COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- You probably know that baseball was not actually invented in Cooperstown. But it should have been. I have that thought every time I come here, but it's especially true when they play baseball here.Saturday, some retired players played a little seven-inning game called the Hall of Fame
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- You probably know that baseball was not actually invented in Cooperstown. But it should have been. I have that thought every time I come here, but it's especially true when they play baseball here.
Saturday, some retired players played a little seven-inning game called the Hall of Fame Classic at gorgeous little Doubleday Field. And, as one of those players, John Buck, said, "It's kind of magical, right?"
Right. There is supposed to be something bittersweet about old-timers' games like the Classic. On the one hand, it's wonderful to see former stars playing ball, wonderful to see Phil Niekro throw the knuckler again, wonderful to see Wally Joyner in uniform, wonderful to see Pedro Feliz flashing the leather at third base again, wonderful to see Jonathan Gomes' big swing again.
On the other, everything moves slowly. Double plays take so long you could throw a commercial break in between them. Throws across the infield are adventures. Outfielders are in no shape and no mood to go chasing after long fly balls. These sorts of games make us happy, sure, but maybe they put a pang in our hearts, too. When I asked Michael Cuddyer before the Classic Home Run Derby if he would like to hit one of the houses just beyond the wall, he smiled, and a terrific hitter with nearly 200 big league homers said, "At my age, I just want to reach the outfield grass."
But there were no twinges of sadness Saturday, because this is Cooperstown, and this is the one place where it really feels like you can go back, even for an instant. During the Derby, Wade Boggs decided to take a few swings against fellow Hall of Famer Niekro. And even though it has been almost 20 years since his last at-bat and more than a decade since he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 92 percent of the vote, Boggs rocketed balls all over the park.
"Amazing," said Aaron Rowand, who won the Home Run Derby. "The guy can still do anything he wants up there."
Rowand, too, looked like he could do just about anything he wants. Well, he loves this place; he brings his son up every year. A decade has gone by since Rowand had his best year for Philadelphia -- he hit .309 with 45 doubles, 27 homers and 105 runs scored and won a National League Gold Glove Award in 2007 -- but he looked young again Saturday. In the final of the Home Run Derby against Buck, he needed one homer to win. He mashed it on the first pitch, clearing the trees and hitting it on to Elm Street.
Then Rowand is named Most Valuable Player of the game, cracking two line-drive hits and driving in a couple of runs for Ozzie Smith's victorious Wizards. The results of these games usually don't mean much, of course, but there is something about this game. The Wizards faced the Knucksies, a team managed by Niekro, for the fifth straight year. And Smith's Wizards had never won.
"It makes Ozzie so mad," Niekro said happily before the game.
Rowand knew all about this. In fact, Rowand had played a role in this little rivalry before; he hit a game-tying home run in the last inning to take victory away from Ozzie in 2015.
"I owed Ozzie one," Rowand said after the game.
Yes, the game had charm and nostalgia. There was a bubble-gum-blowing contest between innings. Kids raced around the bases. A local opera singer named Joelle Lachance belted out the national anthem, rattling the trees a bit. Homer Simpson, just inducted into the Hall of Fame, walked to the mound to throw out the first pitch. Rollie Fingers handed out the "American Legion Player of the Year Award," on the same field where he had received it 55 years earlier.
The game had emotional moments, too. The six Hall of Famers -- Boggs, Niekro, Smith, Juan Marichal, Goose Gossage and Fingers -- gathered at home plate for a moment of silence for Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, who died Friday night. It seems the most fitting tribute.
But I think about two little moments of joy on the field, both happening in the final inning. First, former star closer Heath Bell faced Craig Monroe, and he decided to bear down, get serious. Monroe dug in. The two battled for a couple of pitches, and it felt like years melted away. Monroe then cracked a double off the center-field wall. Bell tipped his cap.
Later in the inning, Willie Bloomquist hit a ground ball and busted it down the line, beating the throw to first. At the time, his team was down four runs. I don't know that you can better describe Bloomquist's career than to say that -- he busted it down the line in the last inning of an exhibition game.
"You know, I still love baseball," Marichal said. "I love it. I love being around it. This is such a special place. It's the most special place. I don't have words to explain. When you're here, you feel different. You feel proud to play baseball."
Joe Posnanski is an executive columnist for MLB.com.