Classic leaves players, fans smiling

May 24, 2014
Hideki Matsui joins his Knucksie teammates on the field. (Milo Stewart, Jr./NBHOF)

Though Mother Nature’s fickle behavior turned a pleasant spring afternoon into a water-soaked deluge, both players and fans enjoyed the Cooperstown experience on Saturday.

The sixth annual Hall of Fame Classic was the centerpiece event of the day, featuring a game involving 30 recently retired big league players, representing each of the 30 major league teams in action at historic Doubleday Field. Six Hall of Fame members took part, too, with Phil Niekro and Ozzie Smith serving as skippers. But what was to be a seven-inning affair was stopped in the middle of the sixth inning when the dark clouds, which had been threatening on-and-off for much of the day, finally let loose and a torrential downpour ensued. Due to the poor conditions, the game was stopped with the score 4-4.   

Though there was no Bob Feller Player of the Game Award presented, that didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of thrilling action for the 6,063 fans in attendance. And with the intimate dimensions of Doubleday Field, home runs were produced by former New York Yankees outfielder and fan favorite Hideki Matsui to right field, longtime Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson to left field, and 14-time All-Star catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers to center.

Prior to the game, Rodriguez talked about what it means for him to attend such an event in the spiritual home of baseball.

“It’s nice to back here to Cooperstown,” said Rodriguez, explaining that he had been a player in a few Hall of Fame Games over the years. “And it’s great to see guys I played with and against.

“I haven’t put my catching gear on since I last played a major league game,” he added with a smile. “This will be the first time since 2011.”

When asked to comment on the possibilities of a bronze plaque with his likeness one day appearing in the Hall of Fame, the 13-time Gold Glove Award winner said, “The Hall of Fame is special for me and I think it’s special for all the players. This is one of the things you work for, to have a great career and one day be in the Plaque Gallery. It’s everyone’s goal. Let’s see what happens. There are still some years left for me, for my opportunity, hopefully yes. I hope what I did in baseball is good enough for the baseball writers.”

Pedro Martinez, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and eight-time All-Star, tossed a scoreless first inning on Saturday, and is hoping to back in the area in 2015 for his first opportunity for election to the Hall of Fame. 

“I would like to be back next year but like everybody knows it’s not up to me,” he said with a laugh. “It’s up to the voters. I’m looking forward to seeing if I make it. If I make it, it will be just great to be back. Back-to-back years being here, it would be great.

“I’m retired for good and hopefully only a year away from making it here.

Martinez, who captured five ERA championships and finished with a 209-100 record, the day was also a time to reflect.

“It is a great opportunity to be here to be part of this and interact with so many players that you faced and players that you played with. This is just beautiful,” Martinez said. “Believe it or not I don’t want to pitch today. I will play first, I’ll lay down a bunt, I’ll do whatever. I’m just looking forward to hanging out with these guys and seeing them in uniform again, just have fun and see how many gray hairs they are developing. It’s just beautiful to see them again.”

Even those without Hall of Fame aspirations still enjoy the experience.

“I was thrilled because I got to bring my family,” said former catcher/first baseman Scott Hatteberg. “And look at the people around us. I not only played but I’m a big fan. This is just an absolute thrill.”

Hatteberg also has two artifacts in the Museum – a bat he used to become the only player to hit into a triple play and then hit a grand slam in his next at-bat, and a ball that he hit for a home run that gave the Oakland A’s their 20th consecutive win.

“I don’t care how I get here,” Hatteberg said with a laugh. “Just to have something in the Museum is just great and I’m just thrilled to be a part of it.”

The special Saturday began with a noontime start of the Cooperstown Game Day Parade. Rolling down Main Street to thousands of waving fans were the six Hall of Famers in the back of trucks, pairing Ozzie Smith with Phil Niekro, Andre Dawson with Eddie Murray, and Rollie Fingers with Roberto Alomar. The parade also featured local politicians shaking hands with the crowd, a Scottish marching band with bagpipes blaring, three dozen members of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, a lone tractor, and a trio of trolleys filled with the 30 former big leaguers.

 The busy day began early in the morning with the Hall of Fame’s BASE Race, which included 5K and 10K races. Dan Nenstiel, the 5K winner from Drums, Pa., said, “This is the first time I’ve been to Cooperstown. I was at the Modest Mouse concert Friday night (at Brewery Ommegang) and we were looking for something to do this morning. This was awesome!”

Speaking of Modest Mouse, the band’s lead singer, Isaac Brock, sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the fifth-inning stretch. The group is in the midst of a playing two consecutive concerts in the Cooperstown area.

“When I was originally asked I seemed like an unlikely person but I was really psyched,” Brock said afterwards. “Then I realized that I didn’t actually know all the words, so like any modern person I got online and started looking.

“But this has been a real treat. I was definitely more nervous about doing this than playing a full 1 ½-hour show of my own. And I’ve been to about seven games in my life, so I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan, but this might make me one.”

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum