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Sitting and writing on my laptop in box seats right behind home plate at Doubleday Park, where Babe Ruth once swatted a few outta’ here and only a couple of blocks from where Tony Gwynn’s most treasured plaque will in about two hours take its place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Monument Hall.
You guessed it. I’m in Cooperstown, N.Y., this weekend’s place to be for true baseball fans.
Just witnessed induction ceremonies for smooth talker Tony and teary-eyed Cal Ripken Jr. Without a doubt, the three-day Hall of Fame weekend experience was well worth the six months of planning and 3,800 miles of journey by air and land. The event made baseball history of much grander, more meaningful proportions than what that arrogant San Francisco Giant is undoubtedly about to do.
As you probably know by now, those hard working, naturally-enhanced nice guys, Tony and Cal, drew the largest Hall of Fame induction crowd ever, estimated at 60,000-plus, and largest number of Hall of Famers in attendance: 55 of the 63 with heartbeats.
It’s late afternoon on Sunday, July 29, 2007. An hour or so ago, I was applauding and cheering the Hall of Famers present until my hands numbed and turned red. I suspect many of the tens of thousands of those surrounding me also suffered from over-applauding. With lots of help from extreme heat and humidity, figured I lost three pounds getting up and down for dozens of standing ovations.
We sat on the grass in a most pristine valley to witness Tony’s Hall of Fame induction. Seemed like most folks had the foresight to bring lawn chairs. Me? I’m now proud owner of a pair of grass-stained shorts.
As I write, I’m gazing straight across home plate and the pitcher’s mound at the equally pristine Doubleday Park, as in Abner “I-kinda-invented-baseball” Doubleday. It’s plenty quiet here. No more than a dozen fans at a time have come in for a quick peak at this historic ballfield.
My childhood bud Joe Fuentes and I have spent the past three days in Cooperstown soaking in as much of what the long Hall of Fame weekend has to offer. Was it worth it? Simply put, it’s been one walk-off homer after another.
Real baseball fans who have made the 2007 pilgrimage to the baseball capital of the world will understand the following praise and gushing. These three days have been a lovefest, a religious experience, nirvana. Everywhere, folks of all ages were chatting ball, asking how far they trekked to get here. Team colors were worn with pride. Mostly Ripken jerseys, but there were a respectable number of Gwynn garb.
Everyone we encountered seemed eager to chat or at least shout out, “Go Padres!” Oriole fans easily outnumbered Padre followers six-to-one, but they showed respect for our team colors and our nice guy, Gwynn.
Many couldn’t stop the chatter about what’s grand about baseball and its lineage and what’s wrong with today’s game.
Last night, after visiting the Hall of Fame Museum for the third time since Friday morning, Joe and I rested our middle-aged bones in a Cooperstown pub filled with Orioles jerseys. We weren’t there more than 10 minutes, when a small group of young Oriole fans across the bar began chanting and clapping, “Here we go, Padres, Here we go!”
We all toasted one another and eagerly joined in the “Yankees suck!” chant. One 30-something fellow came over and started talking baseball trivia. He even remembered that Mark Parent, a highly forgettable ballplayer, had played for the Padres and the Orioles. I couldn’t even remember what position Parent played.
Earlier, as we walked through one of the quaint residential blocks of this small village of 2,100, a woman named Dale asked if we were Padre fans from San Diego. We nodded, and she promptly handed Joe and me “Induction Weekend” baseballs signed by Tony. Yeah, baby!
In addition to the Hall of Famers, many other former Major Leaguers gathered here, mainly to hock their signatures and biographical books. We walked from store to store, block to block, photographing former players. I spotted Denny McClain, Ferguson Jenkins, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Whitey Ford and former Padres pitchers Rollie Fingers and Gaylord Perry.
Joe debated pitching great Denny McClain about who was the better pitcher — McClain or Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax of the L.A. Dodgers. McClain reminded him that Koufax never won 30 games in a season, like he had. But Joe pointed out that Koufax chalked up 27 wins in a season.
“Not even close,” McClain declared with somewhat of a grin.
A block away, the legendary Willie Mays was signing autographs for $150 a piece with all proceeds going to charity. Across the street in the Safe at Home memorabilia shop, Pete Rose was in the back room scribbling for $65 a pop — didn’t hear anything about the gambler’s take going to charity. The autograph lines seemed longest for Mike Schmidt.
Meanwhile, a jovial 82-year-old Brooklyn Dodger George “Shotgun” Shuba was there selling his book and posing for photographs. He has at least two claims to fame: Shotgun was the first white professional ballplayer to publicly shake Jackie Robinson’s hands on the field. That historic handshake is depicted on his book’s cover. During the 1953 World Series, Shotgun became the first National League player to club a pinch-hit homer in the Fall Classic.
On Friday, a reporter with the San Diego metropolitan daily paper interviewed us while his photog snapped pictures. The next morning, we began getting calls from friends and relatives who let us know we had made the morning edition. We were stoked, but there was one thing that rankled a bit. My name was spelled incorrectly.
No biggie. Joe and I were as close to baseball heaven as possible. At our fingertips was the Hall of Fame Museum, worth many hours of pleasurable study. And in then there were the shops and sidewalk vendors selling more baseball memorabilia and merchandise imaginable.
Best of there were the fans. We’re already making plans for Trevor’s turn.
When John Nunes isn’t toiling as assistant director of public information for the San Diego Community College District, he can be found at the ballpark or writing about baseball. He has been published in the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Magazine, Sport Magazine, The San Diego Union-Tribune, North County Times and elsewhere.