Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Hall of Fame Classic

Father's Day, June 21st, was a special day in Cooperstown because of the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic game, capping a weekend of events which fulfilled one of the Hall of Fame's three missions--connecting generations--in spades. The HOF Classic replaced the longstanding Hall of Fame Game, which was discontinued by Major League Baseball after last year.

The Hall of Fame Game was the last remaining in-season exhibition game, and it had been clear for years that, for the most part, the visiting players would rather have been somewhere else. The long season is a grind, midsummer days off are few and precious, and even though some of the players were thrilled to visit Cooperstown, tour the museum, and meet fans, the logistics of getting to and from central New York made it an ordeal of sorts. That's one reason why in recent years, the teams' stars typically played only an inning or two, took a token time at bat, and then vacated the scene, leaving the spectators to watch the rest of the game played by second-stringers and minors leaguers called up just for the occasion.

In lieu of the defunct Hall of Fame Game, the HOF formed a partnership with the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, a very active group of ex-players who play a number of exhibition games around the country each year. Judging from the crowd response to the first Hall of Fame Classic, this event will become a highlight of Cooperstown summers for a long time.

We weren't sure, however, if the game would even come off. The same weather system that wreaked havoc with golf's US Open downstate threatened to batter central New York as well. There was plenty of rain on Thursday and Friday, making us wonder whether Doubleday Field would be playable by Sunday. Saturday the rain held off, which helped drain the field, and Sunday the dark clouds which filled the sky all day mercifully opened up only once, during the 5th inning, and then left us alone.

A crowd of 7,000 or so gathered at Doubleday Field after a parade through town, for about 90 minutes of pre-game festivities. I had a great assignment; I was the official scorer (thanks to the traditional HOF Game scorer, Jim Gates, having to go out of town). That put me out behind the batting cage amongst the players, since I had to match up roster names with uniform numbers. The players wore their old uniforms, some with names on the back, some not. In addition, three members of the Military All-Stars had been invited to play in the game, and I tracked them down warming up in right field to get their names (I assumed, brilliantly, that the words on the backs of their camouflage-style shirts were not their names, since one of them read "Korean War").

Being on the field gave me a chance to talk with some of the players as they hung around the cage for batting practice. It was clear that they were all happy to be there, rewewing friendships (and razzing rivalries) with former comrades in the players' fraternity. They ranged from recently retired stars like Jeff Kent and Steve Finley to further-back favorites like George Foster, who was surprised to hear that I'm still a Reds fan even though they are a far cry from Foster and the Big Red Machine.

I was also excited to meet Bill Lee for the first time, having previously only talked to him on the phone while he was writing the foreword for "This BAD Day in Yankees History". Surely one of the funniest characters in baseball, Lee sported a wild, graybeard look and clearly still found the act of playing baseball a source of pure joy. In the dugout during the pre-game hitting contest, he cracked me (and Brooks Robinson) up by pointing at George Foster and chirping, "Look at that--his calves go right down into his shoes. If he broke an ankle, he'd die!"

Kent defeated Finley in the hitting contest, both hitting numerous blasts over the cozy fences and into the sprawling oaks of the surrounding neighborhood. I got my rosters set and took up my spot over the first-base dugout, not far from the two announcers, the HOF's own John Horne (who did a great job calling the contest and doubles as the PA announcer of the minor league Oneonta Tigers) and legendary Frick Award winner Bob Wolff, who is in his sixth decade as an announcer. Bob introduced the lineups and the dignitaries, and with the rain miraculously holding off, it was time for the game.

The first pitcher in the game was another miracle of sorts, 90-year-old Bob Feller, who had driven in from his home in Cleveland the day before. Nobody has lived more years as a Hall of Famer than Feller, who was elected in 1962. Earlier, I had said to him, "Take it easy on these guys--some of them are old." He grunted, but later told leadoff hitter Paul Molitor, "If you don't bunt on me, I won't buzz you." Molitor hit a sharp single, advanced on a ground out by Bobby Grich, and scored on a Steve Finley fly-ball single that the outfielders couldn't quite motor fast enough to reach. That was it for Feller, who basked in the continuing cheers as he made his way back to the dugout. He was replaced by fellow Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, who yielded one more run before retiring the side.

How he retired the side turned out to be the highlight of the day. Shortstop Steve Lyons had gone out to the right field bleachers before the inning and coaxed a youngster, 11-year-old Zach D'Errico, to join him in the infield. The kid got to play catch a little with Feller--where else but in Cooperstown will you see an 11-year-old playing catch with a 90-year-old Hall of Famer? Stationed in front of Lyons, D'Errico fielded a sharply hit two-hopper and started a brisk 6-4-3 double play to get his pitcher out of trouble. Later, he was interviewed on the field and got his name in the newspaper--and in the official box score.

He wasn't the only on-field guest. In the 3rd inning, Lyons recruited Sawyer Graham, a member of the Cooperstown High School softball team, to help him in the field. Johnny Grubb smashed a wicked line drive over his right shoulder; somehow she got a little glove on the ball, and it almost caromed into Lyons' face. But they escaped damaged, and on the next batter, she caught a popup and also made the box score. Later in the game, Lyons was joined by another kid, who let a high popup drop untouched. I charged the error (the only one in the game) to Lyons--for not having one of his abler assistants on duty.

The seven-inning game was a mixture of hits (25, 21 of them singles and just one home run, a long shot by Kevin Maas onto Susquehanna Avenue), good fielding plays (notably a line drive speared by Grubb and a leaping catch by Finley), a parade of pitchers (one per inning, including a few who still had decent stuff, like Lee Smith), and plenty of laughs. Jon Warden was the chief clown. Warden, whose only season in the majors was 1968, looks like John Goodman and has become a favorite at the HOF fantasy camps. He could be the next Max Patkin if he wanted to be. He had plenty of shtick when he batted, called time-out halfway to first base on a ground ball, and kept everyone loose with a deftly wielded water pistol. At one point he donned a fright wig, stationed himself 15 feet behind the plate umpire, and doused the seat of the ump's trousers with the pistol. That's something we never saw at a Hall of Fame Game!

Team Collins led Team Wagner (the squads were named after the two teams in the Doubleday Field exhibition game in 1939 when the HOF was dedicated) 4-1 going to the home sixth inning, when the home team rallied. Bill Lee hit a ringing double into the right field corner to knock in the first run, a scoring ground ball made it 4-3, Steve Lyons' third single of the game tied it, and Mike Pagliarulo's double gave the Wagners a 5-4 lead. Rick Surhoff, who recorded two saves in his major league career, picked up another one here, and the Wagners held on to win 5-4.

Back in Hall of Fame Game days, the greatest hustle we saw was when the players raced to their buses after the game's last out. On Sunday, the players hung around for a half-hour after the game, signing autographs. Kids got to run around the bases, and the atmosphere was festive. The players had fun, therefore the fans had fun. An informal feeling prevailed. Two players' sons played, and so did the American Legion Player of the Year, Patrick Singletary. Some of the guys were far from swift afoot, but only one of them fell down, and he got right up again.

It should be the start of a long tradition. By my reckoning, it'll be around the year 2045 when former major leaguer Zach D'Errico returns to Doubleday Field and stands around the cage during batting practice, trying to get his comrades to believe he really started a double play at shortstop when he was 11. You should've seen it!

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