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Haul of Fame

Journal


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A pilgrimage to Cooperstown was worth the travel travails to see Tony Gwynn share the Hall of Fame national spotlight with Cal Ripken Jr.

REMEMBER THE OLD tourism ad slogan, “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania?” It’s a lie. If I had a friend in Pennsylvania, he’d work for the Department of Public Works and fix the roads. Or stop fixing them——whichever it takes to get rid of the miles of cones and concrete temporary walls that block lanes for no apparent reason. I became fumingly aware of this while driving the 300 miles from my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, to Cooperstown, New York.

The reason for the rocky road trip was the 2007 Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The classiest class ever inducted included the Orioles’ Iron Man, Cal Ripken Jr., and “Mr. Padre,” Tony Gwynn. Let’s hope by the time Padres closer Trevor Hoffman is ready for induction——likely within a decade——real friends will have stepped in and built a driving bridge over the State of Independence.

It’s too late to move the Baseball Hall of Fame from its obscure, upstate New York location. Quaint little Cooperstown (population 2,100) is hardly equipped to handle 75,000 fans on one day. But that’s how many attended the Sunday induction ceremony, while 14,000 traipsed through the hall’s museum the day before. Including me. It was elbow-to-elbow. I tried to enjoy my glance through a throng of humanity into the Babe Ruth Room. And the wait in line to see The Baseball Experience, “a multimedia journey back in time in a 191-seat grandstand theater,” was only 40 minutes!

Did I mention how humid it is in upstate New York during late July? The shame is this: The drive, crowds and heat indigenous to Cooperstown must be endured each summer even though we now know the hall was sited here because of an historical inaccuracy. Abner Doubleday did not inaugurate the game of baseball here. Oops. To honor history, the hall ought to be moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. But, as our current president believes, history can be rewritten to fit modern convenience. That means we could move the annual induction to Las Vegas, maybe in early December. Or since baseball is expanding globally, what if we honor the sport’s top athletes each year in Tahiti? Somebody send this idea——and a tube of sunblock——to baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

IT MUST BE CONCEDED THAT being in Cooperstown is not as bad as getting there. The city is proximal to pristine Otsego Lake. Antiquing is always in season. And the Hall of Fame parties get four (all-)stars.

I can thank former Padres and Orioles TV play-by-play announcer Mel Proctor for getting me into Ripken’s private, late-night shindig at Hoffman Lane Bistro. I got to shake hands and gush over the Hall-of-Famer himself. His wife, Kelly, was stunning in a red dress. And Carlsbad resident and former Oriole Brady Anderson was gracious and fun to chat with. I had a couple of plates of ahi tuna, and the Bombay Sapphires were as smooth as Ripken was fielding yesteryear grounders at shortstop.

The Padres front office invited me to a similar bash for Gwynn. It was held down the road from Hall of Fame central, at the Fenimore Art Museum. Proctor schmoozed his way in. And we hung out with San Diego Magazine contributing photographer Tim Mantoani (he shot Gwynn for the late-July commemorative issue of Sports Illustrated), who was kind enough to let me crash in his hotel room. Because of a citywide hotel sellout, I’d spent the previous night in my car.

And so it went——sleeping in a dank, rented minivan one night, dining on shrimp and crab legs in the presence of greatness the next. Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield made an appearance at Gwynn’s bash——at 6-foot-10, Winfield is hard to miss. Hall-of-Famer wanna-be Steve Garvey was on hand. So were San Diego NBC 7/39 sportscaster Jim Stone, Dennis Morgigno and Jane Mitchell from Channel 4, Padres play-by-play men Ted Leitner and Jerry Coleman and team general manager Kevin Towers. Former front-office executive Charles Steinberg made the trip from Boston to attend the party, as did St. Vincent de Paul overlord Father Joe Carroll.

The congratulatory party was loaded with San Diego well-wishers. But things got serious when Padres owner John Moores quieted the band and made a few remarks about Mr. Padre. “Petco Park,” said Moores, “would not have been built if this man hadn’t been part of the Padres.”

Gwynn, wearing a San Diego State University sweater vest, cleared his throat and began thanking family and friends. At a press conference the day before, Gwynn warned the media he would most likely break up during his induction speech. And while that didn’t actually happen, he did indeed get choked up at this party. It was a short interlude. But he bawled. Sure, baseball players are notoriously stoic on the field. Not so much with Gwynn off the field, but here he literally doubled over and cried. Like everything emoted by Gwynn, it was endearing and honest. No one——not even Tom Hanks’ crusty manager character in A League of Their Own——could complain about shedding these tears in the direction of the game.

BY INDUCTION SUNDAY, I was in a reverential mood. It was time to make Ripken and Gwynn official members of baseball’s pantheon of greatness. Daughter Anisha Gwynn nailed the United States and Canadian national anthems. After introductions of the 53 Hall-of-Famers on hand for the ceremony, Gwynn was first to speak. He wore a dark, double-breasted suit and a yellow tie. He spoke for 28 minutes and wiped the sweat from his face at least a half-dozen times. It was so hot, ushers were passing out thousands of bottles of water to the sweltering crowd.

Gwynn announced he was “proud as heck” to have played in San Diego and to be so closely identified as an ambassador of the city. (Quick——try and name a better candidate to be our representative icon.)

It was Ripken, not Gwynn, who choked up in front of the induction-ceremony congregation. Where Gwynn was conversational, Ripken read from a prepared text. And he got off several good lines. Ripken’s father taught him that “Everything that happens in baseball happens in life.” And vice versa. After the birth of his children, Ripken discovered “the secret of life . . . is life.” And when it comes to chapters of your life coming to an end: “There are no endings——just points where we begin again.”

There is a reason the attendance at this year’s ceremony climbed 50 percent from the previous record. Geographic proximity (relatively) to Baltimore had something to do with it. But fans came to pay homage not just to two great athletes but to a few good men. July saw professional sports leagues getting headlines for being involved with dog fights, using steroids and fixing basketball games. In Cooperstown, the focus was on two family guys who did their jobs for the same team for two decades, all the while sharing and giving back to their communities.

After the ceremony, during the walk from Clark Sports Center down Susquehanna Avenue, I had an epiphany. After a baseball game, the departure scene is usually hasty and animated. Not today. I couldn’t help but share the collective sense of calm emanating from 75,000 souls whose pilgrimage had come to an end. Tribute to our gods had been paid. And we were leaving in peace.

I found myself sitting in gridlock, exiting the city via clogged, two-lane roads. These humble streets would eventually take me to the obstacle course that is the Pennsylvania highway system. And little did I know, seriously heavy rain would make the trek all the more harrowing. But sitting in traffic on the way out of Cooperstown——watching families cross the street carrying lawn chairs and wearing beautifully disparate assortments of ancient brown Padres hats and bright orange Orioles jerseys——the exodus no longer seemed as fraught with inconvenience.

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