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Thunderball

Village of the Damned

Cooperstown, 2013

Finally, the Cooperstown weekend I’d been waiting for! For the first time in 48 years, the Baseball Hall of Fame wasn’t inducting a living soul. Three dead ones got the call. Sportswriters predicted a “muted” celebration. Cooperstown would be empty. It would be joyless. Naturally, I had to go.

We’d gotten used to Hall of Fame love-ins. Baltimore penitents traveled by bus to be blessed by Cal Ripken, and the Cardinals diaspora came to see the Wizard. Some years, kindly old Stan Musial — who died in January — would play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” on his harmonica.

The steroid hunts had banished famous baseball players for a year. The three new Hall inductees — Deacon White, Jacob Ruppert, and the umpire Hank O’Day1 — were not famous. They were not Symbols of Something Bigger. Their inductions didn’t offer a teachable moment.

The weekend had another thing going for it: The forecast called for rain.

See why I had to go? It’s generally hard to get a sense of Cooperstown and the Hall in the midst of their own self-generating nostalgia. The Babe’s cockeyed smile is contagious. But for one year only, the nostalgia would be put on ice. There would be no living saints. No fans. “Out of season,” Paul Theroux wrote, “a place is at its emptiest, and most exposed, but also it is most itself.” 

I arrived just before noon Saturday and hurried to see Pete Rose.

A boy in a Cardinals T-shirt plopped down next to Rose. “St. Louis fan?” Rose asked. “Ever heard of Stan Musial?”

The boy nodded.

“I played against him!” Rose said.

The boy smiled.

Later, three more kids arrived. “Where you from?” Rose asked. “Chicago? Cub fans? Shaddup! You know what God told the Cubs? Don’t do nothin’ till I get back!”

The kids started to leave, but Rose stuck out his fist for a bump. “C’mon,” he pleaded, “load up!”

We’ve been told this magic — the ballplayer as a mall Santa — is a natural byproduct of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2013, the player who was delivering the goods was the one who was banned from the Hall. Rose was ensconced at 91 Main Street, a block and a half from the Hall’s entrance, in the back of a memorabilia store called Safe at Home. He signed autographs for 17½ hours over four days. “This is what I do,” Rose said.

“We’re not trying to sell you an autograph,” said Andrew Vilacky, a pal of Rose’s who owns Safe at Home. “We’re selling you an experience.” An experience cost $60, more if you wanted a photo.

Rose was the perfect ambassador for Cooperstown 2013. Next to Cal Ripken, he might look morally puny. Next to the three dead Hall of Famers, Rose had the virtue of being alive. We have passed the self-mortification phase of Rose’s rehabilitation. (Safe at Home announced he would not sign balls with the phrase “I’m sorry.”) We have entered the grand-old-man phase, when a youngster hops on his lap to hear about what Stan the Man was like.

The baseball writers are stuffy, defensive; Rose is loquacious. Do you feel sorry for ‘roiders not getting in the Hall, Pete?

“Yeah,” he said. “Well … I wouldn’t use the word sorry. I think they got screwed.”

What would you tell a steroid user?

“That I’m living it now,” he said. “I wish I could talk to every baseball player. Then they’d understand to stay away from everything that’s career-ending.”

A team of Abbott and Costello impersonators came into the store and did their act. Rose stuck his pointer finger in his mouth and laughed like a hyena.

A man had Rose autograph a baseball and then started to leave. “Wait,” Rose said. He took the ball and carefully placed it in a Ziploc bag. He handed it to the man. He preserved their experience. “I’m the only one in town who does that,” Rose said.

How do you describe the village of Cooperstown?

“Quaint,” said Andre Dawson (HOF, ’10). “Laid-back. Calming. Historic.”

The Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce prefers less sleepy adjectives: “diverse, connected, and engaged.” Locals, I found, have a few of their own. I was in F.R. Woods House of Pro-Sports, one of the many memorabilia shops on Main Street.

“It’s a quaint, quiet place to live,” said Andrew Rock, an employee.

“That’s economically starving,” said Norman Johannesen, who runs the store.

“That’s economically starving, yes,” said Rock.

“We have 13 weeks of business,” Johannesen said. “And the overhead with taxes is incredible.”

Cooperstown was a tourist village long before baseball. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a place where a working man from New York came to fish Otsego Lake or ride the steamer Natty Bumppo. “Dere iss somedings about dis town I like mutch,” a postcard from the period chirped. The Hall of Fame was built in 1939. Without it, Cooperstown might have withered like a resort town in the Catskills. Mark Wolpert, the owner of Pioneer Sports Cards, said Cooperstown was analogous to Saratoga Springs, only its lodestar was the Hall instead of the horse track.

“I came here in 1965,” said Rollie Fingers (HOF, ’92). “I was the American Legion Player of the Year.2 It looks exactly like it did in 1965. The same streetlights, the same signs, the same stores. Nothing’s changed.”

There is a fantasy — not discouraged by Cooperstown — to think of it as a baseball Disneyland, where you can meet an old player year-round. But only Bob Feller (HOF, ’62) was seen regularly, when he was up to help the Hall with a program. Feller died in 2010. The other players mostly come up for the induction weekend. They are usually glimpsed from afar: playing at the Leatherstocking Golf Course or waving from Ford F-150s in the Saturday-night parade or being ferried, often with police escort, to the Otesaga Hotel, a grand brick fortress on Lake Street. The hotel entrances are guarded by the cops.

The real business engine of Cooperstown is not the Hall but Dreams Park, a youth baseball mecca outside of town. Mom, Dad, and Grandpa may not make a cross-country trip to visit the Hall of Fame. But if Junior is playing baseball, they will uproot their lives immediately. And they will walk Main Street, eating in restaurants like the HardBall Café and buying souvenirs.

Cooperstown is a summer village. After Labor Day, shops close at five. “It’s dead,” said Rock. “After September, you get the fall festivals, the giant-pumpkin festivals. The leaf peepers come up from the south. Then they split. Once it starts to snow, it’s quiet until springtime.”

Walk up Main Street on a Sunday in January and you won’t feel like you’re in a dream world. “Come here in the wintertime,” said Vilacky, “and I’ll show you Disney!”

Whit-ey! Whit-ey! Whit-ey!

The parade of F-150s reached the Hall of Fame, and Whitey Ford (HOF, ’74) stepped off the truck. Whit-ey! Whit-ey! chanted the crowd. Ford peered at them, blinked, and seemed to realize something. They didn’t want to wash themselves in Whitey’s memories. They wanted Whitey’s autograph.

When people say they want to “meet” a Hall of Famer, what they really want is his signature. The autograph, not the dollar, is the official currency of Cooperstown. “Why am I here?” said Pete Rose. “I’m here to sign.” The autograph hunt was the only time I saw the old hokum about “families coming together” come true. A mother came up to her son with a signed ball.

Son: “Did you put it in the plastic?”

Mom: “Yeah, you trained me well.”

I thought they would hug right there on the street.

On Hall of Fame weekend, buildings in Cooperstown are converted into a signing assembly line. Ninety-year-old Ralph Kiner (HOF, ’75) was put at a table in the CVS pharmacy. In front of Pantene Pro-V shampoo, he made out his slow, shaky autograph. Wade Boggs (HOF, ’05), Billy Williams (HOF, ’87), and Robbie Alomar (HOF, ’11) were in the dining rooms at the Tunnicliff Inn a couple of feet apart. (To prove every building in Cooperstown has dual usage, the Society for American Baseball Research met in a funeral parlor.)

The transactional part of the autograph is straightforward. Give Juan Marichal (HOF, ’83) 40 bucks and he’ll sign your baseball. Give him another 25 and he’ll inscribe it — the verb that means writing anything beyond a signature — with “Dominican Dandy.” It gets tricky when the autograph seeker tries to use his words. Here are five things said to Jim Rice (HOF, ’09) during his signing on Saturday afternoon:

1. “For the inscription, could you write out ‘Hall of Fame’? Like, in words?”

2. “I want you to write, ‘To Joey,’ and then something cool that’s not ‘best wishes.’ If it helps, Joey is 7 months old.”

3. “You’re the only other person I know who has a birthday on March 8. You and me are it!”

4. “From Boston. [Pause.] Marblehead. [Pause.] Thank you.”

5. “[Points to jersey.] Blue Sharpie. Here.”

In Cooperstown, some people share a memory with the Hall of Famer that the Hall of Famer often doesn’t remember. “Most of them say I did something or other,” said Marichal. “I say, ‘Did I do that?’” I saw a woman approach Marichal and ask if he remembered visiting a pharmacy in the Excelsior District of San Francisco. “Yes,” Marichal said, with a polite but inscrutable nod. “My father’s,” said the woman. She was clearly touched.

After she left, Jim Bunning (HOF, ’96) turned to Marichal and said, “That’s not fair.”

A Hall of Famer will occasionally acknowledge that he has ceased to become a person, or even a ballplayer. He has become a living autograph. “That’s what it’s about sometimes, yeah,” said Fingers. But no Hall of Famer wants to piss on the arrangement. “Uh-uh, no,” said Gaylord Perry (HOF, ’91), who was signing on a plastic table on Main Street. “It’s a good job, man.” To get a ballplayer to a card show in a place like Chicago or Sioux Falls, you have to fly him in, put him up in a hotel, and pay him an appearance fee. During Hall of Fame weekend, the ballplayers are already in Cooperstown, allowing ballplayer and promoter to split the proceeds.

The real autograph hounds don’t pay. They are in search of freebies. On Saturday and Sunday morning, they were leaning against the stone wall at the Leatherstocking Golf Course. I found a group of hounds on the fourth tee. “If there were no autographs,” said Brian Shepard, “I don’t think that many people would be here.”

“There would be 500 to 1,000 less, at least,” said Tommy Szarka.

The hunt becomes an actuarial calculation. “You pay occasionally for older guys when they don’t sign a lot,” said Josh DeBartolo, who was casing the seventh green. “Younger guys, I’m still trying to hold out for.”

After the golf course, the freebie seekers head for the parade. This is the village’s quaintest tradition: a moving truck flotilla of autographs. The true hounds know where the player exits the truck, and some stake out places as early as 8 a.m.

Rickey Henderson hopped off his truck and signed a few autographs, which stunned everybody. Cal Ripken signed dozens and dozens, which stunned nobody.

“Mr. Ripken! Mr. Ripken!” (The autograph hound will push small kids out of the way while using the formal address.)

“Caaaaal!”

“God bless you, Cal!”

After 20 minutes of signing, Ripken waved apologetically and sprinted into the Hall of Fame. The hounds gave him a round of applause.

But they did not move. For they knew any quarry that entered the building eventually had to come out. An hour later, the Hall disgorged Whitey Ford. The 84-year-old living autograph blinked as the crowd resumed their chant: Whit-ey! Whit-ey! Whit-ey!

Like the ancient Greeks, the residents of Cooperstown live under the thumb of distant gods. These gods are vengeful, mercurial, and maddeningly inconsistent. We know them by their collective name: the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

In January, the BBWAA announced it wouldn’t give Cooperstown a living Hall of Famer. Neither Roger Clemens nor Barry Bonds made the cut. Peter Gammons commanded, “Let’s take a year to think Bonds and Clemens out.” When it comes to the Hall of Fame, sportswriters who’ve spent their lives on deadline suddenly need an extension.

The moral bluster was predictable. What was interesting was the formation of a minority caucus of Hall voters, those who voted for both Bonds and Clemens. They ranged from Baseball Tonight‘s Jayson Stark to the Orange County Register‘s Angels man, Jeff Fletcher. Some members, like MLB.com’s Richard Justice, are fluent in advanced stats. Some, like the New York Daily News‘s Filip Bondy, have cast oddball Hall votes for Jim Abbott.

The caucus supported Bonds and Clemens for a couple of reasons. One is that they figure that PED use in the ’90s was so extensive that even Game of Shadows, Juiced, and the Mitchell Report show an incomplete picture. We might be 99.99 percent sure Barry Bonds used steroids. We’re less sure of the guys pitching to him and the guys competing with him for home run titles. As a writer with the Houston Chronicle, Justice watched Jeff Bagwell play somewhere north of 600 games. “I’ll bet you Bagwell’s never been closer to anyone in the media than he was to me,” Justice said. “And I don’t know.”

“I don’t know” — these are strange words for a Hall of Fame voter. But you find members of the minority caucus using them a lot. “You and I probably think Curt Schilling didn’t use steroids,” Justice said. “But you and I don’t know.”

“What’s our standard of proof?” asked Stark. “We’re working with wide variances of the amount of information we’re using to judge the players. Barry Bonds had a whole book written about his PED use. What about everybody else on the ballot? Are we just going to make statements based on players who are mentioned in Jose Canseco’s book? I don’t think that should be the standard.”

I asked USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, who voted for Bonds and Clemens, this question: If the two players followed Lance Armstrong to Oprah’s couch and made full confessions, would you still vote for them?

“I would,” Nightengale said, “because there are so many guys whose names have never surfaced and skidded free. Why do they get a free pass? We really don’t know who was doing what. I think it would blow people away if everybody took truth serum.”

The caucus proposes a radically different way of looking at the steroid era. It suggests that using “the cream” and “the clear” wasn’t the act of lone gunmen; it was a team effort involving Major League Baseball, the owners, and the sportswriters, none of whom, incidentally, will be punished after the fact.

“My feeling is that you talk to people in San Francisco,” said Ron Rapoport, a Bonds and Clemens supporter who wrote a column for the Chicago Sun-Times, “and they’ll point to that beautiful ballpark that wouldn’t be there without Barry Bonds. The team might not be there, either.”

“Mark McGwire, too,” Rapoport said. “It’s easy to forget just how on fire the country was when McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa were performing their heroics. St. Louis needed a new ballpark. There was no way the politicians weren’t going to step up and do what needed to be done.

“To turn your back on all of that, and all the excitement that these guys created, is to me profoundly wrong and short-sighted.”

Put differently: The BBWAA argued we won’t make amends for the steroid era until the offenders are kept out of the Hall of Fame. The minority caucus argues we won’t make amends until they’re put in.

The caucus’s unifying position is simple. It’s to reject the idea that Hall voters are the moral guardians of baseball. That voters should be divining the best people rather than the best players. Fox’s Ken Rosenthal, who refused to vote for Bonds or Clemens, wrote, “We’re talking, after all, about the game’s soul.”

We’re not talking about baseball’s soul. We’re talking, in Bill James’s immortal phrase, about a museum run by an accountant.

“I don’t think you create a rule change,” said Stark. “It’s more of a philosophy change. This places needs to be a museum, not a shrine.”

“They’re not good people,” Bondy said of the ‘roiders. “So what? Get over it.”

“We have to be adults about this,” said Rapoport.

These are the people who can save us.

It was fitting that the Hall of Fame’s non-induction had a rain delay. Biblical clouds settled over Clark Sports Center at 1:30. The planners pushed the ceremony back an hour. They treated the stoppage like a rain delay at Citizens Bank Park. Tom Brokaw came on the big screen and began narrating a documentary about Robin Roberts (HOF, ’76).

I found Duffy Grace from Ivoryton, Connecticut, huddled under a merchandise tent. He announced his fandom with both his goatee and his Red Sox poncho. “I’ve been coming every year since Yaz in ’89,” Grace said. “I wasn’t even old enough to drink. Now, I got beer in my pockets.” He reached into his pocket and produced a can of Bud Light.

“Yaz came back twice,” Grace said, “when Rice and Fisk were inducted. He’d wait for them to make their speeches, and then he’s gone. I got pictures of Rice after his speech. He’s waving, and you can see Yaz’s back. He’s leaving!”

Grace was here for the Ripken year in 2007, when the 80,000 fans spilled over an adjoining street and stretched all the way to a distant hill. He had seen Ozzie Smith in an Afro wig and Musial with a harmonica. “One reason I wanted to come this year is so I can finally stand up and cheer Bud Selig,” he said. “It’s about time someone said, ‘Good job, man!’” In anticipation of the Biogenesis suspensions, Selig was booed a lot less than usual.

At 2:20, the downpour slowed to a drizzle. Fingers of sunlight groped through the clouds. If you believed in the magic of Cooperstown, it could have been heavenly. “Centerfield” came on the loudspeaker, and an interpreter for the deaf went about trying to describe the song’s subtleties. Then the 19th-century umpire Hank O’Day was introduced by his grandnephew, a man who’d been born seven years after O’Day died.

The ceremony was crisp: one hour and 40 minutes. The announced crowd at Clark Sports Center was 2,500. (If you gave the equation to a sabermetrician and had him account for park effects, I bet the total was closer to 1,000. Maybe 500.) “It definitely had the old-timey feel of the ceremonies they had back in the 1950s,” said John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian. “A smaller gathering. Fewer speeches. And it was perfectly fine.”

In that sparse gathering, Thorn thought, the essence of the Hall of Fame came to the fore. “People get so hung up on numbers,” he said. “Five hundred home runs. Three thousand hits. The criteria seem so perfectly obvious to me: Were you famous? If you were famous in your day, this is where your fame endures.”

Clouds parted for the second time that afternoon. In accordance with Thorn’s coda, I bought one souvenir from Hall of Fame weekend. It is a baseball I had signed special. It reads: “Pete Rose: Cooperstown 2013.” You might say it’s an autograph that describes an experience.

Filed Under: Baseball

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast