A long haul to the Hall is worth it

I’ll ‘fess up: I’m the idiot who drove 3,312 miles to see Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. inducted into the Hall of Fame. There’s always one, and it might as well be me.

I arrived in Oneonta, N.Y., on Saturday morning. After settling into a dorm room at the local college, I walked into town and caught a shuttle to Cooperstown. Estimates of how many people would be attending the festivities kept getting revised upward, and we were strongly encouraged to use public transportation.

The bus ride took about half an hour. Most everyone was dressed in orange, but the folks I talked to were intrigued to learn that I’d driven from San Diego and wanted to know more about Gwynn. Just as I’d never seen Ripken play (except for a few random innings on TV), these people had missed most of Gwynn’s career.

On arriving in Cooperstown, I wandered around town, which was absolutely packed. Well, not absolutely—more would come the next day. I watched a few innings of the Oneonta/Aberdeen game at Doubleday Field.

It was standing room only, so when a light rain hit, I packed my camera equipment and took refuge in the Hall of Fame museum with a couple of friends (and hundreds of strangers). As an institution, the Hall of Fame, like most everything else, has its flaws. We can debate endlessly the relative merits of, say, Bruce Sutter versus Bert Blyleven, and we will because that’s what baseball fans do. As a testament to all who have gone before us, though, the Hall of Fame succeeds in every way imaginable. To see the names, pictures and uniforms of the legends of the game is to be humbled. To see the new exhibits honoring Gwynn and Ripken is to be reminded that the tradition continues.

When we left the museum, a huge crowd had gathered out front for a red-carpet event, where 53 of the 61 living Hall of Famers would be arriving, waving to fans, and entering their exclusive club for dinner. While we waited for the players to arrive, the community band entertained us with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and a re-enactment of “Casey At the Bat” (not the most artful verse you’ll hear, but an important part of the culture).

Eventually the players showed up — Wade Boggs, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Mike Schmidt, Tom Seaver—but they were almost impossible to see from where we were situated. The photos I took that night may as well have been of Sasquatch. We cheered when Gwynn arrived and was introduced, then drove over to the ceremony site to stake out a spot for Sunday. Thousands of chairs already had been set up by seasoned induction-goers; what were a few more?

The next morning, after waiting an hour and a half (and enduring the interminable whining of a small but vocal group of, well, whiners), I again rode the bus from Oneonta to Cooperstown. I marveled at the scenery and the architecture (everything is brick and wood here, not stucco like back home), and enjoyed having someone else drive.

Carrying a backpack, camera equipment and collapsible chair, I walked maybe a mile to the induction site. Buses lined the road, and the fields were filled with orange jerseys, punctuated by the occasional mustard and brown, or blue and sand, or whatever color the Padres were wearing in a given era.

The skies threatened rain, but just before the ceremony began, the clouds parted, revealing a surprisingly potent sun. Giant video screens displayed footage of previous inductions. People set up parasols, and the people behind them yelled, “down in front.” In other words, it was a ballgame without a ballgame.

At some point, the Hall of Famers arrived. All the former Orioles—more than I’d realized—received standing ovations, as did Willie Mays. The only boos were directed toward Bud Selig, presumably on general principle.

Due to the threat of inclement weather, Gwynn and Ripken were pushed to the front of the ceremony, ahead of the Frick Award and the Spink Award recipients. Gwynn went first and talked about the many people who had helped guide him along the way. He spoke of working with Frank Howard and Bobby Tolan back in rookie ball, thanked his youth and collegiate coaches, credited an onlooking Rod Carew with inadvertently teaching him to bunt (Carew was instructing Angels minor leaguers in spring training, but Gwynn sneaked in for a listen), and mentioned the impact that religiously studying video tape had had on his career.

Gwynn and Ripken thanked their families for support, as well as the fans who had cheered them through the years. Both touched on the responsibility that goes with wearing a big-league uniform. At the risk of indulging in a bit of hero worship, I was pretty blown away by how humble and grateful both men were for their opportunity to play professional baseball, excel at it, and represent a community with grace and dignity for 20-plus years.

After Gwynn and Ripken wrapped up, former Red Sox second baseman Bobby Doerr (Class of ’86, sort of the Ryne Sandberg of his day) was presented, and his accomplishments were recounted. I was a little disappointed that more folks didn’t pay attention to Doerr’s segment, and I hope Gwynn and Ripken are afforded greater courtesy when they are introduced to a new generation of fans some years from now.

Finally, long-time Kansas City Royals announcer Denny Matthews was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award. Veteran writer Rick Hummel, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. By this time, the party was breaking up, and although it took nearly three hours to get back to Oneonta, the trip was well worth the wait. Besides, where else are you going to see a sign like this:

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