We had a nice time at the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction weekend. A record crowd of over 60,000 fans came to cheer Cal Ripkin, Jr. and Tony Gywnn as they achieved "baseball immoratality" by being inducted into the Hall. (Related to that oft-used "baseball immortality" line – along the main road that leads to Cooperstown a local Bible church displayed a sign that read, "You can’t play your way into heaven. Trust Jesus.") My wife and her family have been huge Cal Ripkin, Jr. fans since the early ’80’s, and so this was about as close to baseball heaven as they’ll ever get.
I wouldn’t call it heaven, but Cooperstown is a wonderful town. There’s an amazing camaraderie among the baseball fans that make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown like the faithful to Mecca. They come from all ends of the baseball world – Padres fans, Yankees fans, Phillies fan, and so on. Some folks wear throw-back jerseys and others wear ballpark giveaway t-shirts, and everyone wears a baseball cap. You wear your team’s colors and show pride in your corner of the baseball universe. And those colors spark conversation.
I wore a Nationals cap and a Phillies t-shirt, displaying split loyalties to my new pathetic home team and the pathetic team for which I’ve cheered since I was a boy. Sure enough, I had long, in-depth conversations with complete strangers about both of these teams, their stadiums, and other pressing baseball topics – such as Barry Bonds, the Designated Hitter, and the pros and cons of Cal’s streak. I have never experienced such an immediate camaraderie, bond, or sense community like that which I have experienced on my trips to Cooperstown.
One bad thing about displaying your colors on a weekend honoring an Oriole and a Padre, however, is that the Orioles’ black and orange combined with the Padres’ old brown, yellow and orange made Main Street Cooperstown look like a condiment mixture concocted by an overly-caffeinated 7th grade boy on a dare. Not pleasant. Fashion police, beware!
However, the ceremony itself on Sunday was rather, well, ordinary. For a game with as much tradition and pageantry as baseball, I was amazed at how basic the celebrations were for the actual induction. A few people gave speeches, a few video presentations showing highlight reels were played, and that was about it. I don’t need a Super Bowl halftime show, but some more pizazz or grandeur could help make the induction more of a unique event.
On the other hand, the blandness of the event makes the players and the fans themselves the main attraction. There is no rock concert, no pyrotechnics, no sausage race or mascot cage fight (which would be awesome) – just the honored players and their fans. The only reason to go to this ceremony is if you love those players, because otherwise it is a rather ordinary event. But perhaps that is the point. Cal, Tony, and their fans were center stage – and perhaps that’s the way it is supposed to be.
And another thought about the ceremony. We cheered for Cal Ripkin, Jr. and for Tony Gwynn for what they did in the game, against an opponent. Cal could snag a one-hopper with a wicked bounce and throw a guy out like few ever could in the game. Gwynn was one of the best hitters of all time, driving pitchers crazy with his simple swing and amazing ability to get on base. Yet this weekend neither Ripkin nor Gwynn were displaying their craft, neither had opponents. It was the rare baseball moment when, as the rector of the local Episcopal Church offered in his invocation at the beginning of the ceremony, there were no losers, only winners.
But that was part of the awkwardness of the weekend, it seems to me. What is a game without losers? We play the game to win, we cheer the best players because they can beat their opponents, because they help their teams win games (ie, they make the other guys lose). Yet this weekend there were no losers, there was no one to boo (except for Bud Selig, who received a muted boo when he was introduced), no rivalry to cultivate, and no great play or clutch hit that sent the other team into a tizzy. It was just a lovefest for two great players (and let me tell you, nobody does a lovefest better than those wholesome, milk-drinking, aw-shucks, "Thank God I’m a Country Boy"-singing Orioles fans).
I’m glad I went to the Hall of Fame Induction. It was one of those great American sporting traditions that I may never get to do again. But after a weekend in the odd baseball utopia that is Cooperstown, I’m glad to return to baseball reality where booing is an art form, and losing is a daily occurrence.