Each year for now the last eight years (with last year being my lone exception), a friend of mine and I have made the jaunt to Cooperstown for Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. To many of my buddies from college, it is boring. Baseball, though, is in my blood. My parents claim I could hit a baseball before I could fully walk. Through college, I played actively in many leagues, facing some impressive pitchers that are now throwing in the majors (not necessarily successfully, but faced them).
Cooperstown allows a fan to experience the game in a new light with many of their childhood heroes. Better still, it yields some fantastic stories as a result. For baseball, it is home. As one of 2010 inductees stated, "Baseball fans need to come to Cooperstown. This is home. You have to touch home."
Many of these have appeared on my blog, but none for a couple years. I wanted to show what a fan can experience by making this trek. I encourage everyone to do it at least once. If you do, you will be hooked and be back again.
In 2007, my best friend and I got in to town on Friday. After dropping our things off, we went into town. Some wandering and unnecessary purchases later, we made our way to T.J.'s Place for dinner. It is the one place we hit consistently every year. On the way, lining Main Street in Cooperstown are tables filled with former ballplayers signing autographs.
Directly in front of the restaurant behind a table we found Paul Blair, Vida Blue, Duke Snider, and Goose Gossage. Eclectic group, but a pretty impressive arrangement. We went inside to sit down and a Yankees game was on television. Staunch Red Sox fans that we are, we made the necessary noises of derision and settled in to hopefully watch them lose.
After we order, in comes Gossage with a friend. The two are seated literally at the table right next to us. Now, this was prior to Gossage being inducted but interesting none the less. Still, the two of us (both in our mid-20's) were relatively starstruck by the reliever sitting there. Many argue he was the best in the game and with good reason. He should have been inducted before Bruce Sutter in my opinion. It took us to the point that we nearly did not speak for five minutes.
I could not tell you if Gossage picked up on it or something completely different, but he turns to us and starts talking about the game. We talked for an hour about Jorge Posada's game-calling ability, the player he would most want to brush back, and if he would get into the Hall. Gossage was personable and outgoing; he just wanted to talk about the game.
Getting a drink in Cooperstown is both easy and hard. Easy because there is really only one bar. Hard because there is really only one bar. Several years ago now, I think 2008, the Negro Leagues inducted a group of their all-time greats into the Hall of Fame. At the same time, a fantastic book called The Black Aces was put out, commemorating the best African American pitchers many have seen.
One player profiled in that book was Vida Blue. Blue pre-dates my time but I was told by many that he was a character both on and off the field. My friend bought the book and had it signed, but I had taken a pass. He confirmed that Blue was doing nothing but busting on the guys he was with and joking with those walking past. Neither of us thought much of it until we went for a drink later that night.
Several beers in, Blue walks into the bar. Nothing flashy or showy, but he made an immediate impression. As the beers started to flow around the bar, Blue took everyone in and made them feel like his long-lost friend. He signed shirts, jerseys, hats, whatever. Pictures were not a problem.
As I sat on the side of the bar no more than 15 feet from him, there was a darts challenge issues. I stepped up to the plate after three or four others failed. Blue was a relentless competitor. Trash talk flying, he beat me soundly. Sure, may not have done better than the others, but I would rather lose to Vida Blue than take a win against anyone else in that bar!
Late on a Friday night, a friend of mine stood with me in a store on Main Street in Cooperstown. I could not tell you what we were after, but it was literally only the two of us and the remaining staff in the building. That was about it. The town shuts down early, and many people had left the village for the night.
As we wandered the racks, we see the clerks shut the door as a man and his wife walked in. We both thought it was curious, but kept about our business because we knew there was at least a half hour until the store closed. At one point, I look up and over the rack and notice who the man is. My friend realizes at nearly exactly the same time: Lou Brock.
Maybe you have to know my friend to understand how he approached the next few minutes, but the story works regardless.
We paid for our purchases, but before we walk out the door, my friend calls out, "Hey, Lou...Ernie Broglio and Bobby Shantz?" (In reference to one of the worst trades in the history of baseball that sent Brock to the Cardinals).
Brock smiles, chuckles, and simply says, "Yea, man, Ernie Broglio. I just couldn't throw a curveball."
Two years ago, there was just one other person in the group of merry men that made the trip to Cooperstown. Still, it made for the best of the years that the journey has been made. Saturday is usually just an exciting day in the village. People have arrived for the weekend, and the streets start to fill.
After taking in one of the ball games and touring the Hall-of-Fame itself, my friend and I made our way out of the village for dinner. Cooperstown does not have a lot in the way of real restaurants, and steak is on very few of the menus. You have to search for that.
We arrived at the restaurant and sat down to order our meals. About 20 minutes into the dinner, my friend points out someone sitting in the back corner of the restaurant. There was a group of four men sitting down and it took virtually no time for me to recognize the one my friend had meant me to see: Carlton Fisk.
You have to understand something. While 1975 pre-dates when my parents were blessed with my presence, Fisk has always resonated as the best catcher in the game in my house. My father would bust out tapes to show his toughness, reference that he could hit and call a game, and had me study Fisk’s footwork.
As long as it is possible to remember, there have been just two numbers that have been on the back of jerseys I played in, No. 27 and No. 5 (seven minus two). That takes care of high school, college, and several amateur leagues.
As the group wrapped up their dinner, my friend encouraged me to go over and at least try to shake his hand. With some prodding, I made my way over. Fisk is an imposing figure. His hands are the size of a catcher's mitt and he looks like an imposing guy. Still, he saw no issue in spending a few minutes with me in a largely empty restaurant.
It is rare we get this close to those we idolize as children. When the idol lives up to expectations, it is all the more special. Five minutes of his time is something that this writer will not soon forget, and it is impossible to thank him enough