Contemplating a summer without Cooperstown
Yesterday I got an email from the National Baseball Hall of Fame saying that due to Covid-19 its Board of Directors had voted unanimously to cancel this year’s Induction Weekend and postpone it until 2021. “This decision was the most difficult we have ever made,” read the message sent to members. “But it is the right decision for the health and safety of our supporters and the Hall of Famers.”
Being elected to the Hall of Fame is the highest honor in baseball. There have been more than 19,000 players in the Major Leagues. Only 235 of them along with 29 Negro Leaguers have made the cut. That’s about one percent.
The Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, N.Y., a tiny village in the center of the state, where baseball-lovers from all over the world flock every summer to see exhibits on everything from the game’s origins to its broadcasters, and to check out the staggering trove of artifacts.
You can see Babe Ruth’s jersey and Shoeless Joe’s shoes, a Honus Wagner card and the San Diego Chicken costume. There’s a life-sized statue of Ted Williams swinging the bat and one of Johnny Podres pitching to Roy Campanella. I like to imagine the whole place coming to life “Night at the Museum”-style after the doors have been locked and everyone’s gone home. Cy Young’s throwing BP. The Mick’s shagging flies. Jackie’s stealing home.
The centerpiece of the museum is the Plaque Gallery, which houses bronze likenesses of all the inductees. If baseball had a church, the gallery would be it. It’s a quiet place, a hallowed place, one for reverence and respect and recognition of just what it takes to get your face on that wall.
Months before Induction Weekend, which is in July, the Hall puts placeholders where the newest plaques will go. In years past, my husband, my daughter, and I have seen them. Each new electee signs his spot with a marker so visitors know who will go where. At this moment, there’s a spot signed by Derek Jeter. It will remain bare for another year.
I first visited the Hall of Fame when I was 12, and it’s had a special place in my heart ever since. Back in high school, when my sister attended a summer program in Maine, I offered to drive the seven hours from New York to pick her up if she’d agree to stop at the Hall on the way back. When my husband was working for ESPN and had an assignment in Cooperstown, I tagged along. For the past two summers, we’ve taken a family trip there. We’re planning to go again in August, but who knows whether that will happen.
If you’ve been to Cooperstown, you know it seems frozen in time, a good time, a wholesome and happy time. Stroll down Main Street and you’ll find shops that sell every kind of baseball memorabilia you can imagine. Grab some lunch at The Hardball Café then head over to the Doubleday Batting Range and test your skills.
You can buy a stack of tokens and take some cuts in the cages out back or step right up under the “How Fast Can You Throw?” banner and bring the heat. Three bucks gets you five tosses. The radar gun will clock your pitch and when you’re done, you’ll get a souvenir certificate documenting your “Official Pitching Speed”. My dad has mine from way back when. Now I have my daughter’s.
On our visits we always stay at the Otesaga Hotel, which opened in 1904, and hosts the Hall of Famers every summer. When we enter through the towering pillared portico I feel like Alice after she drinks the potion that makes her small. The place is grand. It feels grand. Sure, the décor is a little dated, and at night when we head back to our room along the endless carpeted hallways I always think there’s a decent chance we’ll run into those twins from “The Shining”, but we never do.
The hotel is on the shore of Lake Otsego, the “Glimmerglass” of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels. James’s father, William, founded Cooperstown, which happens to be sweltering in summertime, so after a half-day in town we’ll head straight for the water. We’ll swim and splash and get grossed out when our feet touch the seaweed (lakeweed?) on the bottom.
I’ll hang out on the dock while my husband and daughter take out a paddleboard. In one of my favorite photos, my daughter is standing in front on the board with my husband kneeling behind her, paddle in hand. She’s navigating, pointing into the distance, strong and self-assured, but she also has, and needs, the security of knowing her dad is right there.
In the evening, we’ll head to dinner via the veranda, where guests sit in white rocking chairs, chatting and enjoying cocktails. We’ll go down the stairs to the patio and while we wait for our food we’ll play cornhole on the lawn. After we eat, my daughter will take her glove and a ball out on the grass and toss herself pop-ups. We’ll smile at her innocence and joy.
My daughter is 10, still a kid, but inching toward preteendom. I say “inching” because she’s not precocious in the ways some girls her age can be, the ones who signal with their clothing or their gait or a terrifying glint in their eye that they’re not that innocent.
My daughter still likes to make slime and thinks poop jokes are hilarious. But there is a shift happening. Toward more independence, more privacy, more eyerolls directed at me. The changes she’s going through are hard enough under normal circumstances, but now, with the pandemic, she’s going through them in isolation.
I’ve been thinking about how fourth grade is the beginning of so much — physically, emotionally — and wondering what, if anything, it will mean that she isn’t around her peers now, and won’t be for a while. There’s no one her age to see going through it, too, to whisper silly questions to on a sleepover or read Judy Blume books with. When the kids finally are together again, they will look different, be different. How is that gonna go?
What’s nice about being in Cooperstown is you don’t have to think about any of that. It’s a timeout, a respite. I haven’t canceled our reservation at the Otesaga yet, but I fear coronavirus might force me to. I’m heartbroken at the thought of not getting to the Hall this year, but even more so because we won’t have that time away just to be together in a place we love while that precious innocence is still there. With a 10-year-old, we might get one or two more shots at it, but pretty soon she’ll want to paddleboard alone.
There are some times when I just need to be sad about it all. My daughter growing up, the absence of baseball, this horrible virus. I’ll indulge myself for a little while, get nostalgic, look at old photos and cry. But then I’ll decide it’s enough and ask myself: WWJD?
What would Jeter do?
In moments of doubt and fear, Derek Jeter is a great person to channel. I’m sure he’s bummed his big weekend got postponed. I’m sure he’s bummed about all of this. He’s human. But he’s a special human, one of the most special. Preternaturally cool and classy and brave. When times get tough, he doesn’t wallow, doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself. He rises to the occasion, and does what needs to be done with humility and grace.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when the Hall has to cancel its Induction Ceremony for the first time in six decades, it’s the year Jeter is supposed to go in. Some may say it’s bad luck. I think it’s good fortune. If anyone can teach us how to handle adversity in the best of all possible ways it’s the Yankee Captain. That’s why he was the Yankee Captain. Why he still is. Not technically, but in the spiritual sense.
Before you (pardon the pun) balk at the word “spiritual” you should know the last line of that email I got yesterday said the Hall of Fame is “every fan’s spiritual home, with its stories, legends, and magic shared from generation to generation.”
Maybe neither Jeter nor I will get to Cooperstown this summer. But when I think about what he’d do in the face of that fact, and what he’d say I should do, I hear him say, “Don’t ever stop sharing that magic with your girl.”
Aye, aye, Captain.