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Cooperstown calling

Redemption proves elusive in Hall of Fame game

Posted: Tuesday May 22, 2007 1:19PM; Updated: Tuesday May 22, 2007 5:47PM
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Tom Verducci suited up for the Blue Jays in spring training in 2005 (above) and reprised his role on Monday in the Hall of Fame Game at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.
Tom Verducci suited up for the Blue Jays in spring training in 2005 (above) and reprised his role on Monday in the Hall of Fame Game at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.
Al Tielemans/SI
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COOPERSTOWN, NY -- I will tell the story for years to come about how I played the outfield like Willie Mays in the 61st annual Baseball Hall of Fame exhibition game at historic Doubleday Field. I will conveniently forget to mention I did so like the Willie Mays of the 1973 World Series, turning a routine fly ball into a Sir Edmund Hillary-sized adventure.

Baseball, however, is a redemptive game, offering about 250 pitches worth of second chances every nine innings. I saw mine coming clear as day (which is more than I could say of the ball that caused my need to be redeemed.) It was carried on a seventh-inning fly ball headed toward the right-field gap and very possibly to the outfield seats. As a reprise to my 2005 story about playing one week with the Toronto Blue Jays in spring training, I played right field for the Jays against the Baltimore Orioles for five innings in the Monday exhibition. This fly ball would be my moment of glory, the very stuff Abner Doubleday himself might have had in mind when, at least as baseball mythology goes, he helped invent the game and its dreams right on these very grounds.

I ran toward the gap. The flight of the ball took me nearer and nearer to the wall. It wasn't until I felt my spikes first hit the cinder warning track that I knew with some certainty that I was going to catch it. I reached up and across my body for a backhand catch, calculating that the ball would hit my glove and the wall would hit me at just about the same time. The ball was not more than three feet from my glove, and then, suddenly .. nothing. Darkness. Black. The sky gone.

Worse: I got smacked in the nose and mouth by something, followed immediately by my back slamming against the wall. I knew even as I fell to the warning track what had happened. That darkness that blotted out the sky? A leather eclipse. Someone in the stands had reached over the wall and down toward the field to make the catch that should have been mine.

"Man, you had that!" center fielder Wayne Lydon told me, the disappointment clear on his face. "You had it."

I looked up. A kid, about 10 years old as far as I could figure, had the baseball. He was wearing a dark glove. I could have picked it out of a police lineup of leather goods. I recognized it as the one that had blotted out the sky, whacked me in the face and stolen my glorious redemption.

I looked toward the infield. An umpire was signaling home run. Ridiculous. The ball wasn't going out! (The first base umpire, Adrian Johnson, later smiled at me, shrugged and, cutting off my need to say anything, said, "I know. I know.")

But I did not argue. I smiled. This is Cooperstown, where the phrase "happy to be here" was invented, at least for even the most casual communicants of the worldwide church of baseball, and especially for a sportswriter getting five innings of playing time of as close to major league ball as you can get without a contract.

The Hall of Fame Game is the only major league exhibition game held during the "Championship Season." Players arrive at the game not in tricked out SUVs with blacked-out windows, but in open-air trolley cars after a parade down Main Street. Me? I parked in a nice elderly couple's backyard for $20, which included walking directions to the field. ("Make a left at the light. The light. It's the only light in town.'')

Cooperstown, especially for the one day it hosts major league teams, actually manages to be our idealized version of baseball made manifest. It is a neighborhood game, a pure game in a bucolic setting in which it is as if steroids, Astroturf, $252 million contracts, payroll disparity, luxury suites and nighttime World Series games in November never existed. A church steeple rises elegantly above the third-base stands of Doubleday Field. Home run balls fly over century-old oaks and maples and careen down narrow streets that used to carry horse-drawn milk trucks. Thousands of people mill in and around the ballpark, with not the slightest bit of trash -- either dropped or spoken. They come dressed in tribal colors. Almost all teams, not just the Jays and O's, are represented through their delegates in this baseball League of Nations.

Someone in our dugout, sometime late in the game, actually remarked, "I have not heard anybody say anything bad the whole game."

"Except," a teammate replied, "what we say to each other."

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