On a hot and humid Sunday morning in May, two young boys were on a mission. Accompanied by their families, the two friends, classmates and Little League teammates were set to walk from The Otesaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, N.Y., to the nearby National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. This excursion had little to do with the Hall of Fame, but everything to do with the many baseball card shops and memorabilia stores that line the quaint town's Main Street.
The Hall of Fame Classic Weekend, a tradition nearly a decade old, had already provided the boys with incredible memories over the previous two days, and now they finally had time to buy as many baseball cards as they could convince their parents to get them. That was the task at hand.
With one draped in a New York Yankees Derek Jeter T-shirt and the other wearing a New York Mets David Wright jersey, the boys dashed toward the front doors of the lavish hotel. But before they could get there, they noticed former Yankees infielder Luis Sojo waiting for his family in the lobby. The boys stopped on a dime and rushed toward their parents, who were serving as custodians of ballpoint pens and baseballs that were quickly filling up with autographs. Sojo signed each of the two baseballs.
A few seconds later, the group walked out of the hotel, intent on making progress in the quarter-mile trip to the shops. But again, they stopped dead in their tracks. This time, the sight of Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal -- standing in front of the hotel and waiting for a car -- caused the boys to stop quickly. Again, they grabbed the baseballs and pens, and approached the legendary San Francisco Giants pitcher. Marichal graciously signed the baseballs, and the boys handed them back to their parents.
"That's a special autograph," one of the fathers said. "He's a true legend. I think I may be more excited than you guys are."
From there, the group made its way off the hotel grounds, located on the shores of the picturesque Otsego Lake, a 4,046-acre natural body of water. They walked out to Lake Street and turned right onto Chestnut Street before passing a few bed-and-breakfasts and crossing Main Street.
Much to the kids' dismay, the group's first stop was not a baseball card store, but Schneider's Bakery. Their parents wanted coffee, but before they left the old-world bakery -- billowing with the smell of freshly made donuts and cookies -- the older members of the group had purchased a few bags of tasty treats.
Finally, the families arrived at the first baseball card shop on the route. The boys dove into racks of cards, perfectly organized by team. The young Yankees fan grabbed an Aaron Judge rookie card and a Didi Gregorius card, along with those of several other current Yankees, and handed them to his mother. Then he picked up a few Jeter cards, as well as one of former catcher Jorge Posada. The boy in the Mets shirt snagged just as many cards, all featuring players from his favorite team.
The boys were beaming as they walked out of the store holding small brown bags filled with their treasures. But this was only the first stop on the morning-long journey. There were plenty of other shops -- and thousands of other cards -- to peruse.
As the group arrived at its next stop, the young boys noticed former Minnesota Twins All-Star Michael Cuddyer several feet ahead. The recently retired ballplayer was standing outside one of the stores. The boys grabbed their baseballs and pens and jogged toward him. The pint-sized Mets fan was ecstatic, recalling how Cuddyer had played for his team at the end of his career. For this boy, meeting a player who he watched on TV and saw on the field in person -- even if it was only for a season -- was unforgettable. In his mind, Marichal had nothing on Cuddyer.
As the morning rolled along, the boys accumulated more cards and got a few more autographs. They weaved through town, bobbing in and out of stores while enjoying every second. This was the icing on the cake in a weekend filled with up-close and personal encounters with some of the greatest players in history, along with an even greater number of recent stars.
The festivities had begun Friday, May 26, at Doubleday Field, located two blocks from the Baseball Hall of Fame. That famous field, which is ringed by wooden bleachers and has brick dugouts that maintain the look of yesteryear, is steeped in history. Named after Abner Doubleday, the man who was once thought to have invented baseball, the small ballpark has also seen a laundry list of the game's most storied players walk onto its diamond, including Babe Ruth, who came to the plate on the day that the Hall of Fame opened in 1939.
Under a light rain, a group of former Major Leaguers dispersed from the first-base dugout to various stations on the field. Over the next few hours, small groups of children spent 15 minutes at each station, learning the nuances of the game from guys who played at the highest level. For the few hundred kids fortunate to have signed up for the Cooperstown Classic Clinic, this was a unique afternoon.
"The Hall of Fame prides itself on being ever-evolving," Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson said from the third-base dugout. "But there are some events that you want to have a step-back-in-time feel, and the Classic Weekend is one of them. We bring in 30 players, one from each club, and when we talk to the teams, what's most important to us is how they were with fans. One of the prerequisites is that the players are good with fans. The guys who come here love being part of the weekend, and the experience that the fans have is something that's a step back in time."
For the parents at the clinic, many of whom watched from the wooden bleachers, the backdrop of the ballpark added to the uniqueness of the moment.
"This looks more like a Norman Rockwell painting than a modern-day ballpark," one parent remarked to another as he scanned the picturesque landscape beyond the outfield wall, admiring the ancient oak trees and giant pines, and the neat row of two-story houses punctuated by a church's steeple and a red barn.
The young Yankees fan, whose baseball card bonanza was still yet to come, found himself shagging fly balls that were thrown into the air by former San Francisco Giants outfielder Cody Ross. After his 15 minutes with the 2010 postseason hero were up, the boy and his group moved to a station in shallow center field where 13-year major league veteran Jonathan Gomes hit fungoes to the kids while cracking one joke after another. At the end of that session, Gomes left the group with a valuable yet simple piece of advice.
"Remember to have fun and catch the ball," he said.
Near the end of the clinic, the Yankees fan landed at a station manned by Wally Joyner. The longtime Angels first baseman began his tutorial on fielding ground balls by asking the kids to put the bill of their caps in their mouths. One by one, they followed Joyner's odd direction.
"This will force you to keep your heads down when you field grounders," he explained. "Because the worst thing you can do is lift your head up."
With their hats firmly gripped between their teeth, the kids lined up and fielded ground balls, almost all of them doing so flawlessly.
When the clinic was over, the players assembled under a tent in front of the first-base dugout, sitting side by side at folding tables. Now all together in a group off to the side of the tent, the children were each given a copy of the book, America at Bat: Baseball Stuff and Stories.
With heavy rain in the forecast, the young Yankees fan walked up to the first player, handing him the book. The player signed the introduction page and slid it across the table to the next player, who autographed it next as well.
After getting each player to sign his book, the youngster met up with his parents, who were anxious to hear about the clinic from the child's perspective. The feedback was nothing but positive.
As the boy and his family left Doubleday Field, the topic of conversation turned to an earlier encounter with Hall of Famer Wade Boggs. The boy and his father had crossed paths with the former Yankees, Red Sox and Devil Rays third baseman in the hotel lobby earlier that afternoon.
"Can I get a Wade Boggs baseball card in case we see him again?" the boy asked.
With that, the family stopped into a baseball card store on Main Street, and the boy selected a card celebrating the legendary player's 3,000th hit.
With plenty of events on the docket for the next day, the family sat down at one of the many restaurants on Main Street for an early dinner before retreating to the hotel for the night.
The next day began early. Wearing a short-sleeve Yankees shirt, the boy's father was at Doubleday Field by 8 a.m. for a 10K running race that would start and end outside the famous ballpark. In addition to the competitive 6.2-mile run that weaved through Cooperstown, there was also a 5K fun run as part of the BASE Race, which supports outreach for BASE -- Be A Superior Example -- the Hall of Fame's educational initiative promoting healthy lifestyle choices.
"The routes of the BASE Race, both the 5K and 10K, were planned to tie back to baseball," Idelson said that morning. "They start at Doubleday Field, the mythical home of the game, and run past the Baseball Hall of Fame, going down Main Street, where the first three Hall of Fame classes got together and came in from the train station to be inducted. All of that was taken into consideration when planning the routes."
While the runners were preparing for the race on the Doubleday Field warning track, the boy and his mother were making their way to The Otesaga dining room for breakfast. As they walked down the hall to the dining room -- which overlooks the lake -- they ran into Boggs. The boy asked the Hall of Famer to sign the card, and Boggs obliged.
A short time after that, the 10K runners lined up in a designated area outside Doubleday Field for the start of the race. With the two families now together and standing under a tree off to the side, the gun went off. The runners, many of them donning their favorite team's apparel, dashed away from the ballpark, embarking on roads that took them through the town and the picturesque countryside.
"It's great to see the runners supporting their favorite teams," Idelson said. "It's a way within the race to have yet another competition. How many Yankees fans are going to run in this race? How many Mets fans will be out there? There's a little competitiveness to it, but it's a way that the runners can show the pride they feel for their favorite baseball teams."
About 46 minutes later, the boy's father crossed the finish line just outside Doubleday Field. Despite the sweat pouring off him, he hugged everyone in the group, as the post-race euphoria took over those precious seconds.
While the two families watched other runners finish the race, the boy's father anxiously awaited the awards ceremony. He had already secured a finisher's medal, but as part of the 6-year-old race's tradition, the top three finishers in each age division would be awarded a specially made baseball bat, commemorating their accomplishment. The boy's father won the bat he had coveted for months, finishing third in his division. He posed for photos with the top two runners in his division, and then hugged the boy again. The youngster grabbed the bat from his father and proudly carried it back to The Otesaga.
Not far from Doubleday Field, a very different type of event got underway. In Cooper Park, which sits in front of the Hall of Fame Library, Boggs, Ozzie Smith and former Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax helped commemorate the 25th anniversary of the "Homer at the Bat" episode of "The Simpsons", the animated series that has long been part of pop culture. In a roundtable discussion, the former ballplayers and the show's executives spoke about the iconic episode that featured character Homer Simpson winning a championship softball game for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant when he got hit in the head with a pitch with the bases loaded.
In that episode, Boggs, Smith and Sax, along with several other major league players from the early '90s, played themselves.
"The museum likes to honor anniversaries of special events connected to the game," Idelson said. "We don't only honor on-field accomplishments but also events in which culture intersects with baseball. Television is one of the important ways that culture connects with the game, and 'The Simpsons' is one of the longest-running shows on television. The fact that they had an episode related to baseball, we felt the desire to honor it."
The ceremony also brought back memories for Idelson, who served as the Yankees' director of media relations and publicity from 1989 through 1993.
"I took Don Mattingly and Steve Sax to the taping," he said. "We had a lot of fun with that. When they asked about Sax, that was a no-brainer. He was one of the biggest hams we had on the team. I didn't know if Donnie would want to do it, but he sensed the value in it and participated. It was fun, and it resonated throughout America. The players had no idea it would be as big of a deal as it became. They were simply going to a studio to record a few short audio lines."
One of the most memorable scenes in the episode involved Boggs, whose character got into an argument in a local bar. The disagreement was over who was the greatest prime minister of the United Kingdom, Lord Palmerston or Pitt the Elder. The hostile conversation ended with the bar's foremost regular, Barney Gumble, punching out Boggs.
"I'm asked about that scene at least once a day," Boggs said. "Someone will yell, 'Lord Palmerston!' to me, and naturally, I have to respond 'Pitt the Elder!' But it was nice to have that reunion today with people I met 25 years ago. It's neat how the show has transcended two generations and how it's still going strong. At that point, 'The Simpsons' had just started, but it became one of the most iconic animated shows of all time."
As part of the ceremony, Homer Simpson was "inducted" into the Hall of Fame, if only for the day, and a "Simpsons"-themed exhibit was opened in the museum.
"Homer achieved greatness in that episode," Idelson said. "He won it all for the power plant, so we wanted to induct him."
Not long after the two families returned to The Otesaga for lunch, they walked back to Doubleday Field for the weekend's main event, a home run derby contest and the Ninth Annual Hall of Fame Classic, a seven-inning game featuring the group of recently retired players.
Aaron Rowand, representing the Chicago White Sox, won the Home Run Derby. Rowand's power surge didn't surprise any of the 5,218 fans in the crowd, but what did stand out was Boggs' impromptu appearance in the contest -- as well as the longball he hit.
"These guys are only four or five years out of the game, and they can still play," said Boggs, wearing the Boston Red Sox uniform he donned while winning five batting titles in the 1980s. "I'm almost 59, and I was one of the last entries into the home run derby. But thank goodness I hit one out, because that made my whole experience complete."
Moments later, the two teams were announced, and they lined up on the basepaths. Starting with The Wizards, aptly named after their manager, the Hall-of-Fame shortstop Smith, the players emerged from the first-base dugout one at a time, along with coaches Marichal and Goose Gossage. The opposing team, nicknamed The Knucksies after their manager, knuckleballer Phil Niekro, were announced next, as were their coaches, Boggs and fellow Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers.
"Being at Doubleday Field, this is second to none," Gossage said when he returned to the dugout. "The fans are so great here, and they make it a special weekend."
The game got underway with Niekro, 78, retiring the first batter, two-time National League hits leader Juan Pierre. With one out in the top of the first, Niekro took himself out of the game and received a loud ovation.
Tim Redding, representing the Washington Nationals, replaced Niekro, mixing in an array of fastballs and sliders that caught a few players off guard.
"I'm impressed by the pitching," Cuddyer said. "In my first at-bat, Redding threw me a 1-0 slider on the outside corner. Then he dropped a few curveballs. I wasn't expecting that. But we're all competitors, and when you get the chance to compete -- and you still can -- you have to do it a little bit. This is a lot of fun."
Willie Bloomquist, representing the Diamondbacks, hit a home run, to bring The Knucksies within one run in the third inning. As the ball sailed over the right-field fence, Boggs led a spirited celebration in front of the third-base dugout.
In the end, The Wizards won the game, 5-1. Rowand took home MVP honors, going 3-3 with a double, a walk and two RBI. When the final out was recorded, Smith ran out of the first-base dugout, pumping his fists high above his head.
"What a great game," Smith said from the top step of the dugout. "To be out here with this wonderful group of players was so exciting. But more importantly, in this relaxed atmosphere, we can really connect and interact with our fans, and we're doing that all weekend."
In the moments after the game, many of the players' families joined them on the field for photos, and the two teams then joined together for a group photo.
"We had two great rosters playing in this game and six Hall of Famers in the dugouts," Idelson said. "The common thread among all of them is that they appreciate the game and its history, and they have a special relationship and bond with the fans. A number of former Yankees, including Goose Gossage, Wade Boggs and Luis Sojo -- who had the game-winning hit in the 2000 World Series and whose bat is on display in the museum -- helped tie this game back to the Yankees."
A few hours later, the ballplayers arrived at the Hall of Fame for a Night at the Museum event. Save for a Sunday morning golf outing that some participated in, this was the final scheduled appearance of the weekend.
"The events we've chosen all have a tie to baseball," Idelson said as the event began. "They're just different ways that fans can enjoy the connection to baseball. The BASE Race is about the values of living a healthy lifestyle and why that's important. The clinic is for youngsters to have a chance to interact with players and have some fun on the field. 'The Simpsons' event is all about honoring history. The game itself is to show there's still a competitive spirit for the former players, but that they can have fun while competing. And then there's a chance to meet players and realize that shaking their hands is just as valuable as getting an autograph."
During the special evening, hundreds of fans toured the museum and had the opportunity to pose for photos with Hall of Famers and great players from the recent past.
"The expression on the faces of the fans tells me everything," Idelson said. "As I walk through the museum at Night at the Museum and watch fans interacting with their heroes, realizing they put their pants on one leg at a time like all of us, it's nice to see how much they are enjoying it."
While the two young boys who made the trip to Cooperstown with their families had to leave their baseballs and pens behind for this event, they were in all their glory as they walked up to each player and posed for photos with them.
When the young Yankees fan made his way to the front of a line that ended where Smith was sitting, his eyes widened.
"Remember what I told you about Ozzie Smith," the boy's father whispered to the boy. "He's one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history."
Smith greeted the boy with a huge smile.
"Do you play baseball," Smith asked.
"Yes," the boy said.
"What position do you play," Smith countered.
"Shortstop," the boy said with a bashful smile.
"That's a great position," Smith responded. "It's the best position."
Just like that, one of baseball's greatest legends became a lot more real to the 9-year-old boy, who eats, sleeps and breathes baseball. Smith was no longer a name that his father talked to him about. He was no longer just a guy the boy watched on highlight reels or a player whose baseball card he had to get.
For this boy, Ozzie Smith became a real person who was a great baseball player. And that's how the St. Louis Cardinals legendary shortstop will remain in the much younger shortstop's memory bank forever.
For more information on the Hall of Fame Classic Weekend, please visit baseballhall.org.