‘Raysed’ in Otsego County
Attending Fred McGriff’s 2023 induction at the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a member of the Rays’ front office contingent provided baseball operations president Erik Neander an insider’s view to the festivities and the faces.
He appreciated that more than many of the other invited guests, given how many years he spent outside the fences and beyond the ropes at assorted Hall-related events and the annual exhibition games while growing up in nearby Oneonta, N.Y.
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“I remember being 10, 11, 12 years old, we’d take the OPT (Oneonta Public Transit) bus up, spend the day up there,’’ said Neander, who just completed his sixth season as the Rays’ top-ranking baseball official, leading the team to five straight postseason appearances. “We had some family friends who had a place on [Otsego Lake], and we’d go swimming, then take a boat over and go into the town.
“Hall of Fame Weekends, Hall of Fame Games, that was our thing. We loved it growing up. We would spend hours and hours and hours just staked out somewhere, hoping for glimpses of players walking into the Hall of Fame, walking out, maybe getting an autograph or two. That was it.
“We loved baseball growing up, and [the Hall] was 25 minutes away. And those exhibition games (the Hall of Fame Game) — didn’t do many induction ceremonies at those ages — those were the highlight. Loved going for those, and we’d just spend a bunch of time being kids and hanging out looking for glimpses of our heroes.’’
Neander, 40, grew up an Orioles fan, having been born in Silver Spring, Md., before his mom, Laurie, wanted to move back to her home area in Oneonta when he was nine.
Neander quickly got comfortable, starting as a third grader at Valleyview Elementary, then progressing to Oneonta Middle and High Schools (Class of 2001) on the same campus.
He also began playing baseball right away, recalling stints on the Up Country Photo and Oneonta Sales Little League teams, through PONY League, high school play and American Legion competition, which gave him multiple opportunities to play on Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.
Plus, for more baseball, there were Oneonta Yankees minor league games to attend and occasional visits to the Hall. But Neander preferred to be on the field.
“We loved to play,’’ Neander said. “There were a lot of us. I don’t know if it was by way of being close to Cooperstown and just how active baseball was in that area, or if we just really enjoyed it. But we had a pretty good group that grew up playing together, and we played a lot. It was awesome. We had a few good coaches and people that kept us playing.’’
Neander was pretty good — “for Upstate New York,’’ he tries to add as a qualifier — as a hard-hitting outfielder and had some early college interest. But a right shoulder injury his junior year (incurred while diving for a ball in a pickup basketball game) eliminated most of his potential offers.
He ended up attending Virginia Tech, trying to find something he had as much passion for as baseball. He started studying engineering, then went down a medical/health path and graduated with a degree in food, nutrition and exercise — and immediately started working to get back into the game on a front office level.
And baseball was not his only love tied to the Cooperstown area. Neander first met his wife, Jess, and now the mother of their three children, there. She was working the register at TJ’s Place, a since-closed Main Street restaurant that also had an extensive baseball cap collection, and given his need then, as now, for a large size, he asked for help as he was readying for the upcoming induction weekend.
“I was in high school, and it may have been her first year of college as we’re four years apart,’’ Neander said. “I went in looking for a hat, and she was there. We didn’t know what it would lead to because we didn’t really connect until several years after that. But that was our first meeting.’’
Neander had another connection that brought him back to Main Street as well, working a couple of college summers at Sal’s Pizzeria, which was owned (as was another location in Oneonta) by a family friend, in the early 2000s.
“I worked a lot,’’ Neander said. “They were good to me, but I’d like to think I worked hard and earned my wages there. I spent a couple of summers up there busting my butt doing everything they needed and wanted done — from making dough to breaking down cardboard boxes to taking inventory of their walk-in freezer items to filling the soda fridge. I never tossed pizzas — I tried once, and it was a disaster.’’
Induction weekends were, understandably, quite the experience.
“Extremely busy,’’ Neander said. “A few nights I just stayed over. One of the brothers (in the family that owned Sal’s) had an apartment above Sal’s. The day started at like 7:30 a.m. to prep, and we wrapped at like two in the morning. So I’d just go upstairs, take a nap and go back down.’’
Neander became a fan of all things baseball as he grew, but his admiration and appreciation for Orioles icon Cal Ripken Jr. — and his quest to meet him and get an in-person autograph — stayed with him. On visits to both Baltimore stadiums, Neander said he repeatedly managed to be in the wrong place or too far back in line.
“I had many failed attempts as a child,’’ Neander said. “I must have been the only one who would wait and wait for Cal Ripken to sign anything and everything, but I was the one repeatedly who never got it. He was legendary for signing for hours, but his time to wrap it up and move on was apparently whenever I got nearby.’’ (Neander’s parents bought him some signed Ripken items as consolation, but he said it wasn’t the same.)
Neander thought the most painful near miss was at the 1998 Hall of Fame Game.
“I remember at Doubleday Field he sat for freaking ever and ever signing, and I’m pretty sure I was the only person there that didn’t get it,’’ he said.
Then came the July 2023 visit to Cooperstown for the McGriff honors. Waiting on induction morning in the lobby of the famed Otesaga Resort Hotel where the Hall of Famers stay, Neander ducked into the crowded hotel coffee shop to grab a snack for his son, Penn, who was hanging out in the lobby with team president Matt Silverman and his daughter, Alexa.
“All of a sudden, Lexie comes running in and says, ‘Guess what? Penn just hit Cal Ripken with a water bottle!’ I’m like, ‘What? What happened?,’’’ Neander said. “He was playing with his water bottle and it slipped out of his hand. As Cal reached down to pick it up, Penn went over and said: Hello, my name is Penn,’ and introduced himself.
“By the time I came out, Cal was gone. So somehow now, my 9-year-old has met Cal Ripken and I still have not.’’
Neander likely will have other chances to meet Ripken, and certainly to return to Cooperstown given the Rays’ extraordinary success on his watch. He joined the Rays in 2007 as an intern and has worked his way through the organization, helping build the franchise into one of baseball’s best.
The Cooperstown area, however, will always be home — and always special in kindling his love affair with the game.
“Without question,’’ Neander said. “Being so close to Cooperstown, there’s just a lot of baseball in the area. Looking back, I don’t know if we fully appreciated that or recognized that growing up, but it kept it in front of us in a way that presumably mattered.
“Getting back there, I probably appreciate certain aspects of it a lot more now than I did as a child. It’s a special place for this game and for anybody who’s any sort of fan, or even if you’re not, to get up there and experience it.’’
Marc Topkin has been a writer for the Tampa Bay Times since 1983 and has covered the Rays since their inaugural season of 1998