Wrapping up the Hall of Fame Classic

For fans in the Northeast who have been drenched by the spring rains, the weather turned ideal for last Sunday’s Hall of Fame Classic. A perfect day included sunny skies, 75-degree temperatures and low humidity. Along with organ music filling Doubleday field instead of blaring pop selections, and old-time players who actually wanted to be in town as opposed to cranky major leaguers, all was right for the third edition of the Classic.

It’s just a shame that a crowd of only 5,687 fans came out to watch in a historical ballpark that seats close to 10,000. The first two editions of the Classic each drew crowds of over 7,000, leading to speculation as to why this year’s attendance mark fell off so significantly.

There seem to be two prevailing theories for the drop. It might be the relatively small number of ex-Yankees, the team that is followed most rabidly in Otsego County (followed by the Red Sox and the Mets). According to the other theory, it might be time to consider holding the game later in the year than Father’s Day, which has been the traditional day for the Classic.

For example, if the Classic were held two weeks later, when all of New York’s public schools are out of session, the game might draw a more substantial crowd. It’s worth some consideration.

I tend to think the former factor is a more pertinent reason for the falloff in fans. This year’s Classic featured only three ex-Yankees, only one of whom is truly remembered for his association with the franchise (Hall of Famer Goose Gossage). If the MLB Alumni Association could bring in a longer list of Yankees, or better yet, reel in a prominent Yankee from the recent past, then the Classic would see a major jump in attendance.

Former stars like Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, and Andy Pettitte, all critical parts of the franchise’s most recent dynasty, would be a huge boost to the game. Putting any one of those three on the marquee would easily add one or two thousand more fans through the turnstiles.

Issues of attendance aside, the actual atmosphere, organization, and format of the Hall of Fame Classic are structurally solid. The retired ballplayers are glad to be invited to Cooperstown, receptive to appreciative fans, and willing to talk and sign autographs until fatigue sets in.

The Hall of Fame staff also works hard to execute a batting contest and numerous between-inning promotions geared toward children. Given all of these extra amenities, the price of admission is incredibly reasonable at $11 to $12.50 per ticket. Fans can get their money’s worth with just one autograph, not to mention all of the extra entertainment they receive during a three-hour outing at the ballpark.

In regards to this year’s Classic, the game produced its usual share of memorable moments, including an inordinate number of episodes that could best be described as bizarre. Here’s a recap of what went down as “Niekro’s Knucksies” defeated “Ozzie’s Wizards,” 8-6.

*Former slugger Dmitri Young, who looked like he had lost 20 pounds from his late-career playing weight, won the pre-game batting challenge with a late power surge, overtaking the usually slim and trim Reggie Sanders. Young then claimed the Player of the Game Award by clubbing a long three-run homer against one of Bill “Spacemen” Lee’s patented slow balls.

Young, an avid card collector who is interested in the game’s history, seemed genuinely thrilled to receive the Player of the Game honor that has been named for the late Bob Feller.

*Speaking of the unpredictable Lee, he actually went behind the plate for a half-inning. I’ve always suspected Lee of borderline insanity, but now I’m convinced. Sporting a 19th-century replica uniform, Lee caught pitches without a chest protector, shin guards, or a regulation catcher‘s mitt. Wearing only a face mask and a pair of fingerless gloves for protections against foul tips, he somehow escaped the inning. Yes, the Spaceman lives.

*The ageless Phil Niekro, 72 years of age but still nimble around the mound, made a nifty snare of Ozzie Smith’s sharp comebacker, fielding the ball cleanly on a tough, in-between hop. And some 25 years after he last pitched in a major league game, Niekro can still throw the knuckleball for strikes. He did have one bit of wildness, as he nailed his former Yankee teammate, Billy Sample, with an inside fastball.

*For some reason, Niekro’s former teammate, Dale Murphy, played the game with his Braves shirt completely untucked. He looked odd, sort of like Jerry Seinfeld did when he sported a fur coat and a European carryall for an episode of my favorite sitcom.

*Baseball’s new clowned prince, the delightful ex-Tiger Jon Warden, sported a rainbow wig and a scream mask at various times throughout the day. Also, he squirted Dave Henderson with soapy water while Hendu was in the midst of one of his at-bats. Warden is the closest thing we have to Max Patkin in today’s game.

*Dick Williams, looking sharp wearing the “California Gold” jersey worn by the A’s during the Charlie Finley era, made his presence felt. Williams made several pitching changes, walking slowly—and I mean ever soooo slowly—from the dugout to the mound each time. It reminded me of the 1972 World Series, when Williams set an unofficial record for most visits to the mound during a Fall Classic.

*In the most poignant moment of the day, Bob Feller’s widow, Anne, delivered the game ball to the mound just prior to the first pitch. Feller, who passed away in December at the age of 92, participated in the first two editions of the Classic.

From a selfish standpoint, this year’s Classic was satisfying to me, in large part because of the opportunity to interview a number of former big leaguers, including Williams, Warden, Sample, former Phillies ace Rick Wise, ex-Twin Steve Braun (a one-time teammate of the late Harmon Killebrew and of new inductee Bert Blyleven), and Syracuse native Steve Grilli.

If you don’t think that the players themselves act like fans at an event like this, just consider what Warden told me at the skills clinic on Saturday morning. According to Warden, who pitched in relief for the 1968 world champion Tigers, baseball players treat these events just like the kids do.

“I collect stuff [memorabilia],” Warden admitted. “I’ll be getting some autographs this weekend.”

There were a lot of people doing just that over the weekend, and doing so free of charge. If nothing else (and there actually was a lot more that went on, from a free baseball clinic to a question-and-answer session with the Hall of Famers at the museum), the Hall of Fame Classic afforded a wonderful opportunity to get some signatures while talking to some former ballplayers. And who couldn’t love that?

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