Hall of Fame Weekend Update: Live From Cooperstown on Friday

One of the best and most underrated events of Hall of Fame Weekend took place on Friday. Sponsored by the Major League Baseball Players’ Alumni Association, the Hall of Fame’s youth clinic gave children ages five to 12 a rare opportunity to learn the game from some of its masters. Ten former major league players led approximately 160 children in a variety of instructional drills, including baserunning, pitching, outfield play, and catching fundamentals. Four headline names participated, including perennial Hall of Fame candidate Lee Smith, former Big Red Machine component George Foster, longtime Montreal Expos ace Steve Rogers, and old favorite Jim “Mudcat” Grant. (My nephew Brandon, who took part in the clinic, particularly enjoyed listening to Foster, who has become his new favorite player. After the clinic, we went to a local baseball shop, where Brandon soon asked me if the store had a section containing cards of Foster.)

As I watched from the third base dugout at Cooperstown’s venerable Doubleday Field, I took note of how well organized the clinic seemed to be. Each group of youngsters spent 15 minutes at each station, as former players offered hands-on instruction, before moving on to the next post. The kids completed seven of eight stations, as some late afternoon thunder and lightning forced organizers to cut the event short by about ten minutes. The early termination didn’t matter; by then, the kids had received nearly two hours of instruction at the cost of exactly nothing. The event is completely free of charge.

Frankly, I’m surprised that more parents don’t sign their kids up for the experience. It’s a free clinic, featuring outgoing instructors who all have a desire to teach youngsters about the game. There are few scenes more uplifting than watching a 75-year-old Mudcat Grant telling five to 12-year-olds stories about his playing days while emphasizing the important of getting an education. Grant did this despite his continued recovery from recent knee and hip surgeries. Mudcat walked with the assistance of a cane, but aside from the effects on his gait, he still looks good some 36 years after last throwing a pitch in a major league game.

As an added bonus at the clinic, each child received a certificate autographed by each of the ten players in attendance. Brandon told me he’ll be framing his certificate this weekend, a good piece of advice for any of the other 160 kids who happened to roam the field at Doubleday on a humid Friday afternoon…

Each of the retired players wore the colors of his former team, except for Lee Smith. The six-foot-eight right-hander, best known for his relief stints with the Cubs and Cardinals, wore a cap and jersey for the Giants, for whom he currently works as a minor league instructor. Smith refuses to lobby for his election to the Hall of Fame; when asked about the issue by a reporter, Smith informed him that campaigning for the Hall is simply not his style…

Based on the crowds we’ve seen in Cooperstown on Thursday and Friday, there’s little doubt that Sunday’s induction will significantly outdraw last year’s paltry numbers. Local officials estimate that 20,000 fans will visit Cooperstown this year. Those numbers are almost always exaggerated, but I’d guess that we might see 15,000 in town before all is said and done. Last year, weekend attendance fell below 10,000, a tepid reaction to the induction of Goose Gossage and Dick Williams. With Jim Rice on this year’s induction docket, large numbers of Boston fans are expected to invade Leatherstocking country on Saturday and Sunday…

As fans walk down a crowded Main Street during induction weekend, they’re bound to run into at least one former major leaguer. As my nephew and I made our way to the local CVS, we saw Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, who at one time was remarkably heavy but has lost a considerable amount of weight. Based upon a quick observation, Gaylord appears to have dropped 30 to 40 pounds from last year…

I’m always amazed at the cross-section of Hall of Famers and other retired players that one might happen to see gathered at autograph sessions. At 4:55, we walked into CVS, where we saw Orlando Cepeda, Bob Feller, Juan Marichal, and Ron Darling lined up side-by-side at a row of tables. Those four players span a stretch of seven decades, from Feller in the 1930s to Darling, currently a color analyst for the Mets, in the 1990s…

This has been the summer of rain in upstate New York. Morning and afternoon downpours surrounded the good weather that we received for the clinic. In June, it rained 24 out of 31 days, and I suspect we’re on a pace for similar numbers this month. The forecast calls for intermittent thundershowers on Saturday and Sunday, leading some locals to wonder whether we’re now living in a rain forest.

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