The newly invented Hall of Fame Classic may not mean much to the bulk of the country, but it carries substantial weight for the Cooperstown economy and the culture of baseball. Simply put, Otsego County (of which Cooperstown is a major part) needs this old-timers game as a viable financial replacement for the dearly departed Hall of Fame Game. The Hall of Fame also needs a signature event to herald the start of its busy tourist season and create an historical bridge to its upcoming class of inductees.
I watched Sunday’s first Hall of Fame Classic from start to finish at Doubleday Field and came away duly impressed. From an artistic perspective, the Classic proved to be a solid success on three different levels:
—It was refreshing to see ballplayers who actually wanted to be in Cooperstown, in contrast to the general nastiness of recent major league contingents who had been forced to come to town for the Hall of Fame Game. There were no scowls, as we saw from Cubs manager Lou Piniella in 2008, and no complaints from prima donnas like Brady Anderson and Eric Davis, who whined like babies and couldn’t leave Cooperstown fast enough in past years. Instead, we saw retired players like Jim Kaat and Brooks Robinson, two class acts, willingly sign autographs while engaging in friendly small talk with fans at Doubleday Field.
—In terms of the quality of on-field play, I was mildly surprised by the abilities of the old-timers, who ranged in age from the 40-year-old Jeff Kent to the 90-year-old-but-going-on-65 Bob Feller. Fielders made few errors and only one man (Robinson) stumbled, incurring a twisted ankle in a fall near home plate. The graying Bill Lee looked remarkably spry, even in unaccustomed roles as a hitter and right fielder, in addition to his more traditional pursuit as a left-handed reliever. (Lee picked up two hits, made a fine running catch, and hurled a scoreless inning of relief.) Former Padre, Ranger and Tiger Johnny Grubb continued to display a smooth stroke from the left side at the age of 60, collecting three hits in four at-bats. Ex-Yankees Kevin Maas and Mike Pagliarulo showed some of their holdover power from their playing days, with Maas hitting a towering home run to right field (watch out on Susquehanna Avenue!) and Pags delivering a game-winning double down the right field line.
—The game provided us with just enough oddball moments, always a necessity for the old-timers format. During pre-game introductions, former Tigers left-hander Jon Warden provided some of his usual light-hearted goofiness by bringing a squirt gun onto the field and dousing some of his more famous teammates. The game then began with Feller, the third oldest of the living Hall of Famers, trying to throw strikes to a far more youthful Paul Molitor. (Molitor ended up singling, though it was nothing more than a bloop to short center field.)
Then there was a young boy from Schenectady, 11-year-old Zach D’Errico, who was allowed to play shortstop in the first inning and seized the opportunity by starting a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play. And then there was Lee Smith, who actually looked lighter than in his playing days and picked up the win in relief, all while wearing the unfamiliar uniform of the San Francisco Giants. Although Smith played for eight teams in his career—the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles, Angels, Reds and Expos—he never pitched a game for San Francisco. I have no idea why he wore the Giants uniform, but the strange fashion decision added a degree of delightful quirkiness to the proceedings.
From a financial perspective, the news was not as delightful. The Classic did not draw the sellout of 10,000 fans that we’ve become accustomed to seeing for the annual Hall of Fame Game. Hall officials announced the crowd at 7,069, an attendance figure that will lead the naysayers to wag their fingers and call the Classic a financial dud. Well, not so fast. The lack of a sellout occurred for three overriding but changeable reasons: the negative blowback from losing the Hall of Fame Game, the local conflict created because Cooperstown Central School staged its graduation on the same day of the Classic, and the generally poor state of the upstate New York economy.
All three of these problems could be addressed by the time the Classic returns in June of 2010. First off, once fans accept the fact that the defunct Hall of Fame Game will not return—and it’s not coming back, folks—I think they’ll more fully embrace the concept of an annual old-timers game featuring recognizable names from the recent past. Second, the local high school has already announced that next year’s graduation will not take place on the same day as the Classic, which will always be scheduled for Father’s Day. And third, the economy figures to be better next year, if only because it cannot get much worse.
Economic problems aside, Classic organizers need to address at least two other concerns. During the game, some of the retired players moved from the dugouts to an autograph tent, where they provided free signatures to those in attendance. Unfortunately, some unruly adult fans pushed out some younger fans as they grappled for position near the tent that had been set up by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. Two fans told me that some of the adults acted unconscionably in clamoring for autographs and then rudely yelling at some of the old-timers who had to leave the tent to return to the game. I hope the alumni association can address the situation by creating a better flow of traffic around the autograph tent. If there is simply too much demand for autographs, perhaps only children should be allowed to visit the tent. Knowing the record of the alumni association—a quality organization if there ever was one—the problem will be remedied by 2010.
Then there is the issue of the rosters for the game. Of the 26 players invited to participate, only 11 had experience as position players. That limited number forced organizers to play former major league pitchers like Bill Lee, Mike Timlin, and Anthony Telford in the outfield and use other pitchers as designated hitters. Lee, Timlin and Telford are good athletes who responded well to the challenge, but most baseball fans want to see pitchers pitch and not play out of position. The alumni association should consider expanding the rosters to a total of 30 players and bringing in more ex-players who have experience as outfielders, third basemen and shortstops. That would make the game better and more credible with fans and media, especially those nitpickers looking to criticize the concept of an old-timers game at any turn.
As alumni association CEO Dan Foster assured me during the pre-game ceremonies, the Hall of Fame Classic isn’t going anywhere; it’s here to stay in Cooperstown. The alumni are committed to the game, seemingly as committed as Hall officials. With the right changes, this game could become nearly as popular as its predecessor. That should be the goal—and it’s a realistic one at that.