The Stadium Experience: Cooperstown Connection

The bats were wooden, and the baseball players were young and green. The stands were mostly empty but for behind home plate–in the shade of the grandstand–where chatty ladies in hats and large sunglassed filled the spaces between the mens’ one-liners about hot dogs and heart attacks. The sun burned bright even as it set, there in the early evening in Cooperstown, New York.

There were the Cooperstown Hawkeyes, the local side, and another team from another small New York town wearing forest green. They were likely the best players from their colleges, schools with names like Catawba Valley and Shippensburg; Civil War names. But this wasn’t the Cape Cod league. These kids weren’t on the fast-track to signing bonuses. They were playing so they didn’t have to live at home for the summer. They were playing to play, the way most of us did. They don’t make it big out of the New York Collegiate Baseball League.

My friend Paul and I were in town for the Hall of Fame, and only made it to Doubleday Field for the game because it happened to fit into our rigorous weekend itinerary. But there was also the appeal of watching an actual live game in a place where so much of the baseball is stuffed and mounted.

In other words, after a solid eight hours of peering into display cases, reading tidy little placards, and poring over newspaper clippings in the research library, Doubleday Field felt as wide as the Polo Grounds. The dust that a second baseman kicked up at Doubleday was living dust, an activation of all the incantations down the street in the museum.

(A note vis-a-vis the research library: they’re awesome, they’ll help you find out about whatever you want, especially if you give them a day or two of advanced notice. Also, the director of research at the library, Tim Wiles, sung Take Me Out to the Ballgame on account of the book about the song that he co-wrote. If you heard the kind of conversations he got to have during his workday at the library, you would be jealous. He talks about it in this episode of the Cover the Bases podcast.)

Doubleday Field leads a double life. Often, like medium-sized baseball fields nationwide, it plays host to modest events such as this Hawkeyes game, in which young people play ball in front of some parents and friends, and a light dusting of randoms like me and Paul, who could go for a little baseball, whatever the flavor.

But then there are those weekends when its kinship with the Hall of Fame pays off in glory. Some of those days are past, as the Hall of Fame game between two big league teams which is done with as of 2008. But on the Sunday of the very weekend we were in Cooperstown, there was the Cooperstown Classic Old Timer’s Day scheduled that would surely fill the stands and feature some of the greats of the recent past. We saw a few of these guys, in fact, at a forum at the local high school: Ozzie Smith, Rollie Fingers, Bob Feller (who I presume at 90-something years old didn’t pitch, but it wouldn’t shock me if the old curmudgeon did), Goose Gossage, Harmon Killebrew, Phil Niekro. Apparently Jeff Kent and Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten were there too.

Point is, Doubleday Field still sees its share of grandiosity. That in itself adds a little sparkle to a humble game like the Hawkeyes matchup here. Knowing that pro players have attacked those close-in fences and kicked at the mound lends a little touch of the magical to what would otherwise be your basic summer league game.

We were not, of course, the only fans at the field. There were other goofy groups of men, who clearly had the same thought we did, the urge to watch some real baseball and the organizational wherewithal to find this one on the schedule. These weekend warriors were the ones in Carlton Fisk Red Sox jerseys and bright white sneakers. Nice cameras hung from their necks, and their pallor suggested paperwork over surfing.

And then there were the locals. Round about the third inning, the sun was pointed directly at my forehead, so we bought a few hot dogs from some softball players working concessions en route to the grandstand behind home plate, where there was a roof and some shade. Under the roof, the crack of the bat echoed a little and there was got a nice view of what everybody else was up to.

Down near the backstop, I thought I saw a scout with a radar gun, but it turned out it was a Coke Zero bottle in his hand. A row below us, a college girl stretched and preened her tan summer legs. A young girl with a brown lab puppy stood around as groups of people cooed and petted it.

On the drive home from my high school baseball games, my mom would talk about what my teammate’s families were up to: news about brothers and sisters and moms and dads, who got into what college, who was dating whom, who was going to military school. She was like a Pony Express rider the way she absorbed and broadcast all of that news.

“You know they’re tryinna getta liquor license for the field, huh?” said a bald, middle-aged guy who had a minute ago made an excuse for his second piece of pizza. “Finally have a decent party here. Serve beer.”

“They been trying for years,” said a plump woman settled in down the row from him. “They’ll get it this year. I’m on the alcohol board.”

Conversation meandered among them, with the woman providing the narrative drive and the three men down the row providing comic relief and nonsequitors. “Ochocinco!” the bald guy said at one point, for no apparent reason. “Ochocinco!”

When a foul ball shot back against the backstop screen, the woman said to the bald guy, “If they get ridda that net you’d have a lot more patients!” Then he told a story about a Lifesavers factory. It made sense at the time, if only just. It made sense was that we were at a baseball game and that a story was being told that someone had read in a newspaper.

Down below, the game got slow, the starting pitchers lost their handle. There are no lights at Doubleday Field, promising a foreseeable and merciful conclusion. But we didn’t wait around. We had some local beer in the trunk of the rental car, and a view from the motel porch that was calling our name.

Did I mention that Phil Niekro threw out the first pitch? Well he did, and throughout the game the PA announcer asked Niekro-related questions and if you ran up to his table with the answer you’d win a free piece of pizza. “There’s Phil,” said Paul as we found our seats behind home plate. I couldn’t make him out, though. He blended right into that small crowd.

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