A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the lead up to a trip to Cooperstown for the National Baseball Hall of Fame Weekend induction of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza. Being huge Mariners fans since moving to Seattle in the early 90s, the trip was seen as a foregone conclusion for my dad and me ever since Griffey unceremoniously retired 5 years ago. Managing expectations was something I thought about a lot in the final days and weeks before going, but I knew I would come out of the weekend with changed perspectives and a greater sense of baseball history, if nothing else.
I fully expected the National Baseball Hall of Fame to be filled with moments of history that elicit great emotion, either from personal memory or from the importance to the game of baseball as a whole. And I also knew that I was lucky to be taking the trip and spending the time with my dad, with whom I’ve shared so many hours watching and talking baseball. You can catch up with the rest of my thoughts and expectations in Part I. Now, a few weeks after my trip and with time to let my experiences soak in, here is my recounting of what amounts to Baseball Heaven.
From the hectic last minute packing to the walk through the airport for our red-eye flight, the excitement grew with every step we took closer to Cooperstown. Dozens of Mariners fans waited at the gate with us, proudly displaying the M’s gear, Griffey-specific shirts, jackets, and hats. Just waiting in line to board, people chipperly chatted with new friends; one guy was so enveloped in his conversation about baseball that he failed to notice his companion was starting to board and he was slowing up the entire process. The mood was so jovial that no one even complained! Of course, some folks talked about the current state of the Mariners in this up-and-down tease of a season; one kid behind me lamented Cishek’s most recent blown save – he’s since been relieved of his duties – but the majority was pure positive baseball giddiness for Griffey.
One of our foundations here on this site is honoring how sports can bring people together. The trip to Cooperstown put a spotlight on this for me, as we reconnected with family friends and talked with many other fans who were there to see either Griffey or Piazza get inducted as well.
My dad and I traveled nearly 3000 miles to reach Cooperstown from the Pacific Northwest but met up with longtime family friends from back home once we arrived. Our families essentially grew up together, played on and coached baseball teams together, and rooted for the Mariners together for some 20 years; even though we greatly missed the family members and friends who couldn’t make it, it felt right to share the weekend with them. The town was small enough that we were virtually guaranteed to run into each other, but we were able to plan and save spots for each other for most of the events of the weekend, which made the event feel a little closer to home.
The weekend sort of felt like a big backyard BBQ where if you didn’t already know someone, you might as well introduce yourself and start a conversation.
Then there were the hundreds of high fives and head-nods passed between Seattleites and Griffey fans from all parts of the country. People were so ready to tell their favorite baseball stories, share a table at the local brewery, and listen and learn about everyone’s experiences that had brought them to Cooperstown. The weekend sort of felt like a big backyard BBQ where if you didn’t already know someone, you might as well introduce yourself and start a conversation.
Cooperstown’s small-town essence is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that it is completely common practice to leave your lawn chairs overnight to save a spot for the actual induction ceremony on the huge outdoor field. Cooperstown boasts a population of a couple thousand people, and as it turns out, most people acted like they were new neighbors for the weekend. On the walk to the induction, we couldn’t turn down homemade cookies decorated like baseballs and lemonade for 50 cents.
The History & The Hall
Cooperstown is baseball; Cooperstown is history. In many ways, Cooperstown is America, particularly if you subscribe to baseball being our national pastime. Nearly every store on Main Street was baseball themed, nearly every restaurant named after a legend of the game; Hall of Famers sat at foldout picnic tables and signed baseball cards, and vendors peddled fresh grilled hot dogs on the street — all this in front of a backdrop of rolling hillsides and green farms, a long narrow lake, and an historic Main Street with one stoplight, an American Flag adorning the roundabout in the middle of town, and signs pointing towards the small but historic Doubleday Field around the corner.
One special thing about baseball, and why Cooperstown felt so right for honoring the game, is that it’s a game built around appreciating the finer things and the minute details. There are the dog days of summer that allow announcers to wax poetic when teams are nearing their sell-off points, and there are the long-inning slogs of a losing effort and a slow pitcher on a 90+ degree day. I do wonder if modern baseball fans are more apt to gloss over these aspects of the game, but I’d be willing to bet that Cooperstown continues to transcend and bridge any gap that might exist. To stop and appreciate the details and emotion on each plaque would take days, but it would be time well spent.
I can’t help but think about how the Hall of Fame Weekend organizers at the Baseball Hall of Fame did such an incredible job connecting the history we were all there to admire and honor, with the history that was being made fresh in those moments. Watching the Hall of Famers parade through town, surrounded by family and thousands of people cheering them on, I saw true joy — unbridled joy that comes from expectations being met and knowledge that your history is being honored.
Each player to parade down Main Street was met with familiar cheers and fans recounting memories of their playing days. Ken Griffey Jr. was met with his trademark walk-up song and cheer from back in Seattle, Hip Hop Hooray.
The same level of care spent on the induction weekend of course went into everything we saw in the Hall of Fame Museum as well. The memories and individual moments number far too many to recount, but so many of my expectations were met and exceeded that they far overshadowed the few moments of disappointment at a record being underrepresented or my favorite video game being left out of the ‘media’ section of the museum.
My dad and I got to relive many memories of the beloved Mariners’ announcer Dave Niehaus over the weekend as his radio calls of Griffey moments literally echoed over the hills of Cooperstown before the induction. We had the opportunity to relish in amazing seasons of the past and see some of our favorite players dominate the records area of the Hall of Fame. We certainly took time to appreciate the details when we could, like how they honor servicemen in the Hall of Fame with an additional bronzed medallion under their plaques.
The Hall combined a good mix of history lessons about the game and its lore and history about the fan experience as well. It was a delight to see displays devoted to legendary fans in the early days of the game and even the inclusion of some fan signs and memorabilia from more recent times as well.
The Event & The Memories
Despite the oppressive heat of the day, every Mariners fan hung on every word out of Ken Griffey Jr.’s mouth during his induction speech, and he didn’t disappoint. Sometimes cryptic, sometimes relieved, sometimes hilarious, Griffey delivered raw emotion. He was much more relaxed the next day at the roundtable discussion on Doubleday Field and even joked about getting into tickling fights with Ichiro in the Mariners’ clubhouse. Both opportunities to hear him speak directly were worth cherishing for their own reasons.
I can now say that my childhood hero, Ken Griffey Jr., is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and enshrined forever in Cooperstown. Of course, some other players might be close to achieving hero status to me as well, and the magic of the 2001 Seattle Mariners record winning baseball team will never leave my memories – but as for a single player, Griffey has to be at the top. The special thing about Jr. is that his status transcended his positioning in the upper-left corner of the country, and kids from throughout the country bore his number or wagged their bat just like ‘The Kid.’ I was a right-handed batter growing up, and even I would switch to the other side of the plate to try to emulate his legendary swing on the playground.
Edgar Martinez is perhaps the only other player that I would treasure more to see make his induction speech for the Hall of Fame. That’s somewhat true because he was always and only a Seattle Mariner, but more so because it would be a true fight for him to get in, whereas Ken Griffey Jr. often seemed like a shoe-in from the very beginning. Since the induction, the Mariners have honored Griffey at Safeco Field in Seattle with an on-field number retirement ceremony for number 24.
Griffey weekend in Seattle was a truly awesome celebration, and it was capped off by seeing Edgar Martinez don his cap backwards to honor Jr., who lobbied for his entry into the Hall of Fame in his own induction speech. The rest of the team followed suit and have gone on an absolute tear since then, reinserting themselves into playoff contention and adopting Griffey’s advice in his speech to ‘Keep Fighting.’
As I think back on the trip now, it sinks in just a little more each day that Griffey is in the Hall of Fame; along with my 30th birthday earlier this month, it will serve as a mileage marker in my life for some time to come. Someday, I can reminisce that I sat on the streets of Cooperstown and heard my dad get so excited to see the likes of Whitey Ford, Rollie Fingers, and so many others parade down Main Street. He got such a kick out of tipping his cap to his childhood heroes and having them acknowledge him back with smiles or waves.
Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame is about honoring and remembering history, but in our case it was just as much about creating our own.
Tearing up as I write this, I am just now coming to appreciate that seeing Junior get inducted into the Hall of Fame isn’t just for me today, but also for my kids someday decades from now, and perhaps even for their kids 60 some years down the line. Perhaps sitting along those same streets, they can recount the stories and say that they know their Grandpa was there with his dad to watch Ken Griffey Jr. enter the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame are about honoring and remembering history, but in our case it was just as much about creating our own.
While the Hall obviously honors the most recent World Series champions and mentions winners elsewhere, the vast majority of the museum was dedicated to the history, stats, and stories from the game in general. Griffey entered the Hall of Fame with the highest percentage of the vote in history at 99.3% – without having ever gone to a World Series. His stats will now live on in Cooperstown, but the trip and the museum made me appreciate the untold numbers of Seattle Mariners fans’ stories that live on only in our memories. We are fans that have been deprived of a championship team but can still say we had front row seats to some of the best players in history during historic runs. Many stories and artifacts will live on in Cooperstown, but the memories will always live on with us.