Players relish time in Cooperstown as Classic Weekend begins

Written by: Bill Francis

What do you get when you combine more than 250 aspiring players, nine former big leaguers, seven different stations to learn baseball fundamentals, many mouthfuls of bubblegum, one historic ballpark and brilliantly sunny spring afternoon?
Lots and lots of smiles.

On the eve of the 10th edition of the Hall of Fame Classic legends game, Doubleday Field played host as children aged 7-12 took part in the 2018 Cooperstown Classic Clinic, a free event for preregistered participants.

Nine recently retired big leaguers, including pitchers Jason Frasor, Kevin Gross, Sam LeCure, David Riske and Andy Sonnanstine, infielders John McDonald and Nick Punto, catcher Michael Barrett, and outfielder Shane Victorino, led their charges with hands-on training in such disciplines as pitching, outfield play, hitting, bunting, throwing, infield play and catching.

“I love this place. Honestly, this is like one of my favorite places on the planet to be,” said the 35-year-old Sonnanstine, who pitched for five seasons with the Rays. “I have some special memories coming here as a 12- , 13-year-old playing on this very field. I feel privileged to come out here and help these youth players get a little better.

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“I came when I was on a travel team from Wadsworth, Ohio. There were probably only 20 people in the stands, but being able to play on the field was a pretty special moment at that time in my life. I pitched and played shortstop. A lot of time when I go back home – I live in Florida now – I’ll flip through some pictures of when we came up here.”

Frasor, 40 and a veteran hurler in 12 seasons, had played on Doubleday Field while a member of the nearby minor league Oneonta Tigers in 1999. “We just got off a clunky old bus and no one was happy but I think I appreciate it now more than I did back then. And I’m here with my seven-year-old son, Jack, who’s all in with baseball.”

Barrett, who works with the Washington Nationals as a catching coordinator, was attending with his wife and four kids, who range in age from 11 months to 13 years old.

“Cooperstown’s great. We love it. As a family we went from store to store,” said Barrett, a big league backstop for a dozen years. “I played here at the Classic a couple years ago and it was a lot of fun. It was good to back on the field in uniform and playing the game with the boys from my playing days, rekindling old relationships, and seeing all the fans. Fans that care about the average players as well as the Hall of Famers is pretty cool.”

One of the eight stops the children made on the green grass of Doubleday Field was to see former minor league pitcher Rob Nelson, the inventor of Big League Chew. The southpaw pitcher played from 1975-77 with the Portland Mavericks, a team immortalized in the 2014 documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball.

“I played in the minors, but just briefly and ineffectively, with one win in three seasons,” Nelson joked. “But it was the summer of ’77, spending time in the bullpen, when I came up with Big League Chew.

“It’s funny because you have former big leaguers doing other stations, then it’s blowing bubbles with Rob in right field. I’m just honored to be here. Being part of this is a dream come true for me.”

According to Nelson, he hopes the kids come away from the day with the idea that baseball is really fun.

“There are so many components to it, so many things to learn, and so many friendships to be made, so many opportunities,” Nelson said. “There’s no game like it. I suppose that’s my big message.”

The former big leagues shared similar sentiments when it comes to imparting any wisdom on the attending children.

“I see kids getting specialized really early,” Sonnanstine said. “When I was 12, 13, 14, 15 years old, we never had a setup guy. I just want to open their minds to playing all over the field, try to be good at everything. I think that mentality helped me get to the major leagues.”

“I just want to instill the passion and feed their hunger for knowledge of the game and love for the game,” Barrett said. “Just try and build a relationship with them and get them excited about baseball. Let them know that we were just like they are.”

As for the Hall of Fame Classic, the ex-players were tentatively looked forward to getting back on the field for Saturday’s game.

The inventor of Big League Chew, Rob Nelson, shows a young fan how to properly blow a bubble. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“I heard we only have three pitchers on my squad, so I’m hoping my arm is ready,” Sonnanstine said with a laugh. “I’m hoping I get at least two or three innings. I think I’ve thrown about five or six bullpen sessions just to make sure there’s no injuries. That’s the last thing I want. I want to come up here and have fun and have a good time and not get hurt. One of the things I kind of pride myself on is never being underprepared.”

When asked if he was ready to play, Barrett shrugged, smiled, and replied, “It’s hard to get ready for a game at this age.”

The 2018 Hall of Fame Classic will be held at Doubleday Field on Saturday, with the first pitched scheduled for 1:05 p.m. and the pregame Home Run Derby set for noon. Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Ozzie Smith will serve as managers, and coaches will include fellow Hall of Famers Tim Raines, Goose Gossage, Eddie Murray and Gaylord Perry. The two teams will consist of 30 recently retired players representing every big league team. Tickets will be available at the site.

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

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