Fans 'Play Ball' with game's legends
Smith hosts annual fundraiser to kick off Hall of Fame weekend
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- It requires an early wake-up call, but Ozzie Smith can always count on some fellow Hall of Famers to assist him in "Play Ball," an annual fundraiser for the Hall of Fame's educational programs that kicks off induction weekend.
The event raised $11,250 for the education program, specifically diversity scholarships for the Hall of Fame's Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program.
Smith's partners on the field at 8 a.m. on Friday were boyhood friend Eddie Murray and regular participant George Brett, who met with fans in two-hour, non-stop interactive sessions. Smith positioned himself at shortstop, Brett behind second base and Murray next to first base, where they chatted with separate groups of fans who moved from station to station and got to listen to a trio of the game's legends talk about every facet of the game.
"People who sign up to take part in this are real baseball fans," Smith said. "I had done the event already in a couple of places across the country and thought the Hall of Fame would be a great place to have it. With so many different players here and fans coming from all over the country, to blend it all in and do it right here seemed to make sense."
Andy Strassberg, a marketer from San Diego with a 30-year association with Smith, recalled talking to Smith the day he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002 as the genesis of the idea.
"Ozzie and I had played basketball together, played soccer together, but never played baseball together," Strassberg said. "So I said, 'Let's have a catch.' Early that spring, he came to San Diego and we had a catch. I said, 'Ozzie, people would pay so much for this.' So we set up a thing called 'Turn Two' with a local charity in San Diego, the Wellness Community, and in St. Louis, Cardinals Care, and then here. The first year, it was just Ozzie. You played second base alongside him at shortstop and provided your own first baseman. We needed to get more players, and Ozzie started to invite some of the guys, so it became 'Play Ball,' and that's how it grew.
The participation fee is $600 each ($450 for Hall of Fame members), and judging from the looks on the faces of those gathered Friday morning under postcard conditions they considered the cost a bargain.
"The Hall created this position, Educational Ambassador, which is something they never had," Smith said of his title. "So the money that we make goes directly to the educational department of the Hall of Fame, which is a very important part of the Hall. I have a couple of college interns who spend the summer here and experience what baseball is all about at the Hall of Fame level."
It was inevitable that Murray would someday take part. After all, he and Smith grew up together in Los Angeles and were elected to the Hall within a year of each other -- Smith in 2002 and Murray in '03.
"We've known each other since we were about 9 or 10," Murray said. "He's a lot older than I am [14 months]. He sent me a couple of pieces of paper and a letter. I said, 'What's wrong with you? Don't you know me? Just pick up the phone and ask. The answer is yes. Of course, I'll do it.' I mean, this is what it's all about, getting close to the fans and enjoying the game together."
Fans found out that Murray, a member of both the 3,000-hit and 500-home run clubs, was originally scouted by the San Francisco Giants, who had signed three of his brothers, but did not want to follow then and instead went to the Baltimore Orioles in the 1973 Draft.
"The Giants wanted to make me a catcher," Murray said. "I wanted no part of that, not at the Major League level. I had an older brother who signed with Houston and got behind too many other prospects playing different positions. I was going to make it as a first baseman."
One fan asked Murray about the difficulty of playing a day game after a night game.
"You know, I don't know the problem with that, to be honest with you," Murray said. "I always thought that if you were getting paid to put on a baseball uniform, you should be fortunate to be there."
Just as his long-time teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., Murray had a reputation as a player who could be counted on by his manager to be available on a daily basis. At one point Friday, he playfully chided Brett for ruining a lengthy consecutive-game streak.
"Eddie got hurt fielding a bad-hop hit of mine and had to come out of the lineup for a few days," Brett said. "He has never let me forget it. I told him I dug the hole in front of him leading off first base the previous time I was there."
Brett is an absolute natural at this sort of event with his one-of-the-guys approach with people. Someone asked about switching positions, which reminded Brett of when he moved to first base later in his career.
"One of our coaches, Lee May, played first base and was to work with me," Brett said. "He told me if the ball hits off your glove, push it in the air in front of you, pick it up and under-hand it to the pitcher covering. That was all he told me! I had to find out myself there was more to the position than that."
Many questions deal with how the game has changed since players of their era have retired, an open invitation for Brett to criticize total devotion to the long ball as opposed to situational hitting.
"Nowadays, people accept strikeouts," he said. "Every time I struck out, I was embarrassed. I remember one year  I had more home runs  than strikeouts . I understand the game has changed. The players are bigger, stronger and faster. Weight lifting is important now. Every team has a strength and conditioning coach. Every team has workout rooms. All the players look good in the uniform, but once the game starts, all of a sudden, it's a home run derby.
"The art of moving runners over and hit-and-run or hitting a single with a runner on second and two outs, you don't see that anymore. Everybody wants to hit a home run. What bothers me are situations where you're down by two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning and guys aren't trying to get on base. They're trying to hit home runs when all you have to do is get a single or a walk to get something started.
"I was talking about this the other day with Dennis Gilbert, the former agent, and he told me, 'When I was an agent and talking contract, we didn't want to talk about singles, we talked about home runs.' And now he works in the front office for the White Sox and says, 'How about hitting a single?'"
A fan asked Smith if it was true that he once stopped using a special glove he was given that had a label on it given only to a Gold Glove Award winner.
"It was a beautiful glove," said Smith, a 13-time Gold Glove Award winner, "but I booted a couple of grounders with it in Spring Training and went to my old glove. Everything you have heard about ballplayers being superstitious is true. Ask Wade Boggs about always eating chicken before games."
Perhaps some day in the future, fans can ask Boggs that at a "Play Ball" session. Paul Molitor, who was featured in a "Voice of the Game" event Thursday night, has already volunteered to participate next year.
"These guys love talking about having the chance to live their dream," Smith said.
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.