Requiem for the Game
Once upon a time in baseball there were doubleheaders. These were true doubleheaders, not split ones in which the owners filled their stadium, emptied it and filled it again. My brothers and I would pack sandwiches and hop buses and trains to either Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium. The teams didn't matter, but getting two games for the price of one with your paper route money did. In time baseball grew too popular to offer such a simple delight. The owners had too much money at stake and the players understood too well the value of their services to give away the product.
In the graveyard of charming traditions baseball has outgrown, along with doubleheaders, daytime World Series games and pregame infield practice, the annual Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown, NY, was interred last week. The Game was 68 years old. It died of the same natural causes that killed the doubleheader: The owners and players are making so much money that charm has been devalued to meaningless. With some appropriateness, the last scheduled Hall of Fame Game, between the Cubs and Padres last week, was rained out.
The rainout meant that I played in and have the lineup card from the last Hall of Fame Game played, last year between the Blue Jays and Orioles. I felt privileged to be a part of it, and even more so now that the tradition is gone. I drove four hours to Cooperstown, dressed into a Blue Jays uniform in a grounds crew equipment closet at Doubleday Field, played in the game, changed again in the closet, and drove another four hours home. Only by being there did I truly understand what the game meant not only to Cooperstown but also to the denomination of baseball and its most devout believers. Baseball needs Cooperstown, the self-styled "Birthplace of Baseball," the way our democracy needs D.C., even if it means a dash of mythology comes with it.
The Jays and Orioles arrived at Doubleday Field on open-air, trolley-style buses that paraded them through the leafy village of Cooperstown. Fans, many of them dressed in shirts and hats of various major league teams, some of which are gone to posterity, too, set up folding lawn chairs on curbs or reached out to touch the hand of a big leaguer. Doubleday Field is just baseball. No rotating ads behind the plate. No big-screen advertisements. No clubhouses with plasma TVs, leather couches, cherrywood lockers, carving stations, hair stylists and catered food. No clubhouses, period. It was Major League Baseball without all the rattle and banging, an acoustic version, which is how it used to be and, even once a year, worth recalling.
The Hall of Fame Game, though, was not important just as a keepsake of how things were. It also was important because it funded local businesses and school trips and youth sports teams in Cooperstown. It was important because Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and Cal Ripken had come to Doubleday Field, and once Yankee Stadium is gone, we'll be left with only Fenway and Wrigley for that kind of hallowed ground. The Hall of Fame Game was important, too, because it connected the ballplayers themselves with the game's history. The typical comments from those who played in the game (I heard them myself) go something like this:
Joe Bigleaguer before the Hall of Fame Game: "I can't believe we have to give up an off day to fly into Albany and take a 90-minute bus ride to the middle of nowhere. I mean, I could be playing Pine Valley, or pocketing 25K at a card show, or having the jet take me to A.C., or sleeping off a hangover."
Joe Bigleaguer after the Hall of Fame Game: "Wow. I'm glad I had the chance to come here."