MLB.com Columnist

Alyson Footer

Ozzie hosts Play Ball event on HOF Weekend

Annual fundraiser benefits Hall of Fame intern and educational programs

Ozzie hosts Play Ball event on HOF Weekend

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Fans from all over are pouring into Cooperstown to celebrate Hall of Fame Weekend, but a handful got there before the masses. That's because Friday morning marked the annual PLAY BALL event, where several dozen baseball fans enjoyed an up-close-and-personal clinic with four Hall of Fame players and one Hall of Fame executive, all in the name of fundraising.

For the 16th year in a row, Cardinals Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, who serves as the Education Ambassador for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, welcomed guests during a fun-filled morning that gave fans a unique chance to experience on-field moments and stories with Hall of Famers.

Proceeds benefitted the Hall's educational mission and internship programs.

"What we try to do is keep fans engaged and give them the opportunity to spend time with their favorite players and raise money for the education fund," Smith said. "That's what it's about -- raising money for the educational part of the Hall of Fame."

Joining Smith were four legends of the game: Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, D-backs pitcher Randy Johnson and Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins, along with former executive Pat Gillick, who was honored by the Hall in 2011.

The former players were placed at stations around a diamond near the Clark Sports Center and offered up instruction and insight to groups of participants that included both kids and adults.

"It's great to do something like this and be around the Hall of Famers," Sandberg said. "Ozzie does a great job for the Hall of Fame, and I'm just happy to join up on the same team and do it for a good cause. It's very cool."

Each Hall of Famer wore the uniform that he donned as an active player. Johnson, still looking lean and athletic in his D-backs uniform, noted how much more enjoyable it is to attend Hall of Fame Weekend as a past inductee, instead of having the spotlight on him as it was two years ago when he was inducted.

"I played 22 years, so my generation and even people before me, we're seeing them getting inducted," he said. "And now I'm a part of it and it's kind of fun to come back now. Much more relaxing now, let's put it that way."

Jenkins, who retired in 1983 and was inducted into the Hall in 1991, embraced the opportunity to wear his Cubs uniform again for this event.

"A lot of these young kids never saw me play," Jenkins chuckled. "I told them I was a pitcher. They thought I was an outfielder. It's interesting that they've had this [fundraiser] for quite a few years. Ozzie was one of the instigators. It's a fun situation. And it's fun for the kids."

Since hosting the event annually beginning in 2002, Smith has helped raise more than $175,000, including nearly 25,000 on Friday, for the Museum's educational outreach programs and the Ozzie Smith Diversity Scholarships, presented annually to members of the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development.

"It's a continuation of what I was doing when I was playing," Smith said. "It gives me a bigger venue to do it on. I enjoy it, and I think the fans enjoy it as well."

MLB Network's exclusive live coverage of the 2017 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony -- simulcast live on MLB.com -- will begin with MLB Tonight on Sunday at noon ET, followed by the ceremony at 1:30 p.m. Prior to Sunday's live coverage, MLB Network will televise the 2017 Hall of Fame Awards Presentation at 11 a.m., featuring Rachel Robinson (Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award), Claire Smith (the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for writers) and the posthumous honoring of Bill King (Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters). The presentation will also commemorate the 25th anniversary of the release of the film "A League of Their Own."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.