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Oz finds home at HOF

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- This was even harder than getting around on Tom Niedenfuer's fastball in the playoffs 17 years ago.

''This is tough,'' said Ozzie Smith, halting to brush away a tear after his son, Dustin, read the inscription on his plaque. ''I've faced many challenges in my career, and if I was to rank them by difficulty, this moment in Cooperstown would rank at the top of the list.''

Smith, a dazzling shortstop during a 19-year career with St. Louis and San Diego, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, the only player to enter the shrine this year.

Flanked by 46 Hall of Famers, including former Cardinals greats Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Red Schoendienst, the ''Wizard of Oz'' accepted the honor with an eloquent speech.

Comparing his baseball odyssey to Dorothy's journey down the Yellow Brick Road in ''The Wizard of Oz'' and holding a copy of the famed children's book in his hands, Smith recounted his rise to stardom. He even orchestrated the ending, with a tape of ''Somewhere Over the Rainbow'' playing in the background as he spoke.

Smith said his recipe for success was simple: He had the mind to dream that the Scarecrow cherished, a heart to believe that the Tin Man ached for and the c-c-c-c courage of the Lion to persevere.

''Ozzie Smith was a boy who decided to look within, a boy who discovered that absolutely nothing is good enough if it can be made better, a boy who discovered an old-fashioned formula that would take him beyond the rainbow, beyond even his wildest dreams,'' he said.

The 47-year-old Smith, who retired after the 1996 season, thanked everyone from his mother, Marvella, to his high school coach, to the man who brought him to St. Louis in 1982, former manager Whitey Herzog.

Smith had said he didn't know how he would act at his induction. There was no trademark back flip, but when Smith was introduced, he came on stage wearing an Afro wig with a Padres cap. He wanted to break the tension because he was nervous.

In a summer that has been hard on St. Louis fans following the deaths of longtime Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck and pitcher Darryl Kile, Smith gave them and the audience of 19,000 a reason to smile.

''I sincerely believe that there is nothing truly great in any man or woman, except their character, their willingness to move beyond the realm of self and into a greater realm of selflessness,'' Smith said before reading a poem he dedicated to Buck, a lover of poetry whose memorable call of Smith's game-winning home run against Niedenfuer and the Dodgers in the 1985 playoffs urged fans to 'Go crazy.'

''Giving back is the ultimate talent in life,'' Smith said, calling it the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. ''That is the greatest trophy on my mantel.''

Smith elevated the defensive standard for shortstops during his time with the Cardinals and Padres. He holds six career fielding marks for shortstops, including most assists (8,375), double plays (1,590) and chances (12,624). Smith won 13 straight NL Gold Glove awards.

He revealed how he became such a deft fielder. Money was scarce while he was growing up in Watts in Los Angeles, and Smith's first glove was a paper bag. That helped him practice getting rid of the ball quickly.

He also would lie on the floor of his house, close his eyes, and toss a baseball in the air, then catch it without looking up. He even tried to throw a baseball over the roof, then run around and catch it.

''No, I never caught it,'' he said with a smile. ''But it never stopped me from trying. Luckily, I didn't just experience the dream for a moment and then dismiss it as foolishness.''

Smith said his journey took shape one day when he was 12 while sitting on the front steps of his home.

''I remember I was exhausted from playing yet another game,'' he said. ''I let the dream come into the playground of my mind. I embraced it. If you wonder how Ozzie Smith still came this far and reached the equivalent of the Mount Everest of baseball, this is how it was done.''

Also honored were longtime Detroit sports writer Joe Falls, who was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for his six decades of work, and Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, who accepted the Ford C. Frick Award. The Associated Press