It was a bumpy journey to the Baseball Hall of Fame for Larry Stone and Ryan Divish. All the stress and frustration melted away, however, when they pulled into Cooperstown around midnight on Friday evening – about 30 hours late, but undaunted.
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — It was the Road Trip From Hell. Until we got to heaven. Baseball heaven.
One of the, ahem, perks of social media is that it lets you take your whining to the masses. So it was that many people were following along with Ryan Divish and me last Thursday in our almost comical adventures trying to get to Cooperstown for Ken Griffey Jr.’s induction ceremony.
As one friend wrote on Facebook, “Making it to the Hall of Fame is one of the hardest achievements in sports. You’re proving it.”
I won’t bore you (further) with the details of our travel debacle. OK, maybe a little. Let’s just say that because of bad weather in Chicago, we ended up changing airlines and destination cities, and had innumerable time and gate changes that culminated with our flight to Syracuse getting banged at midnight.
Everyone seemed highly amused to read of our travails. Even Jay Buhner was well-versed on our issues when we ran into him at a function on Saturday night. There were too many “Plane, Trains and Automobiles” and “Vacation” references to count – particularly when Divish and I were forced to get rooms Thursday night in a Schaumburg, Ill., hotel (after a $70 cab ride, but that’s another story).
The Steve Martin line, “Those aren’t pillows’’ was rampant. But funny every time.
The most common question was, “Why didn’t you just rent a car in Chicago and drive to Cooperstown?” In retrospect, that might have been a good idea, but we were led to believe all night our flight’s departure was imminent. And we feared our suitcases would never make it to us in Cooperstown if we drove off.
Miraculously, Ryan’s bags were waiting for him when we got to Syracuse on Friday evening, the lucky devil. Turns out, mine didn’t make it (not until Sunday night, anyway, a few hours before I headed back to the airport), so it was a good thing I used our free morning in Schaumburg to buy a couple of new outfits at a J.C. Penney.
Fortunately, Ryan’s a good-natured travel companion who took each setback with equanimity. But our anxiety level was still approaching DEFCON levels.
All the stress and frustration melted away, however, when we pulled into Cooperstown around midnight on Friday evening – about 30 hours late, but undaunted.
During the induction ceremony on Sunday, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson referred to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame as, “the soul of baseball.” For a lifelong baseball junkie, it’s the mecca, set on Otsego Lake in a picturesque village in upstate New York.
This was my third induction ceremony, having previously witnessed Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley in 2004, and Dave Niehaus getting the Ford C. Frick broadcasting award in 2008.
It’s been magical every time. The town swells with fans – 50,000 or so on Sunday for Griffey and Mike Piazza, tied with Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount’s induction in 1999, behind only the astounding 87,000 that saw Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn get inducted in 2007. Speculation already abounds that Derek Jeter will shatter that record – and possibly Griffey’s 99.3 percent of the BBWAA vote – when he’s eligible in four years.
There’s something inspiring about seeing so many like-minded people in one place, and a reminder what a strong hold the sport still has on at least a portion of this country. Also, what a profound impact that players like Griffey and Piazza, or whomever is being inducted, had on their fan base.
Griffey, I’m convinced, is unique in that regard. Though there are still some detractors, and probably always will be, I think his stature is on the rise to somewhere approaching Willie Mays territory. My generation regards Mays as the quintessential baseball player, and I sense that the younger generation – including the vast majority of current MLB players who came of age in his heyday – view Griffey with the same reverence.
When it comes to inspiration, there’s nothing to match the introduction of the Hall of Famers on hand for the induction. Broadcaster Gary Thorne does the honors, calling them out one by one with a short bio. It’s stirring beyond words to see all the legends – 48 of them this year – come out to thundering ovations and video highlights. Ripken. Koufax. Bench. Murray. Schmidt. Brett. Reggie. Ozzie. On and on.
It was just a little disappointing that Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson – all in their 80s now and restricted in travel – couldn’t make the trip. But 87-year-old Whitey Ford was there, aided in his entrance by fellow Hall of Famer Joe Torre. Rod Carew, still recovering from a heart attack last summer, also needed help getting to his seat. But he made it, as fellow Hall of Famers applauded warmly.
Throughout the weekend – at a golf tournament, at his news conference — Griffey was in a relaxed and wise-cracking mood. In other words, business as usual. But he succumbed, as virtually all of them do, to the immense emotion of going into the Hall of Fame. It symbolizes, even more powerfully than retirement (which was awkward for Griffey, as we all remember) the end of one portion of their life, and I think that’s what hits them, at a visceral level.
Yes, it was puzzling that Griffey didn’t acknowledge his fellow inductee, Mike Piazza, which is virtually obligatory during an induction speech. And mentions of Lou Piniella, Dave Niehaus and former Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, three men instrumental in Griffey’s career, were conspicuously absent in his heartfelt address.
But Griffey was clearly overcome with emotion and flustered from the minute he stepped to the podium. It wouldn’t surprise me if he inadvertently veered away from his script in a way he didn’t even realize in the heat (literally and figuratively) of the moment.
The centerpiece of Cooperstown, of course, is the Hall of Fame itself, a magnificent showcase of the sport’s heritage that Ryan and I finally had a chance to tour on Monday morning before heading out of town. Naturally, I paid particular attention to – genuflected in front of, in Divish’s phrase – the display for Koufax, my boyhood idol. The beauty is that everyone has a boy- (or girl-) hood idol to peruse.
On Saturday, while waiting for a shuttle bus, we couldn’t resist posing in a nearby cornfield in a “Field of Dreams” pose. It was impossible not to think of the question John Kinsella asked his son, Ray, as they played a game of catch.
“Is this heaven?”
No, it’s Cooperstown.