Fans get to PLAY Ball with Ozzie Smith

Fans get to PLAY Ball with Ozzie Smith

On Friday at Doubleday Field, the second baseman ranged far to his right, executed a half-stumble, half-dive, rolled over and came up without the ball, unable to turn two successfully.

The effort earned a round of appreciative applause from an encouraging crowd, because the unsuccessful twin killing served up two birds of generosity -- baseball fans had donated money to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's educational programs and the Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for the chance to field grounders and interact with Hall of Famers as part of the Museum's fourth annual PLAY Ball with Ozzie Smith.

"PLAY Ball has been growing, and it's continuing to grow," Smith said. "We're expanding as far as the education department at the Hall of Fame. We do a lot of fun things during the course of the year. We'll continue to grow, continue to educate and hopefully raise a lot of money for the education department here at the Hall of Fame."

The event featured 57 participants and raised more than $40,000 for the Museum, bringing the total to more than $150,000 in the event's history. Smith was joined this year by fellow Hall of Famers George Brett, Ryne Sandberg, Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver. Brett and Sandberg were returning participants, and Robinson and Weaver joined for the first time.

"We got a letter from Ozzie asking us to do it, and naturally, we do all that we possibly can for the Hall of Fame and for Ozzie, because they treat us so nice," Weaver said. "This is a great experience for us. Hall of Fame weekend is something we look forward to every year, and if we can do something to help the educational fund, we do that."

Fans traveled from as far as Japan for the chance to take the field with the Hall of Famers. Broken up into four groups, participants spent 10 minutes with each of the former players. The question-and-answer format led to the players dishing about their careers, experiences as Hall of Famers and current endeavors.

Sandberg talked about managing the Peoria Chiefs, a Class A Midwest League affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, joking that he's been ejected more times in 30 days as a manager (four) than he was in 16 years as a player (two). Brett recounted stories of the athletic prowess of former two-sport star Bo Jackson, while Robinson -- signed as a second baseman -- discussed the difficulties of adjusting to third base from another infield position, saying it takes at least 100 games to master the reflex-dependent position.

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Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey floated through the sessions, and asked Smith about his experiences with baseball as a youth. Smith told of how his first glove was a paper bag, and that he used to throw a tennis ball over the roof of his house before racing around in an attempt to catch the ball before it landed. (He never did -- though he came close several times when it nicked the drain pipe and slowed down.)

"The guys are great," said Shelley Streeter of Battle Creek, Mich., who was attending her fourth PLAY Ball. "Ozzie and George have been here every time I've been here, and they make everyone feel comfortable. It's a lot of fun, [there's a] lot of joking around."

The Hall of Famers were assisted by Museum staff, including the 2007 Ozzie Smith Diversity Scholars, a group that includes three students from Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis -- Tiffany King, Glennton Sevier and Larry Young -- as well as one from the University of Hawaii at Manoa -- Eric Leong. The Diversity scholarships offset the cost of travel, room and board, allowing college students of diverse ethic and cultural backgrounds to benefit from a summer internship at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The foursome enjoyed the chance to interact with the Hall of Famers and participants, particularly Smith. All had previous, brief interactions with the Hall of Fame shortstop -- Young once played on a baseball team with Smith's son, Nikko -- but nothing like Friday, when they got to accompany Smith to and from the event.

"He's a very personable person," Leong said. "You feel that he has all this star power, but he's very approachable."

With a portion of the proceeds funding the Diversity Scholarships, the group recognized the importance of the event and the contributions being made by the participants and Hall of Famers.

"I think it's great that not only are they donating money, but they're doing it for a good cause," Young said. "For five Hall of Famers to take out their time to do this makes it even more special, and hopefully the next interns appreciate this as much as past ones have."

Ben Couch is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.