There is little more barren than the Iowa landscape of late January. The corn and beans, long since harvested, are gone, leaving vast empty fields of white with but a bit of stalk perhaps poking up through the snow. A few bare trees rise from the snow-covered landscape as well as brown grasses which jut up to add color the to vast, flat landscape. The sky is a shade of white, even in the afternoon, on days like today when the high is somewhere in the single digits. Late January is a desolate time in the upper Midwest with temperatures more appropriate for staying inside and watching college wrestling on public television or a college basketball triple-header on CBS. Yet, on this day, when one would lose a fly ball in the white sky just as easily as a grounder on the white ground or an ear to the weather, in the small southwestern Iowa town of Clarinda, a community gets together to celebrate our National Pastime.
Clarinda is nearly in Missouri and slightly off the beaten path. It's a little less than two hours from each of Omaha, Des Moines, and Kansas City. Home to Iowa Western Community College and the birthplace of Glenn Miller, a little more than 5,000 people call it home, and so do the Clarinda A's of the M.I.N.K. League, a summer league for college ballplayers that, while not as famous as the Cape Cod League, has seen players such as Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, and Ozzie Smith in its ranks over the years.
To say that Clarindans take to the A's the way that St. Louisans take to the Cardinals would underrepresent the way the community relates to its team. To be sure, the similarities are there as is the Midwest niceness, but there is a much greater familiarity between players and the community. Each of the twenty-five or thirty A's move to Clarinda from their college town, wherever it might be, and each gets a host family. Many A's also work a job for some spending money, as well. For a summer, the A's players become truly intertwined with the community and the mutual bonds formed each summer that it on full display at the annual banquet.
The banquet is held in the gymnasium of the Clarinda Academy. The walls and bleachers of the gym are adorned with pictures taken over the years of the A's and members of the community. The 1975 and 1976 team photos feature a young Ozzie Smith, much more college kid than wizard, in the powder blue and red A's uniforms that foreshadow the colors he and his Cardinals teammates would wear while securing the franchise's ninth World Series championship seven years after Ozzie's stint with the A's.
It is Ozzie Smith's return to Clarinda for the annual banquet that brought me to Clarinda on this frigid January day. After playing in Clarinda, Ozzie has never forgotten the town or the team. Each attendee at the banquet has an Ozzie Smith story. All you have to do is ask, and I do. Multiple people tell me that they believe Ozzie to have never missed a banquet. I know for certain that he made it to the 1981 banquet, for on the wall is Ozzie and the rest of the 1981 Clarinda A's Hall of Fame class. Ozzie has a fashionable afro, even more fashionable suit with a sheen to it that shows up even in the thirty-year-old black-and-white photograph, and is holding a plaque to commemorate his first Hall-of-Fame induction, one where the inductee keeps the plaque, rather than the other way around.
"I'll never forget when Johnny's grandpa came home and told me that there was a boy doing flips on the field. We'd never seen that before. We knew he was something special." I was talking to the grandma of one of my high-school teammates at the banquet, a warm and kind small-town grandma with which so many of us are blessed, the type of woman I could spend a few hours visiting with and never look at my watch or even feel the urge to check Twitter. And it tickles me to hear that, upon arriving in a small town in southwest Iowa, Ozzie introduced himself to the locals in the same way he did in St. Louis: with a cartwheel and a backflip. It is that acrobatic flair, when taking the field, running the bases, and, above all else, fielding his position as no man ever had before and, I wager, no man ever will again, that made him great and left such indelible mark in the memory of so many baseball fans. It is a flair that is remembered with reverence by the local community here at the banquet, yet takes a back seat to Ozzie Smith as a person in their eyes.
"I think it says something about Ozzie that he comes back. Every year he comes back. He's a Hall-of-Famer and he doesn't have to, but he hasn't forgotten our town or our team and I think that says a lot about Ozzie as a person," says another Clarindan. Ozzie Smith arrived in the gymnasium shortly after 5:30 p.m. and took his seat at the autograph table, which mark the end of a line that wraps around two walls of the gym, snaking past five decades worth of Clarinda A's photographs. And Ozzie stays there, signing autographs for every attendee, even the mustachioed autograph peddlers getting baseballs and photos to sell at cards shows and on the internet, until nearly 7:00 p.m. Ozzie will later joke with a smile that Clarinda, Iowa is the only place in the country where he does not get paid to sign his name. Everyone laughs with him because they know that Ozzie drove up from Kansas City to Clarinda, like he does every year, to sign autographs with the proceeds going to his former team so that another thirty college ballplayers can have the same experience he had thirty-five years ago. And it is Ozzie's act of appreciation that is one of the many reasons that the community holds him in such esteem.
Watching Ozzie interact with the folks at the banquet is something different than watching the Cardinal greats in their red blazers at Busch Stadium or Hall-of-Famers at an All-Star Game event. Ozzie is amongst old friends and there is a warm familiarity in their jokes and conversations that reveals a mutual respect and admiration. Some of those Clarindans who knew him best during his summers with the A's tell that, whenever they went to St. Louis for a game, Ozzie would get them tickets and often go out to dinner with them. A few of these folks are with me in the autograph line just to greet Ozzie while I'm there to meet my childhood hero and get his autograph. They will greet him and exchange jokes and stories and I do not really have any idea what to say. How do you explain years of idolization to the idol? How do you explain that you wore no. 1 from AAU through high school because of him, that the most vivid memory of your childhood is him taking the field at Busch Stadium against the Pirates with a cartwheel and a flip, that 1987 was the first year your parents allowed you to stay up for each MLB playoff game, that you still get a tear in your eye watching his uniform retirement ceremony on the "Greatest Games of Busch Stadium 1966-2005" DVD? The answer to that, of course, is that you cannot, for any number of reasons, but, primarily because you are almost thirty years of age and just now fulfilling the childhood dream of meeting your favorite ballplayer, your childhood hero.
Informed by the conversations in Clarinda as much as the anecdotes I have heard over the years, when I met Ozzie Smith, I asked him to sign my baseball, and told him that he was my hero growing up because of the way he played the game, and that a lot of athletes you look up to as a child you find out as you grow older that they were not worthy of being looked up to for much other than their athletic skill, but that with him it is a whole different story. I still feel a swell of pride inside of me when I tell people that Ozzie Smith is my favorite baseball player. I imagine it is similar to the way those like grandpa who saw Stan Musial play and still consider him their favorite ballplayer feel. It is a pride that draws as much if not more from the player's off-the-filed actions as their on-the-field accomplishments. As we enter an era where referencing the "character clause" in Hall-of-Fame voting is growing more and more prevalent, there is a part of me that is thankful for coming of age in a time where I looked up to Ozzie Smith and the adult me has no regrets about it whatsoever.