go through this period where everyone is saying ‘I didn’t’ and you find out that they did, so it’s gonna be tough.”
At that point, a manila envelope was handed to Smith. Inside was a team photo. Dressed in dark blue uniforms with red piping were Smith, Johnny Bench, Fred McGriff, Ryne Sandberg, Mike Schmidt, Randy Johnson, Trevor Howard, Andre Dawson, Stan Musial and Tony Gwynn.
“That’s a field of dreams there,” Smith said, gazing at the picture.
The communications director for the Hall of Fame, Craig Muder, tapped Smith on the shoulder.
“You’re ready,” Muder told Smith. “You’re on.” Smith slipped his glove on his hand and trotted out to third base, where he disappeared, not into a field of corn, but instead into a group of fans.
BY CHARLIE M. HOLMES
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