Wizard links fans to legends for good cause

Wizard links fans to legends for good cause

COOPERSTOWN -- Until Sunday's crescendo, the focus on Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven will only sharpen.

"[They're] trying to get their feet underneath them, get their nerves right," said Andre Dawson on Friday morning, who was on the precipice of Hall of Fame induction just a year ago. "It's winding down now. As Frank Robinson told me last year: 'It's getting close.'"

The payoff, of course, is well worth it: "like going to heaven before you die," as Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog put it.

On Friday -- the first day of induction weekend -- the spotlight wasn't centered only on the newest class. Not yet. That will happen during Sunday's induction ceremony, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. ET, which will be broadcast live on MLB.com and MLB Network, with coverage beginning at 11:30 a.m. ET.

Friday was about getting re-acquainted, about tiny Cooperstown making its annual transformation to packed Cooperstown and the Hall of Famers sitting side-by-side along sidewalks, signing autographs. And for a quartet of Hall of Famers who came out early to a youth ball field in the morning, the day was also about remembrance.

Easily forgotten in the hoopla of the annual induction ceremony is the Hall's year-round pedagogic mission. Dawson, Herzog and Rod Carew gathered in support of Ozzie Smith's PLAY Ball event on Friday morning on a diamond at Cooperstown High, where a group of 22 fans had signed up to learn about the game from the Wizard and Co.

The proceeds of the event, which cost $450 for members and $600 for non-members, go directly to the Hall of Fame Museum's educational programs and internship scholarships. The program is very much Smith's own -- he's led it for all 10 years.

"I try to introduce [the participants] on a more personal level to the guys that get inducted," he said. "And all of the guys that I've had over the last 10 years have just been great, and people had a good time getting to know those guys on a more personal level. It's fun."

"What's incredible about this event is we have so many return visitors," said Anna Wade, the Hall's director of education. "We have an entire family that participates, grandparents bring all their grandchildren. ... it's really become kind of a family event."

Afterward, in a huddle with media under a tent next to the ballfield, the four Hall of Famers offered a more solemn remembrance: of those in their fraternity who had passed away in the last 15 months.

"There'll be a lot more serious hugs this weekend," Smith said. "Because when you get to know these guys on a personal level, it hurts a lot more when we do lose guys now."

Fifteen days ago, Dick Williams became the sixth Hall of Famer to pass since last May. Robin Roberts, Sparky Anderson, Bob Feller, Duke Snider and Harmon Killebrew were also lost in that span.

For Herzog, who was born in 1931, the death of Williams, born in 1929, hit home. But, Hall of Fame manager that he is, Herzog knew the value of optimism when looking to the next two days.

"I lost a very good friend two weeks ago in Dick Williams," said Herzog, class of 2010. "He and I were teammates in Kansas City and Baltimore, and of course, I managed against him a number of years, coached for him with the Angels one year. As you get older like I am, of course it seems like every day you pick up the paper, somebody, a close friend passed away or something."

"Then you start thinking about all the good times, all those things. It hurts a little bit and, like Ozzie says, when you come here -- this is my first year back. I won't have to make a speech on Sunday. But I know I'm going to enjoy this weekend a lot more than I did last year."

Evan Drellich is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @EvanDrellich. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.