COOPERSTOWN, New York – Even in the dead of winter, Cooperstown is baseball heaven, its mecca – the “soul of baseball,’’ as Jeff Idelson, the outgoing president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, called it during Ken Griffey Jr.’s induction in 2016.
And now, fans from all over the country – the world – are reconvening for the once-a-year baseball revival show, otherwise known as the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It’s an event that showcases how the game, battered and criticized as it may be, still has a grip on people.
On Sunday, Edgar Martinez will be the next Mariners legend to enter this ultra-exclusive club. He and his five fellow inductees – Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, Lee Smith and Harold Baines – will bring the number of Hall of Famers to 329. That’s one percent of all the major-league players in history, the elite of the elite.
This will be my fourth induction ceremony, and I never fail to be moved by how moved every inductee is when he steps on that hallowed outdoor stage at the Clark Sports Center. Even Griffey, who projects a carefree air, was overcome with emotion when he stepped to the microphone. This place will do that to you.
But I’m just as touched by how people began to pour onto Main Street in Cooperstown on Friday, or earlier, to soak in the most baseball-centric place in the world. It is an idyllic village in upstate New York on the southern tip of Otsego Lake, dubbed Glimmerglass by author James Fenimore Cooper. His father, William, founded Cooperstown in 1786. The population is under 2,000 – except for this one week in July.
According the Craig Muder, Hall of Fame director of communications, the record attendance for an induction was 82,000 in 2007, when Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn went in. But with a large and varied Class of 2019, featuring the unanimously elected Rivera sure to lure a legion of Yankees fans, and Martinez drawing a huge contingent of Mariners faithful, this year’s attendance is expected to be massive.
“We probably won’t hit that (2007 total), but we’ll be in the ballpark,” Muder said in an email.
That “ballpark” – a large field near a converted school – will for a day be one of the 10 most populous cities in New York. And each attendee will have experienced, in some way, the heart-tug of Cooperstown.
“It’s like being at the Vatican,” said Jack Policar of Mesa, Arizona. “There’s nothing else that compares if you’re a baseball fan.”
His son, Randy, a longtime Mariners fan like his dad, eloquently amplified that statement.
“Someone asked me, ‘What happens during the weekend?’ I said, ‘You’ll have to be there to see it. I can’t describe.’ Walking down the street, and seeing, ‘There’s a Hall of Famer there, there’s a Hall of Famer there.’ You can’t get this anywhere else. I’ve traveled the country to see baseball stadiums. There’s nothing like Main Street in Cooperstown. Seeing all these Mariners hats, it’s awesome.”
Indeed, the Mariners’ contingent was conspicuous by its omnipresence. I, too, took a walk down Main Street — accompanied by my son, Jordan, as well as colleague Ryan Divish and his dad, Ed, because Cooperstown is a perfect venue for parent and child to bond over baseball.
I was gobsmacked anew by the eclectic and wonderful mixture of baseball folks I witnessed among the vast collection of baseball memorabilia stores. We had barely turned onto the street before I saw Denny McLain, the last major-league pitcher to win 30 games, signing autographs at a table on the sidewalk.
As I headed down the street, I encountered Jim Leyritz, David Justice, Bill Madlock, Tommy Lasorda, Lou Piniella, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, Pete LaCock and Darryl Strawberry. Sitting casually at a café was Marilyn Niehaus, wife of legendary Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus, and two of his children.
As always, Pete Rose was embedded in one of the shops to sign autographs, though I can’t imagine there’s a living human that is seeking Rose’s autograph that hasn’t gotten it by now.
Yes, there are Hall of Famers in that group – and Andre Dawson, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, among many others, were expected to make appearances as well – but also just average players who add texture to the fabric of the game. Such as LaCock, perhaps better known as the son of Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall than his nine-year career with the Cubs and Royals.
I stopped to chat with Jesse Barfield, who served a stint as Piniella’s hitting coach and had an opportunity in that capacity to work with Martinez. Although, Barfield said with a smile, “There wasn’t a whole lot I could tell him.”
Barfield gushed, “Oh, my gosh, Edgar was one of the best pure hitters I’ve ever seen. He could do anything he wanted. You need a double, he could do that. You need to move a runner, he could do that, too. And you mess around in the (strike) zone, he’d hurt you.
“He got to pitches a lot of hitters couldn’t get to, because he was so quick inside. Being that quick inside, that’s why he took a lot of the plate from the pitchers. You throw him away, he’d hurt you oppo (opposite field). You can’t ask for a better hitter.”
I checked in, also, with Leyritz, whose 15th-inning walkoff home run for the Yankees in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS gave New York a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. The Mariners, of course, came back to win the next three, including Martinez’s clinching double in Game 5. Leyritz just happened to watch the MLB Network documentary on 1995 a few days ago, which details how that season saved baseball in Seattle.
“Whenever I see Seattle fans, I say, ‘Hey, I’m glad I was able to help you save baseball in Seattle,’ ” Leyritz said.
“Edgar Martinez, to this day, was one of the greatest hitters, as a catcher, I had to deal with. I think the only one I was more confused how to pitch was Barry Bonds. But Edgar was second to none, and of course he owned us that year in ’95.”
Any semblance of baseball gear, books, trinkets, clothing and memorabilia can be found somewhere on Main Street. And for the proprietors, this is their Black Friday.
“It’s pandemonium,” said Frank Albertine, manager of Seventh Inning Stretch, which bills itself as the largest memorabilia store in Cooperstown.
“It’s pretty much a metropolis this weekend. There’s plenty of people in town. We’re out in full force, making sales, making sure everyone is enjoying their time. It’s probably the biggest year ever, with Mariano being unanimous, and all the others. It’s gigantic.”
But Albertine, a Yankees fan, still tries to take time to savor the experience in the hectic days of induction weekend, as well as the quieter times the rest of the year.
“We kind of take it for granted, but being in this town, thinking of the history of baseball, is special,” he said. “There’s a lot of history. We get to wake up to it every morning and live it every day.”
I get to live it every few years for just a few days – but whenever I leave, I can’t wait to come back to Baseball Heaven.