A Perfect Day at Doubleday

Hall of Fame Classic provides thrills for fans in Cooperstown as The Knucksies beat The Wizards 5-4.

June 16, 2012
2012 Bob Feller Player of the Game Desi Relaford hi-fives the Hall of Fame Classic's Hitting Champion Dmitri Young. (Milo Stewart Jr./NBHOF Library)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – A perfect summer day ended with a perfectly exciting way to end a ballgame.

The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and a few white clouds eased overhead in Cooperstown as the fourth Hall of Fame Classic Weekend reached its pinnacle on Saturday afternoon.

Harkening back to a simpler time, a trait Cooperstown is well versed in, the Cooperstown Game Day Parade began at noon. Running along Main Street, it began its tour at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and ended outside historic Doubleday Field.

The Parade featured not only featured local politicians, vehicles showcasing area businesses and institutions, a nearby state champion baseball team, and a pair of trolleys carrying two dozen former big league players, but also a pinstriped convertible with lookalikes of Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle inside. The biggest cheers from the thousands of fans lining the street were reserved for the when the six Hall of Famers in town – Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray, Tony Pérez, Carlton Fisk, Phil Niekro and Bert Blyleven – passed by waving.

From there it was on to Doubleday Field, where some 5,000 spectators, with organist performing in the background, awaited three hours of baseball fun. It began with the Hitting Contest, where a quartet of former big league sluggers – Darrell Evans, Jesse Barfield, Dante Bichette and Dmitri Young – competed to see who could accumulate the most points based on the distance of their hits. Ultimately, it came down to Bichette and Young for the title, with the defending champion, Young, again claiming the prize watch that goes to the victor.

“You know when you have those old flashbacks of playing? That's what I had out there. Being out there and hearing the crowd and reminiscing of being an actual ballplayer,” said Young minutes later. “I ended up using (Hall of Fame Classic teammate) Ben Davis’ bat because it felt more comfortable for me. It's just a nice collection of all of us coming out here and giving back to the fans.”

Young was noticeable lighter from the player who captured last year’s crown. Wearing a jersey from his former high school, he explained his attempted big league comeback and what his future holds.

“I’m at 220 pounds right now. I can fit into everything I wore in high school. I'm definitely in playing shape but I’m not looking for a comeback,” he said. “I'm now focused on helping kids in Ventura County (Ca.) to help them get the same opportunity that I got to play. It's time for me to pay it forward.”

As for the Hall of Fame Classic, which included Hall of Famers, former big leaguers as well as four players from the Military All-Stars, it ended abruptly when Desi Relaford, a veteran middle infielder who played 11 seasons in the majors, came to bat with the bases loaded, no outs and the scored tied in the bottom of the seventh inning. What followed was a single to right field past a drawn in infield to give The Knucksies (led by Phil Niekro, a knuckleball pitcher) a 5-4 win over The Wizards (led by Smith, the Wizard of Oz).

“You know what? It was awesome. Everybody wants to be up at the end of the game with the bases loaded and a chance to win the game. Luckily I hit it in the right hole,” said Relaford after accepting his Bob Feller Player of the Game award. “I don’t care what you’re doing, as a competitor, as a former big leaguer, you always want to win, you always want to do well. I don’t think that will ever leave.

“I came out here just to have some fun and I walk away with some hardware. I had a great time. I’m getting congratulated by Phil Niekro, Eddie Murray, and all these Hall of Famers. I feel like a kid.”

Relaford got his big hit off Bichette, an outfielder in the majors who moved from first base to relieve Brian Fisher on the mound.

“He (Bichette) was throwing harder than everybody out there today, which is better for me because I don’t have to think,” Relaford said. “When it’s hard I can just swing and hit it. So he might have helped me out a little bit.”

Bichette had a big grin on his face after the game while explaining his experience as a hurler.

“I think we were done with pitching and I was the guy who volunteered,” Bichette said with a laugh. “I still have a 14-year-old ay home so I’m throwing every day of my life. That was fun. I enjoyed it. I had a little adrenalin out there, but tomorrow my arm is going to hurt for sure.

“I pitch in a men’s league back home so I can throw a strike. That’s about it.”  

Unlike Bichette, Blyleven knows what it’s like be a pitcher, the right-hander winning 287 games in 22 big league seasons. On this day he started for The Wizards, going three innings and giving up two runs. 

“It was a lot o fun. I participate in the Minnesota Twins Fantasy Camp but it's nothing like this,” Blyleven said. “I'm usually going against guys that are 70 (or) 80 years old. These guys, I'm just glad nobody hit one back up the middle,” after his day as a hurler was over. “I had hip surgery a little while ago and you're out there and you don't notice it. I won't notice it probably until tomorrow.

“All in all it was just fun being out there.”

With Sunday having special significance, Relaford jokingly may have summed up his role in the game’s outcome best when he said, “Nobody wants a tie for Father’s Day. I didn’t want to give all the fathers a tie.”

Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum