I was a sophomore at Cal Poly in 2003 when the university announced Ozzie Smith would be speaking at commencement that June.
From a school known for producing architects and engineers, Smith was the most-famous athletic alumnus, easily, with his Hall of Fame career at shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres. As an avid baseball fan, I sprung into action when I heard the news. First, I got an assignment to preview the commencement ceremonies for the campus newspaper, the Mustang Daily, where I was a staff writer at the time. I then spun that story into a longer series, detailing Smith’s connection with the university.
I did extensive research, interviewing the university administration, plus Smith’s former teammates and coaches. I interviewed the coach for a summer league team Smith had played for in Iowa and learned he still came back every year for a Thanksgiving-time meal. I was told Smith even remembered the names of people in town. In the course of my research, I also learned that Smith had mentioned his Cal Poly coach, Berdy Harr, who died in 1987, in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2002. It gave me an idea.
The day before Smith was due to speak at commencement, the university unveiled a $65,000 statue of him at the campus ballpark. While I sat in the press area prior to the unveiling, waiting for Smith to show, a member of the Cal Poly media relations department tapped my shoulder. I was led to the locker room, where Smith sat being interviewed for a local television station. I had been unable to reach Smith thus far and was thrilled to meet him. I even got an autograph, which is generally frowned upon in journalism. When Smith was done with the TV interview, I was told I could ask one question. I knew exactly what to ask.
“If you could have one person here, who would it be?” I asked Smith.
He appeared confused and asked if it could be anyone. I said yes, anyone, living or dead. He swallowed hard and the room was dead silent.
“Berdy Harr,” he said, his voice breaking. “You needed people like him.”
I returned to my seat outside, and a little while later, Smith came out. He opened his thank you speech for the statue by saying he had just been asked a “very good question.” He proceeded to recognize Harr once more and greet his widow, who was seated among the crowd. It remains one of the high points of my journalistic career.
The next day Smith delivered two fine commencement speeches, the student body president did a back flip at one of the ceremonies, and I got to walk with Smith and interview him after the event. It’s worth noting that he delivered two different speeches, one for the morning and one for the afternoon, while most of the university brass recycled their pitches. In fact, when I graduated two years later, I heard the university president use the same cheesy line about how the school would “keep the porch light on” for alumni.
For the record, the commencement speaker wasn’t half as cool my year.