One does not simply walk into Cooperstown. In fact, one does not simply drive into Cooperstown, either. The Hallowed Halls of baseball’s greatest legends exists in a tiny village of less than 2,000 residents, tucked away in the pastoral lands of upstate New York. This is not a vacation to Disney world where you can get off plane and be within a stone’s throw of the action. No, to get to Cooperstown you have to fly into Syracuse or Albany, and then prepare yourself for a drive.
Is it worth the hassle? Unequivocally, yes. My own trek, which of course was in support of the trio being inducted from the Atlanta Braves, started with a flight into Syracuse since my original flight was delayed going into Albany. My traveling partner changed the flights because we absolutely had to get into Syracuse on Saturday before noon. Why? Because if we wanted to see the museum that day, it was still almost two hours and a sizable waiting line to get into the actual Hall of Fame, and we had to get there before it closed at 5:00 pm for the Legends Parade.
First travel tip if you decide to actually do this: Be aware that New York absolute loves toll roads. If you think you’re just getting on I-90 to go somewhere? WRONG. That’s a toll-road. Yes, somehow they’ve actually managed to turn a federal highway into a toll road. I’m not sure who got bribed to make this deal happen, but whoever it was is also probably behind the crazy road stops on the way as well. If you want food, you have to stop at these large rest stop buildings where the fast food joints bid on food court space to get inside. Again, I spoke to actual New Yorkers about these things and it seems restaurants can’t set up their own shops, they have to contract for these rest stop spaces. So, bottom line, expect to pay for tolls and don’t expect to get a good lunch on the way down to the Hall when you arrive.
As we turned off the Thruway and started down the country roads leading to Cooperstown, I was struck by how similar the land is to West Virginia or parts of North Georgia. Except for some differences of the trees, the farmland is like anywhere else you might have seen, and the poverty sticks out just as openly. The fact that Yankees look down their noses at “southern rednecks” is something of a joke when you can go to upstate New York and see a similar if not worse brand of redneck nearby. In fact, one thing that stuck out to me the most was the peeling paint on every house. When I asked some locals about it, they said the reason was that some people think letting the paint peel off will lower their assessment and their taxes. So within the first three hours of my visit, I was already hit in the face by how New York state tries to tax the heck out of everyone in tolls and property.
Second travel tip: if you’re planning to make this adventurem to say parking in Cooperstown is scary is like saying B.J. Upton has a slight hitch in his swing. It’s probably going to be the biggest hurdle of any trip, and it was for us as well. If you’re not willing to park on someone’s lawn for $50, and I have an almost George Costanza aversion to paying for parking, then your best best is to find one of the Cooperstown satellite lots that have a trolley to pick you up. The parking is free and the trolley is $2. I never found out how the trolley worked though, since the parking lots are less than a mile from the actual event. Instead, we just parked, got out, and walked. What made it easy for us was getting there early.
When we arrived at the Hall, there was a small line of people that moved relatively fast through the museum. The building is a nondescript brick enclosure that could be easily missed if not for the large NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM gilded letters above the door. When you walk in, you’re ushered through a ticket payment area, and then out to a flight of stairs. The building is three stories tall, so we opted to start at the top and move our way down.
As we walked from item to item, we saw relics from baseball’s past that you could never see elsewhere. Uniforms worn by the greats like the Babe, Mickey, Joe, Ty, Lou, and the other famous names of a by-gone baseball era. Next to those I could see trophies from various organizations that stood three feet high, detailing the exploits of players from the twenties and thirties. After that came the earliest relics from baseball’s beginning, ancient gloves, balls, bats, and catcher’s masks that looked more appropriate on a mental patient than a ballplayer.
Continuing around the interior we saw displays set up for the major records in baseball, collections of memorabilia from Nolan Ryan, Cy Young, Pete Rose, and yes, even Barry Bonds. You can even see on a tiny postage stamped size plaque in the corner that even the Hall of Fame recognizes some of these records were down with the help of PEDs. There’s a section for the female players of the World War 2 era, and another section for the Latin players of MLB fame. But for me it all lead up to the final room we entered, and the one that just happens to be on the first floor where we came in.
That room is the Hall of Fame plaque gallery. It’s almost blasphemous how much the room resembles a chapel in it’s stone styling, tall pillars, and soft lighting from an overhead dome. Here players living and dead are enshrined on individual plaques that circle the outskirts of the room, lined up by each year they were inducted. You can find every hall of famer in the room with a picture, his nickname, his teams, and his story, which brings me to my third travel tip about this place. If you want to see it all, don’t just come on an induction weekend. There simply isn’t enough time for a hardcore baseball fan. Sure, you can walk the lengths of a room and see the sights, but to actually read and soak in the mind-boggling amount of text and story of the place? That would take several hours away from the prying eyes and clicking cameras of thousands of fans.
We entertained the idea of watching the legends parade, but opted against it in the end. After all, I’ve seen big parades from New Orleans to New York, and I don’t plan on going to another one unless it’s for an Atlanta World Series Championship. Instead, we headed down to Albany where our hotel was, and settled in for the evening. But before we went to sleep, we had to plan for our adventure to the Cooperstown field the following day, and that required seating equipment.
I guessed that Wal-Mart would be the best place to find a cheap throw-away chair that we could use for the hours waiting at the ceremony site. You see, when you go to the Hall of Fame induction, it’s actually in a huge field near the town. Part of the place near the stage is roped off for VIPs, but the rest of you have to jostle each other for space on an open lawn. People were already putting down chairs on Friday to mark their spots. Having no such ability on our end, we opted to buy small chairs and bring them with us in the morning.
But it’s not that simple. You see, everyone else had that exact same idea at Wal-Mart, and by the time we arrived they were completely out of chairs. This set off a torrid bout of what I can only “redneck innovation” between my traveling buddy and I. We decided to puchase a pair of $2 paint buckets, some $2 fleece throws, and a $2 pillow with some duct tape. Effectively, we were going to make our own chairs out of spare parts in true Georgia fashion. After purchasing our provisions and walking out the door, my buddy reminds me that we were also near a Sports Authority. When we checked there, they of course had numerous $8 chairs ready for purchase, so we bought those and then were forced to immediately return our buckets to Wal-Mart under the skeptical gaze of a nonplussed clerk.
We awoke in the morning at 6:30 am, determined to get there early and beat the rush to parking. In a village of less than 2,000 and limited parking, we weren’t going to take chances, and I’m glad we didn’t. We were able to get there by 9:00 am after stopping for some quick breakfast, and parked in the Blue Trolley lot. That was only a eight-block walk with our chairs and provisions to the ceremony field. We set up early under extremely suspect skies, rain falling periodically, and both of us wondering if we had made the trip only to be thwarted by Mother Nature at the final leg.
That brings me to my last tip: If you go to the induction ceremony, get there early, and be prepared for weather with umbrellas and sunscreen. Do not be one of those people that tries to show up late and then wonders why there isn’t enough room. Don’t be one of those people that has to sit way back on the hill where you can barely see, just because you wanted to wake up at 9AM. Don’t be the guy getting roasted in the sun because it was cloudy at 10AM but blazing sunshine at 1PM. If you’re going, that means getting up when the sun is up and getting on the road with your equipment, even if it looks like it’s going to pour rain all over you.
Luckily, the weather held off and after almost four hours of waiting we were blessed with a three-hour ceremony that I won’t soon forget. Greg Maddux led things off as only Mad Dog can, with his unpolished style and completely irreverent sense of humor. The man actually made a joke about lighting his own farts in his Hall of Fame speech. I was floored, and laughing at the same time. Bobby Cox followed him next, and in pure Bobby fashion, he gave much of the credit to those players and coaches around him. Never much for the limelight, Bobby made a point to talk about those people who made him look good, and how he couldn’t express what it meant to go into the Hall with two of his guys.
Tom Glavine went after Bobby, and while being more polished, he still made a point to talk about his blessings and the people that blessed him, especially his parents. Also like the Tom Glavine I frequently listen to in broadcasts, he took up more time speaking than any of the other Braves. After him was Tony La Russa, who honestly looked confused to be up there. The man isn’t much of a public speaker, but his points about team and toughness really came through in his speech.
Then, Frank Thomas stole the show in my mind. Frank is a huge man, but even he could barely keep it together as he cried talking to his now dead father. He talked about his time at Auburn and what it meant to him. He thanked everyone and I mean everyone in his speech. He listed coaches and teammates in a liturgy that seemed to have no end. But it was what he said at the end that stuck out to me the most. “To all you kids out there, just remember one thing from today. There are no shortcuts to success. Hard work, dedication, commitment, stay true to who you are.” That got a standing ovation from everyone.
Finally, Joe Torre made his speech to break Braves’ fans hearts everywhere, detailing his World Series victories which happened to include one of Atlanta’s great failures in 1996. I’ll be honest, I gave Joe about 30 minutes for him to ramble on about his stuff, and then I headed to the car. After three hours in the sun, we were done, and listening to Yankee fans cheer their guy in the park was proving to be enough for me.
In the perfect, Murphy’s law version of our trip, by the time we got back to the hotel room at the Marriott, we found out our room had a water leak and flooded the carpets. The Marriott did the right thing for us and moved us to another room, comping our entire stay, so I at least wanted to note that they came through for us after what could have been a total disaster. After all, we’d had plane delays, parking issues, timing issues, toll issues, and chair issues. The chair issue was that my buddy’s $8 blew a rivet about 2 hours into the ceremony. Having a room issue may have sent us to the local mental hospital.
Still, we both made it home Monday morning on the first flight out, but with plenty of memories for a lifetime. I can honestly say as a baseball fan that it was the most enlightening and memorable sports trip I’ve taken in a long time. For those of you who haven’t made the trip, I recommend you put on your bucket list. After all, Braves fans are likely to get a couple more chances in the coming years with John Smoltz and Chipper Jones. So, if you can afford to take the time and make the effort, do it soon, do it right, and absolutely do it when Braves Country will be there with you.