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Baseball dreams and memories

By Sonja Kosler

On a baseball fan's dream list you might find: visit all the major league ball parks, go to a world series game, and visit Cooperstown. Cooperstown, NY is the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. On the last weekend of each July this quiet little village of 2,000 plays host to tens of thousands of fans who make the journey to baseball Mecca to be a part of the ceremonies honoring the newest inductees into the Hall of Fame.

This year my husband David, 16-year old grandson Lloyd, and I made the journey. It all began when we heard that Tony Gwynn who played for the San Diego Padres and Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles would be inducted this year. Not only are they two of the most admired gentlemen of baseball, Gwynn was a former neighbor when we lived in San Diego. We knew this was the year to move Cooperstown up on the dream list.

Lloyd lives north of Seattle but was born in San Diego and has inherited his parents' passion for the Padres. He hadn't even yet dreamed this vacation! None of us dreamed he'd have a day of cancelled flights to shorten his Cooperstown visit. We picked him up at the Syracuse airport nearly 30 hours after the planned arrival. There were many logistical problems to be dealt with on this journey, but none diminished the baseball experience.

The Hall of Fame and Museum is three floors of exhibits, memorabilia, films, awards, and a research center. It could take an entire week to fully appreciate the history contained there; we tried it in one day. Imagine turning a corner and seeing a collection of all the World Series rings (actually in the early days, the players were recognized with small pins) or actual silver bats and golden gloves for hitting and fielding accomplishments. This exhibit really left an impression with me. And Honus Wagner's bats! I don't know how he managed to even pick them up; they look like tree trunks. Lloyd says he thought the entire place was "terrific" but was truly moved by the bronze plaques in the Hall of Fame Gallery. Even with thousands of people crowding the hall, it was a quiet space filled with the spirit of the game.

Inside the Hall of Fame building, on the streets of Cooperstown, and on the trolleys everyone seemed to be "talking baseball": sharing statistical information, planning trades to improve favorite teams, and giving respect to Ripken and Gwynn. All through the crowds voices joined in a chorus of: "I was at that game. I was there the year . . . I heard it on the radio when . . . I remember. People also kept repeating "This is crazy." "Insane". Yet, it was said with smiles. We all knew we were part of something historic, memorable.

All of the Main Street shops were selling baseball memorabilia. Many of the "old-time" greats were selling autographs. Yes, selling. Prices ranged from $25 to over $300. At one point over 300 people were in line for a Willie Mays signature. One man told me he'd waited over an hour in line to pay the required fee and get a ticket and expected to wait another two hours for the actual autograph. Gone are the days of little kids hanging out before and after games to get their gloves and balls signed. Well, not totally gone; there were some players who gave autographs over the fence during a golf game at their hotel.

We were told to set up our chairs early at the Hall of Fame Induction site on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center. Since the ceremony was scheduled to start at 1:30, I thought early morning would do just fine. Luckily we were tipped off that the site was already filling up on Saturday afternoon. So it was that near midnight the three of us joined other fans stumbling in the dark over blankets, chairs, stakes, and ropes to find a small space to claim. Not only did we find a decent place to leave our chairs, but we were able to find them the next day in the middle of 75,000 others! Even though we didn't have an up close and personal view of the stage, we shared baseball memories and history with those 75,000 people.

One by one 53 Hall of Famers were introduced. The big screen switched from individual career highlights to live shots as each were seated. All 75,000 fans cheered each of these baseball legends. Many of the boys of summer are now aging men and yet still carry the memories of my youth.

In true baseball tradition, several of the fans booed as Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. Also in major league tradition, both the Canadian and National anthems were sung. Gwynn's daughter Anisha belted out the tunes in fine style. He later said they were both nervous and spent a lot of time that morning trying to calm each other down.

Selig spoke of Gwynn's legendary bat control - striking out only once every 21 at bats, his stolen bases, and golden glove awards. His plaque describes him as "an artisan with a bat". In his acceptance speech Gwynn credited his little league coaches for instilling baseball fundamentals and his basketball coaches for teaching team play. He recalls one coach telling him it was his job to make sure his teammates were better players. Gwynn played both baseball and basketball at San Diego State where he is now the baseball coach. On the morning of June 8, 1981 he was drafted to play baseball by the San Diego Padres and in the afternoon was drafted by the Clippers to play basketball.

Gwynn also says he asked for advice from older players. He says it helps to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut. "If you want something, you can't be afraid to ask." From Steve Garvey he learned to "go about your business the right way." From Ozzie Smith he learned to laugh at yourself - and others. In 1992 Gwynn says he had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Ted Williams who made him think about the art of hitting a baseball. "You gotta put the work in," says Gwynn. "I had to, I wasn't talented enough to get by on ability."

Selig recognized Ripken for playing in the most consecutive games and innings and for turning short stop into an offensive position. Ripken's plaque states that he "arrived at the ballpark everyday to perform at the highest level."

In referring to his 2,632 consecutive game streak, Ripken says "It's just showing up for work every day; I look out and see thousands who do the same thing - showing up, working hard and making the world a better place."

Ripken also credits teachers, coaches, and managers (especially his father) for his success. He says his father taught him about life through baseball.

Speaking strongly about the need for professional athletes to be good role models, Ripken said, "Kids see it all; it's not some of your actions that influence, but all of them. Sport can play a big role in teaching values and principles."

Both Gwynn and Ripken honored their families and fans for standing beside them and supporting their careers. In their speeches, each applauded the others accomplishments.

For Ripken the day was about baseball. "This day and all that it represents shouldn't be about us or even about all these great Hall of Famers up here. Today is about celebrating the best baseball has been and the best it can be."

Also being honored were Denny Matthews, Kansas City Royals broadcaster, receiving the Ford C Frisk Award and Rick Hummel, sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, receiving the J. G. Taylor Spink Award. Matthews noted that all four of the honorees had spent their entire careers with one organization.

There was no doubt about the sincerity of these four men in their love for baseball, there roles in the game, their appreciation for their fans, and their love for their families. Each one of them had months to write and prepare their acceptance speeches, and yet each one was overcome with emotion. It was rewarding to be among greatness and yet see true humility.

All of the speeches are available on the Hall of Fame and Museum website:

The weekend in Cooperstown is over; another line is crossed off of the dream list. As grandson Lloyd boarded his plane, I had a vision of him in the future. Baseball fans will be talking about back in 2007 when 75,000 people showed up in Cooperstown to see Gwynn and Ripken inducted into the Hall of Fame. Lloyd turns to his grandchildren and says, "I was there."