Hall of Fame Classic is the Perfect Fatherâ€™s Day Event
I canâ€™t think of a better way to spend Fatherâ€™s Day than sitting in the stands at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown watching Hall of Famers and other ex-greats put on a show.Â If Ernie Banks were there he would have insisted they play two.
My 12-year-old son, Brandon, was right beside me, and my father and brother (with his family) were also in the stands, along with my wife and daughter. Made for a pretty good birthday present, since my birthday happened to fall on Fatherâ€™s Day this year.
For those of you not familiar with the Hall of Fame Classic, it is the Hallâ€™s replacement for the Hall of Fame Game that used to take place between two major league teams. Seems the big league players did not like being forced to spend their day off trekking to the boonies in upstate New York to play an exhibition game, even if it was being played on hallowed ground.
This yearâ€™s Hall of Fame Classic featured seven Hall of Famers, headlined by Bob Feller, who was joined by Ozzie Smith, Harmon Killebrew, Phil Niekro, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Gary Carter. The 91-year-old Feller captained one team while the other team was captained by the 73-year-old Killebrew. The game was preceded by a fun parade down Main Street, with the Hall of Famers riding in convertibles or truck beds and the rest of the players transported in a trolley.
The Hall of Famers were the featured attraction but they were joined by some other well-known players including Jeff Kent, who has a strong chance to get elected to the Hall when he becomes eligible in 2014. Kent played the game in a Giants uniform and when a fan asked him if he was going into the Hall as a Giant, Kent diplomatically replied, â€œI did have a lot of my great moments on that team.â€
Also playing in the game were three-time NL batting champion Bill Madlock, eight-time Gold Glove center fielder Paul Blair, six-time All-Star shortstop Bert Campaneris, former Yankees Dennis Rasmussen, Brian Boehringer and Mike Pagliarulo, Tim Leary, Desi Relaford, Kevin Bass, Dickie Noles and Frank DiPino.
The most impressive play of the game came in the first inning when the 68-year-old Campaneris turned on the afterburners and tried to go from first to third on a single. â€œCampyâ€ looked like he could still beat many of todayâ€™s players in a footrace. He topped off the play with a marvelous hook slide into the base to avoid the tag, but was called out even though it appeared he was in safely.
Another highlight came in the sixth inning when Kent was robbed of a hit by second baseman Tim McIntosh. McIntosh threw his glove up into the air as the blooper passed him and it knocked the ball straight into his hands for a bare-handed out. Asked later what his intent was on that play, McIntosh replied, â€œJust got to throw some leather at it,â€ adding that such a play would be illegal under normal MLB rules.
Not only did Mark Whiten win the pre-game home-run hitting contest, he blasted two home runs in the gameâ€”one from each side of the plateâ€”on the way to being named MVP of the game. Whiten was one of the youngest ex-players there, but even at age 43 he probably has more power than anyone currently playing for the Mariners. Kent also looked impressive during the home run contest, at one point belting four straight out of the park and into the backyards of houses on Elm Street.
Jon Warden didnâ€™t have much of a major league career, appearing in 28 games for the World Series champion Detroit Tigers in 1968. However, for the second year in a row he provided the comic relief for the fans. When he wasnâ€™t batting with a colorful wig or coaching first with a funny hat on he was squirting unsuspecting players and fans with a squirt gun. He tried to mimic the Babe by pointing to the outfield before his first at bat, but unlike the Babe he didnâ€™t come through with a home run. When three kids were brought onto the field for a dance contest in between innings, Warden showed off his dance moves.
Warden found himself facing a shift each time he batted, with all the infielders on the right side of the infield. Warden would oblige by hitting a grounder to the right, and the infielders flipped the ball around like they were the Harlem Globetrotters before finally retiring him at first. Warden watched all the action from the batterâ€™s box, as he made no attempt to run to first. After all, the game was designed to be fun for the fans, in stark contrast to the traditional Hall of Fame Game featuring major league players who didnâ€™t want to be there.
The Hall of Fame Classic offered an unlikely pairing of starting pitchersâ€”71-year-old Phil Niekro, who got the win, and Rollie Fingers, who was starting his first game since 1973. Ozzie Smith, batting leadoff for Team Killebrew, had the home plate umpire check the ball and inspect Niekroâ€™s uniform before the first pitch. Carter played first base, Campaneris manned third base and pitchers such as Goose Gossage even took their hacks at the plate. Gossage registered the only strikeout of the game during his one inning of pitching.
The largest applause was reserved for Feller, who was honored as much for his distinguished service to his country as for his accomplishments on the field. No one cared that his ceremonial first pitch bounced before it reached the plate. â€œNo sport would be in existence without the fans. The fans make the game. They pay their way and pay the salaries,â€ Feller told those in attendance while taking the microphone before the game. â€œI appreciate being invited back. I hope to be back here next year, but we’ll take it one year at a time.”
The patriotic theme was carried through by the participation of three USA Military All-Stars who played in fatigue-style uniforms. One of the Military All-Stars, Robby Hisert, blasted a two-run homer in the third inning off DiPino.
Not surprisingly, the Hall of Famers and other players were besieged by autograph seekers before and after the game and all were gracious in trying to accommodate requests. My kids were a little disappointed that they could not secure an autograph for their father on his special day, as they were much too polite and found themselves pushed out of the way by overzealous autograph hounds. They werenâ€™t as lucky as my mom, who found Feller sitting by himself on a bus during last yearâ€™s game and got him to sign a ball which they later gave me. Special recognition this year goes to Ozzie Smith, who stayed long after the other players left and did his best to accommodate as many fans as possible. My nine-year-old nephew, who doesnâ€™t follow baseball at all and couldnâ€™t name a single player, was one of the lucky ones to get Ozzieâ€™s autograph. He has probably already dirtied the ball playing with it outside.
Albany Times-Union sportswriter Mark McGuire asked some of the players to share their advice for aspiring ballplayers. Since Brandon is in his third year playing on a travel team, I paid particular attention to their words of wisdom.
â€œFind a pitching machine that throws nothing but breaking balls and get used to that,â€ said Hall of Famer Gary Carter. Excellent advice, especially since Brandon looked foolish striking out on a curveball two weeks ago that was a foot out of the strike zone. Donâ€™t get me started on why the youngster he was facing was throwing mainly curveballs. Brandon knows how to throw a curve, too, but I wonâ€™t let him throw it.
â€œThere is no success without some blood, sweat and some tears. If you donâ€™t put anything in, you canâ€™t expect anything in return,â€ offered Ozzie Smith. I thought there was no crying in baseball, but try telling that to a youngster who gets hit by a wayward pitch in the ribs.
â€œMechanics is the most important thing. Bad mechanics and youâ€™re not going to last long because you are going to hurt something,â€ advised Paul Blair, who won eight Gold Gloves as a center fielder with the Orioles.
â€œNow you need to apply the fundamentals. And need to play smart and you need to stay clean. You need to start to learn the plays of the game, how to manage the game,â€ offered Kent, a five-time All-Star and 2000 NL MVP.Â Perhaps the reference to staying clean was a subtle dig at his former teammate and rival Barry Bonds.
During interviews at the Hall of Fame Classic, Kent said he has no control over whether he gets elected to the Hall but he has certainly thought about what an honor it would be. He said he especially enjoys participating in the Classic because it gives him the opportunity to meet older stars such as Feller, Killebrew and Niekro and get to know their personalities. Itâ€™s an exclusive club that he hopes to join in a few years.
Next yearâ€™s Hall of Fame Classic will be held at Doubleday Field on Fatherâ€™s Day, June 19.
Chris Jensen grew up not far from Cooperstown and has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 2005.