|ESPN.com: Hall of Fame 2013||[Print without images]|
|Cooperstown has only one downtown traffic light, but the area is typically bustling with activity.|
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- You know the final scene of "Field of Dreams'' where a long queue of cars stretches toward the horizon from Ray Kinsella's cornfield? That's what Route 28 leading toward Cooperstown reminds me of on this hot summer afternoon. Car after car and SUV after SUV are pulling off the two-lane highway as the drivers seek parking spaces to join in a celebration of baseball.
The cars have come to Cooperstown from everywhere. Michigan. New Jersey. Illinois. Florida. I count license plates from more than 20 states, plus Ontario, and those are just the cars near my lane of the parking lot. The side and rear windows of many are soaped with the names and numbers of teams and players.
Excited baseball fans spill from their cars and hustle toward the already crowded stands of a ballfield decked with red, white and blue bunting. Festive music plays over the field's loudspeakers. Grinning players march proudly in. Long speeches are delivered, emotional tributes given. Enthusiastic fans applaud wildly. Skydivers bearing flags parachute into the ceremonies. Photographers and camera crews cross the field, recording the festivities.
Oh, and before we go any further, I should point out that this is not the induction ceremony for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
No, this is the weekly opening ceremony for Cooperstown Dreams Park, held each Saturday throughout the summer when a new wave of expectant players aged 12 and under arrives for the baseball camp/tournament. Families have driven and flown across the country to see boys and girls named Timmy and Kaleb and Mira play here, not to attend a ceremony inducting the long-dead and virtually forgotten Hank O'Day, Jacob Ruppert and Deacon White into the Hall of Fame.
This year is the first since 1965 that the Hall of Fame will not induct a living member. And while attendance will be low for that ceremony this Sunday, life goes on in Cooperstown, a village of 1,850 year-round residents and many thousands more summertime tourists.
As I found, during a week I spent in Cooperstown, the people and stories outside the Hall of Fame are much more compelling than those honored on its walls. Some stories will produce a lump in your throat or goosebumps on your arm. Some will make you laugh. Some, especially the one about a shooting, will make you shake your head.
And some, like the autistic baseball hero, will make you want to stand up and cheer.
Forget this year's long-dead inductees. There is life in the village of baseball.
|Lou Presutti purchased 156 acres of farmland and opened Dreams Park in 1996.|
Lou Presutti grabs the wheel of his golf cart to take me on a tour around the amazing 80-acre Cooperstown Dreams Park.
Presutti, the 73-year-old founder of Dreams Park, drives past the park's 100-plus barracks for the youth teams that live and play here every week during the summer. Against a wonderful backdrop of wooded hills, we roll past some of the 22 ballfields, the 20 batting cages and the concession stands, all precisely maintained. When Presutti spots the rare piece of litter on the well-tended grass, he stops and picks it up. We pass two delighted parents who wave Presutti over and ask him for an autograph, praising him for Dreams Park and his speech at the opening ceremonies. Everyone calls him "Coach.''
He stops his cart near a team heading toward a ballfield. He calls to a player with long, blond hair and offers him several coveted trading pins, plus a wristband, if he will agree to cut his hair. The player excitedly accepts the offer.
Presutti doesn't much care for long hair on a player, which helps explain why his favorite major league owner was George Steinbrenner. He also is offended by players who wear their caps backwards or askew (He was not a big fan of Ken Griffey Jr.) or wear their jerseys untucked or wear their pants cuffs all the way down to the ankles. If he catches a player wearing his uniform in such a manner, he will suspend him for two games. He says he suspends players 30-40 times a week. He suspended two just during Saturday's opening ceremonies.
The parents must love those two-game suspensions considering they are paying $850 per player for their week at Dreams Park.
"Well, we have rules. And we have to. We have such masses of people here," Presutti says. "And we tell them over and over and over again. We show them. We bring models up on our podium and show them, 'If you look like this, you're going to get a two-game suspension.' One kid standing with his cap on backwards. One kid with his shirt out. Another kid with his [cuffs] down around his ankles, looking like a thug. OK? Then we have a kid with pants up around his knees, his shirt tucked in. He looks like a ballplayer. Maybe he'll feel like a ballplayer. Just think, maybe he'll wind up being a ballplayer. Just maybe. And then he'll have respect for the uniform and have respect for himself."
Presutti is as old school as a crew cut and a worn letterman's jacket.
"We have a thing here at Cooperstown Dreams Park," he says. "The most important thing is to be your own hero. Look in the mirror. That has got to be your hero. You have to be your own hero and you need to dream dreams. And you've got to be willing to pay the price to make those dreams come true. And when they don't come true, you have to instantly begin to dream new dreams."
Dreams Park, Presutti says, was inspired by his paternal grandmother and his late father. His grandmother immigrated to America in 1898 and raised a baseball-passionate family of nine children on her own. "The only things she had in life was her family, God and baseball." He says he got the idea for Dreams Park when he was visiting the Hall of Fame with his father and son one day decades ago, and the elder Presutti said, "Every kid in America should have the chance to play baseball at Cooperstown."
"I needed purpose to build this," Presutti says. "I coached for 34 years, involved with youth baseball at the 12-year-old level, and I needed something else, too. My purpose really was that I love this game so much and love what it will lend you if you allow it to. Because it's just an incredible game of failure, and life is nothing more than failure.
"It's such a wonderful game of life."
The most important thing is to be your own hero. Look in the mirror. That has got to be your hero. You have to be your own hero and you need to dream dreams." -- Lou Presutti
Unable to secure a loan from a bank, Presutti instead invested his savings from a career as a successful target marketer into purchasing 156 acres of former farmland about five miles outside Cooperstown. He says he had cold feet just before committing to his project in 1994, telling his wife that if it failed, they could wind up bagging groceries. "Then we'll bag them together," she replied, nudging him forward.
A family-owned-and-run business -- his son, Louis, is the CEO -- Dreams Park opened in 1996 with a four-week season and 30 teams playing each week. The next year there were nearly 300 teams. In 1998, Presutti says, "The flower began to open," and his dream took off.
There now are 104 teams every week throughout the summer, with a dozen players and four or five coaches per team. Presutti says they turn away thousands of teams a year and that teams put in applications years in advance. There are nearly 17,000 players every summer, each paying $850 to cover their three meals a day, housing, two sets of uniforms, laundry, a commemorative ring, a visit to the Hall of Fame and, of course, the games they play. "And it's worth every penny,'' one mother tells me.
The kids I talk to love it, too. Presutti estimates that 190,000 players have competed here, including the children of such stars as Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Wayne Gretzky. I'm told Albert Pujols' son is playing here either this week or next. Major league alumni include Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, David Price and Chris Sale and nearly half of this year's first-round picks.
"I went there twice, and it's a pretty good experience," Trout told me later. "Every young kid out there should go and enjoy that time out there, competing with kids from all across the country. I just liked the way they handled it; all the fields are the same and being able to visit the Hall of Fame is pretty cool."
Presutti says Dreams Park is built "to the eyes of a 12-year-old." The outfield fences are a tantalizing 200 feet down the line from home plate, so that many players can feel the pleasure (and cherish the memory) of slamming a home run in Cooperstown. To lessen parental interference, spectators are not allowed to sit behind home plate or next to the dugouts.
"I coached youth ball for 34 years," Presutti explains. "I know what coaches are like. I know what parents are like. I know what kids are like."
Presutti and I have an enjoyable, wide-ranging conversation as we ride around Dreams Park. He has very strong opinions, and I don't agree with all of his views. For one thing, I enjoyed seeing Griffey with his cap on backwards. But I appreciate his demand for excellence, his passion for the game and his desire to grow it.
And I also know this: I would have loved to have played here when I was 12.
When mayor Jeff Katz invites me to meet him for lunch at Alex & Ika, he tells me the restaurant is near the traffic light. No further directions are necessary. There is only one traffic light in Cooperstown, at the intersection of Chestnut and Main.
In addition to his unpaid position as mayor of what is often referred to as "America's most perfect village,'' Katz also is the local chapter chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research. He is a passionate baseball fan who is writing a book about the 1981 season, the landmark year of the strike, as well as the year of Fernando-mania, the major league debut of Cal Ripken Jr., Maury Wills' disastrous managerial tenure and the World Series when Steinbrenner got in a fight in an elevator.
|Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz believes "America's most perfect village" has been "exploited."|
He also is dealing with Cooperstown's financial problems.
"We are in a consistent financial bind," Katz says. "We have an aging infrastructure. We have water and sewer pipes that are 100 years old or more that we are replacing. We have historic buildings. We have all this infrastructure that a normal village of 1,800 people doesn't have. What I'm constantly trying to push for is that we need to share in this stuff."
"I don't want to make this a negative story, because it's not. Cooperstown is great. But it is a challenge for us to keep up the magic that we do have."
In order to generate revenue, this year the city began charging for parking along Main Street, $2 per hour. Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- I talk to complains about the parking meters, the same as people do all over the country whenever the government demands more money. Katz understands the resistance but says the city must raise the money to pay the bills.
"I try to fight for our place at the table," Katz says. "I think Cooperstown as a village is exploited. By that, I mean everyone uses the Cooperstown name for their benefit, which is fine. But when it comes to the village, the village pays all the bills."
For instance, Katz says, Cooperstown Dreams Park is not actually in Cooperstown. It's in Hartwick, about five miles from the village. But at least it is far closer to Cooperstown than a competing youth ball camp, Cooperstown All-Star Village, which is in Oneonta, roughly 20 miles away.
This sort of thing is rather common. Many businesses appropriate the Cooperstown name to enhance their product because of its powerful brand. "A lot of people feed off the name," Katz says. That's because, he says, when the Hall of Fame opened in 1939, Cooperstown quickly became synonymous with excellence.
Cooperstown certainly carries more cachet than Canton, Ohio -- the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- does.
"With some people, anytime anything goes wrong, it's, 'Oh yeah, America's perfect village,' " Katz says. "It's a tagline. But one of the things about Cooperstown is we are very much in the real world.''
|Dreams Park, located five miles outside of the village, hosts nearly 17,000 players every summer.|
On a field at Cooperstown Dreams Park, two teams are battling it out in extra innings as parents and grandparents watch and root from their sections down the outfield lines.
The visiting team grabs a 15-11 lead in the top of the seventh (six innings is a regulation game at this level), then takes the field to close out the game. But the home team rallies back. There is a long drive to the fence that brings home a run. The center fielder fields the ball off the fence and turns to throw. "Hit the cutoff man! Hit the cutoff man!" a man yells, but the center fielder does not. His throws sails to home plate and the runners advance. "I just got done saying, 'Hit the cutoff!' Goddamn it!" the man says and stomps away.
Several parents and grandparents give the guy a look -- there is one in every crowd -- and return to their far-more-positive support.
The home team ties the game, 15-15. There are two outs and a runner on third base. The pitcher delivers a fastball. The batter swings and sends a high fly ball down the right-field line. The right fielder camps under the ball, raises his glove ... and drops the ball. As the winning run scores, the right fielder collapses to the ground in anguish. He lies there until his coach walks out to him, speaks to him and helps him off the field.
By the way, it is just past midnight on a Sunday night.
Which is nothing compared to some Dreams Park start times. In addition to housing, meals, uniforms and a ring, each player is guaranteed at least seven games. So when it rains (as it often has during this very wet summer), the games are occasionally backed up deep into the night.
"If it stops raining, we will play baseball at Cooperstown Dreams Park -- when it stops raining," Presutti says. "The latest game we ever played started at 3:36 in the morning."
|A major league exhibition game was played at Doubleday Field each summer until 2008.|
Gage Griffin and Michael Jeffers are sitting in the third-base grandstand at Cooperstown's Doubleday Field, waiting for their game to begin and gazing at the diamond where everyone from Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio to Kirby Puckett and Ken Griffey Jr. played. Now, this historic field is their home for the season. "It's pretty cool being part of that history for the summer," Jeffers says.
Jeffers and Griffin are pitchers for the Cooperstown Hawkeyes, a team in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, a summer wood bat league. As college players, they are not paid, but they do receive lodging with host families. Griffin and teammate Cody Smith live with a host family on a dairy farm approximately 40 minutes outside of town. They occasionally return from a game and help the family milk the cows and shovel the manure.
"They don't make us work, but we help them out when we get home from a game," Griffin says. "It was all new to me. It's real simple, though. You turn on the machine and you hook it up to the udders and it pretty much does the work for you. But it was pretty weird the first time. It doesn't happen often but whenever we get home and there is daylight left, we're usually out there helping them out. It's a good experience."
Somehow, I do not think this is A-Rod's usual postgame routine.
The myth is that Doubleday Field is where Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown. This is not true. There is no evidence to support the belief that Doubleday invented baseball or that it was invented in Cooperstown. And, according to former Hall of Fame librarian, Tom Heitz, this site was probably a parking lot for horses in the 1800s.
Doubleday Field is historic, though. When the Hall of Fame inducted its first class in 1939, Doubleday hosted a game of all-stars that included Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Paul Waner, Carl Hubbell and Dizzy Dean. Major league teams played an exhibition game here each subsequent summer, usually on induction weekend. Those games stopped in 2008, but current Hall of Famers and other retired major leaguers play an old-timers game here every Father's Day.
|There are no lights at Doubleday Field, now home to the Cooperstown Hawkeyes of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.|
Oddly, Cooperstown did not have its own team until Tom Hickey and John Raffaeli started the Hawkeyes in 2010. When Hickey asked his son, Michael, what he thought of putting a baseball team in Cooperstown, he replied, "Dad, Cooperstown is a baseball town without a baseball team."
Well, Cooperstown may be a baseball town, but there is a certain segment of the population that does not like baseball.
"It's not a minority; it's a significant number of people who have a total disdain for the baseball mentality," Presutti says. "And those are the people who are not Cooperstown-ians -- it's not them. These are people who moved here from Connecticut, from New York and Manhattan, who did other things in their lives and want peace and quiet in this little pocket of serenity on the end of Lake Otsego and the beginning of the great Susquehanna River."
Indeed, Hickey faced opposition from nearby residents who objected to the noise of baseball if a team moved into Doubleday. Hickey says Ted Peters, a retired and much respected biochemist with Cooperstown's world-class Bassett Medical Center (the town's largest employer), turned the tide by getting up at one meeting and telling the objectors, "Why on earth would you buy a house adjacent to Doubleday Field, if you did not want to hear the sounds of baseball?"
The team received approval but faces considerable challenges. For one, Doubleday Field is showing its considerable age. The current stadium with the brick exterior was built in 1939. There are no concession stands in the stadium (the Hawkeyes sell from a tent outside), and there are limited restrooms. The ballpark is just a block off Main Street but is hidden enough by surrounding buildings that many tourists don't realize it's even there. And most significantly, there are no lights.
The Dreams Park fields have lights, but Doubleday does not. So games must start by 5 p.m., an inconvenient time that discourages attendance.
Peters, enjoying a game from his seat behind home plate, looks around at a crowd of just over 100. "There should be a lot more people out here than this. Sometimes it's just a handful."
The crowd is roughly the same size a few days later. One of the fans is Laura Moellering, who tells me that her mother, Rita (Slats) Meyer, played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1946-49. Meyer once pitched a no-hitter -- and lost 1-0. After she retired from the game, she married and raised a family. "I played backyard ball with my mom all my life,'' Moellering says.
When Penny Marshall made "A League of Their Own" in 1991, Moellering says she and her mother traveled to Cooperstown for the filming of the final scene in which the aging veterans are reunited and honored at the Hall of Fame. As so many visitors do, Laura fell in love with Cooperstown and then moved here.
"Mom was concerned about how Penny Marshall would make it into a comedy when there wasn't anything funny about it," Moellering says. "And with Madonna in it."
Her mother never got a chance to see "A League of Their Own." Meyer died at age 65, just two weeks before the movie's release. Moellering says she can see her mother in the final scenes of the movie, which she has watched many times. "I'm just now making it through the whole movie without crying."
A ballpark holds so much life, so many stories, even when the crowds are small. And had I gone to see the Hawkeyes play the day of the Dreams Park opening ceremonies, I would have found another one. I'm told Wesley Lippitt sat in the stands with his father that game.
The last time I visited Cooperstown was July 2011, when the Hall of Fame inducted Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar. As I walked to the Clark Sports Center for those ceremonies, I passed some houses that had yard signs reading, "Save Anthony.'' Who is Anthony? I wondered. And why does he require saving?
The answer is a sad, ugly story that Cooperstown is still dealing with.
On a warm Good Friday afternoon in 2010, 16-year-old Wesley Lippitt and two friends were at Cooper Grounds Park next to the Hall of Fame when classmate Anthony Pacherille drove by in his parents' car. Thinking Pacherille must have earned his driver's license, the three teenagers walked over to the car. Pacherille, who is white, emerged from the car with a rifle and pointed it at Lippitt, who is African-American.
The three teens ran away from Pacherille, with Lippitt sprinting to the police station, which is located across the street from the Hall of Fame. Pacherille followed him into the station where he cornered Lippitt. As Pacherille raised the rifle to pull the trigger, Lippitt tossed his water bottle at him. The water bottle interfered with Pacherille's aim just enough that his shot struck Lippitt in the left arm rather than a vital organ. Another shot missed entirely, going through a window and nearly hitting a police officer.
Told to stand down by police, Pacherille instead placed the rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger again. Amazingly, the bullet did not kill him. Both teenagers were rushed to Bassett Medical Center, where they recovered.
Police found a suicide note inside Pacherille's journal at his home. The rambling note contained disturbing racist screeds such as, "All of these social parasites (N------, Jews, Mexicans and South Americans)" and included this line: "My last words will be 'Hitler lives!!'" District attorney John Muehl says the letter "made it pretty clear to me he picked Wesley Lippitt because he was black.''
As the case moved along, Pacherille's father, Anthony Sr., appealed for leniency for his son, who had been an altar boy in the local Catholic church. He said his son was mentally ill and had been a victim of bullying. Lippitt, who is an Eagle Scout and also worked at the Hall of Fame, denied the bullying claims, and Muehl says investigators found no evidence of bullying, either.
Everyone was being forced into a corner, to take a position on one side or the other side. And I think people of good will didn't want to. I think there was sadness and I think there still is." -- Jim Kevlin, Freeman's Journal editor and publisher
Still, the case split the town into camps. St. Mary's Catholic Church Pastor John Rosson, who has known Anthony since he was a child, agreed with Pacherille Sr., that despite the letter, the teenager was not a racist but was mentally sick, very young and needed help instead of a lengthy prison sentence. He says others in the community felt similarly, as evidenced by the "Save Anthony!" signs.
But other residents see it differently. One tells me her reaction to the signs was, "Wait a minute. He shot a kid and you're saying, 'Save Anthony'? There's something wrong with that picture."
"People felt strongly one way or the other," Wesley's mother, Tracey Lippitt, says. "So working through the trial and the newspapers and the kids at school, some feeling very loyal to one boy or the other, was difficult. But the fact is, we had to deal with a hate crime here. Regardless of whether it was a plea bargain."
In April 2011, Pacherille pleaded guilty to attempted murder in the second degree. It was not classified as a hate crime, but as part of his plea arrangement, Pacherille said he sought out Lippitt because he was black. Two days before Blyleven and Alomar were inducted that summer, Pacherille received an 11-year term, which he is currently serving in a state prison.
"Everyone was being forced into a corner, to take a position on one side or the other side. And I think people of good will didn't want to,'' Jim Kevlin, editor and publisher of the Freeman's Journal, says of the entire saga. "I think there was sadness and I think there still is. It's a sad story. It was a sad event and then the way we reacted to it as a community is further saddening.''
Wesley is now 19. His parents tell me he is working this summer with the local volunteer fire company and considering a career in that field. They say he is looking to put the whole shooting incident behind him.
Rosson says he recently received an encouraging letter Anthony sent from prison. In it, Anthony says he is doing well and will soon start an online college course. Rosson says he is pleased the letter was entirely positive.
But the aftermath of the shooting continues to linger. Pacherille Sr. recently filed a suit against Otsego County, the Oneonta Police Department and Judge Brian Burns, who sentenced his son. He is seeking $6 million for physical and emotional trauma resulting from the arrest for harassment after Pacherille went to the judge's home following the sentencing and told the judge's wife he planned to hold a demonstration there (the charges were dismissed). Pacherille Sr.'s brother also maintains a website that posts often ugly attacks against everyone from the Lippitt family, Muehl and the local justice system to the mayor.
"The incident itself was tragic enough and then there was the ripple effect from that incident throughout our community and our school and even a little farther," Tracey Lippitt says. "It was a hard thing to figure from the All-American town."
Shootings are often hard to figure. But when you consider Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., and the Trayvon Martin case, gun violence has become an all-too-unfortunate part of All-American town life.
In addition to complaining about the parking meters, the more longtime Cooperstown residents lament the days when Main Street had hardware and clothing stores. Those are gone now, replaced by myriad baseball memorabilia shops offering cards, autographs, T-shirts, bats, books, key chains and virtually anything else related to the game. The Heroes of Baseball Wax Museum even has a wax figure of George Steinbrenner near the entrance.
These merchants are feeling the shadow of Dreams Park.
If you own a motel or bed & breakfast in the area, Dreams Park likely has been a godsend. While the players and coaches stay in the barracks, the parents (and the more-than-occasional grandparents) must stay elsewhere, and they quickly fill up almost every available room. One Dreams Park mother tells me she paid $270 a night at the nearby Best Western. A resident tells me his best friend pays his mortgage for the entire year by renting out his house for the summer to Dreams Park families. Another tells me his friend is forced to move in with relatives each summer because the rent at his winter residence skyrockets. Tom Hickey estimates he could rent out his house for $2,500-$3,000 a week.
Dreams Park has not been so bountiful for some merchants on Main Street, though.
Sasha Gagarin, who owns Extra Innings across from the Hall of Fame, says Dreams Park is "good for business in some ways. And in some ways it makes it so the average tourist, the average middle-age fan, can't afford to come up to see Cooperstown because the bed & breakfast businesses are able to charge such a higher rate to keep the Dreams Park families there the entire week."
|Extra Innings is one of several sports memorabilia shops on Main Street in Cooperstown.|
"It's not a real sharing outfit. It's not really a benefit," says Rick Gibbons, who owns the Riverwood crafts and jewelry shop. "And they suck up all the accommodations in the area so the kind of visitors we used to have years ago that would like to come to the area for a day or two or three, they're hard-pressed to find a place to stay. And if they do find a place, it's very, very expensive."
Prior to Dreams Park, a room might be filled for a week by several sets of tourists. Now, that room will be taken by just one family for the week, and that family may only go into Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame once. While there are other contributing factors (the recession and high gas prices among them), the Hall's attendance has tumbled since Dreams Park opened. The Hall drew 383,000 visitors in 1999. It drew 262,000 last year.
"Originally (the Dreams Park kids) would be able to come to the town more often and visit more often and visit the stores," Gagarin says. "Over the years, the games have become more and more closely compacted together. They try to keep the kids at the Dreams Park as much as possible.
"The kids do get a chance to come to Cooperstown. It just seemed like when I first opened up seven years ago, that I would see more Dreams Park kids more often. I still see them -- I just see them less often than I used to."
Presutti vehemently disagrees, calling such views nonsense and saying Dreams Park generates $30 million to $35 million annually for the community. He says he employs 650 summer workers and 30-40 year-round workers.
"We [are] very diligent at being a good neighbor," he says. "We try to do things within the community and for the community. Obviously, we are the economy for this community. There's no question that without Cooperstown Dreams Park, these people would close their doors, that the party would be over."
Discussing the subject one night at a Cooperstown tavern, one customer occasionally refers to Dreams Park as "the ordeal" but says he made good money delivering red clay for their baseball fields. A bartender complains about the congestion but then says, "We all bitch about them, but where would this town be without them?"
|More than 100 teams from all over the U.S. compete at Dreams Park each week during the summer.|
Presutti can be blunt, but he has a sentimental side. This comes out while he is talking about his grandmother, as well as when he talks about Dreams Park alumni who died far too young, including those killed while serving in the military. "I could [tell you stories that] have you in the fetal position,'' he says.
And yet, there are also stories that make your heart pump.
Consider the Illinois Sparks team players who are gathered outside Dreams Park's Lefty Grove barracks (each of the team barracks are named for a Hall of Famer) to prepare for their next game and who are displaying the pins they've collected over the past couple days. Justin Janus proudly shows me a towel decorated with dozens of pins he's received in trades with other players on other teams.
Six years ago, Justin donated bone marrow to his older brother, Jeremy, who was stricken with leukemia. This can be a painful process. "They draw from your tailbone," their father, Matt, tells me. "They stick the needle into the bone, draw the marrow out and then they the take the needle out and stick it in again. They do that 25 times in each hole, and there's four holes."
|The visiting players live in barracks that are named after Hall of Fame players.|
The bone marrow saved Jeremy, who shows no signs of the leukemia. "They say after five years, if it doesn't come back, it's a full cure," Matt says.
Jeremy had a chance to attend Dreams Park when he was 11 but would not have been able to play due to his illness. Rather than sit on the bench, he chose to stay home. "He said, 'If I'm not playing, I'm not gonna come,' " Matt says. "Right now, Jeremy is a little jealous of what Justin is experiencing."
One of Justin's teammates is Chase Anderson. He is just 12 years old but has already undergone two open-heart surgeries. He was in the hospital for a stent procedure last summer but was determined to play at Dreams Park this year just like his older brother Kenny did. He told his parents he wanted to "live his dream."
"This year he made it, and he's hit two home runs and tied his older brother," says their father, Ken. "He texted Kenny, 'One more home run and I'm gonna beat you.'"
"It's a dream for these guys. Look at them. You know what we call it? We refer to it as Disney World for baseball. ... There are probably stories like that in every barracks. It's special how these guys get here and what they've gone through. It's an awesome experience, man."
Well, I hope there are not that many stories of heart surgery, leukemia and bone marrow transplants among these young kids. But I think of another afternoon when I am leaving Doubleday Field and pass a father and son, Kraig and Dylan Johnston, walking toward the ballpark. We strike up a conversation and, as I suspected, they are attending Dreams Park. Kraig says they are enjoying the park experience.
I ask Kraig if his wife is on the trip, too. There is an awkward pause before Kraig tells me, "She died in February."
I apologize for my question and say I am sorry for their loss. Kraig nods and talks some more about what the past five months have been like. "Baseball keeps us going."
Jacob Ruppert is the former owner who bought and built the Yankees into a dynasty and also paid for the original Yankee Stadium. The money behind this came from the New York brewery that his father started and which Ruppert expanded. Thus, as he is inducted posthumously this weekend, Ruppert is connected to Cooperstown in another way: Long before the village was known for baseball, it was a leading producer of hops.
A blight destroyed the crop in the early 1900s, and though Anheuser-Busch still owns vast acreage alongside Lake Otsego, the crop has never made a comeback. Brewery Ommegang, however, would like to see that change. They are growing hops at their brewery, which is located a few miles from the Hall of Fame on Highway 33, along the Susquehanna River and past a number of yard signs that read: "No Drill, No Spill'' and "No Fracking.''
There are debates in Cooperstown beyond whether Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame. Like many other American locations, Cooperstown is going through a controversy over hydro-fracking, which is short for hydraulic fracturing, a process that extracts natural gas from shale by injecting water at high pressure. The process produces great amounts of very valuable gas; while the country certainly needs the gas, there also is the risk of serious environmental damage.
"This is a very divisive issue in the community," Simon Thorpe says. "You have farmers who are really struggling to hold onto land that has been in the family for generations. There is so much economic pressure on them."
|Brewery Ommegang has been brewing Belgian-style beer near Cooperstown since 1997.|
Thorpe is the president and CEO of Brewery Ommegang, which produces nationally praised (and deservedly so) Belgian-style beer. Thorpe grew up in England, so baseball was a new and complicated sport for him to learn when he first moved to America two decades ago.
"There is this tradition in England: Wherever you're born, that's the team you support for the whole of your life," he says. "When I came here, my son and I said, 'Wherever we land, that's going to be the team that we support.' We were on a plane from London to New York, and I'm thinking, 'Fine, I've got plenty of teams to choose from there.' "
The flight, however, was diverted to Detroit.
"So I've been a Detroit supporter all the way through, and the Tigers have only just about made it [to the World Series] the last year or two," Thorpe says. "There was a long fallow period.''
There has been no such fallow period for Brewery Ommegang, which started in 1997 and was purchased by the Belgium brewing company Duvel in 2003.
"People don't realize the water in upstate New York is pitch perfect for brewing beer," Thorpe says. "They think of the Colorado Rockies, but our water is perfect. There is no treatment needed."
This is why Ommegang and others strenuously oppose fracking. As Thorpe puts it simply, "You can't make world-class beer with polluted water."
There are others who disagree, including Jennifer Huntington, a dairy farmer who owns the Cooperstown Holstein Corporation just down the road from Ommegang. Huntington has already leased her land to a gas company for hydro-fracking. Although I could not reach her personally, she told a New York Times reporter in late 2011 that she would never agree to such a thing if she thought it would endanger the water her cows drink. She also said many landowners could lose their property without the money fracking would bring.
"The term we use is 'pastoral poverty,' " Huntington told the New York Times. "You have farmers trying to hold on to land that's been in their family for 100 to 200 years. People like the landscape, but it's people living in poverty who are maintaining what they like to look at."
Back at Ommegang, Thorpe says he doesn't oppose utilizing this country's natural energy: "I just don't want to screw up the land for future generations. Make sure you do it right."
As I leave the brewery, a woman walks by wearing a pink T-shirt that reads, "My Son Hit A Home Run At Cooperstown Dreams Park."
Dreams Park's main field is packed with fans again. Although they don't realize it, everyone in the stadium is about to see something truly breathtaking.
After four days of games, there are just two teams remaining from the 104 who marched in the opening ceremonies. The Tallahassee Heat are playing the Salt Lake Sidewinders for the week's championship. Unlike the usual high-scoring games at Dreams Park, the finale is scoreless until the sixth inning when Tallahassee finally takes a 2-0 lead on a home run in the top of the frame.
And so we go to the bottom of the sixth, with Salt Lake's Ethan Fowlks due up with one out and two runners on base.
Ethan has autism. He functions at a high level -- he attends a mainstream school -- but has issues controlling his emotions and interacting socially. But he has few problems on the baseball field. For Ethan, baseball is literally healing.
"When he's on the baseball field, he's a normal kid,'' his father Guy, a Sidewinders coach, says later. "And that's where he likes to be. Anyone watching the games and watching him play would never know he's autistic. They may see a little outburst in the dugout or when he strikes out, but he's a normal kid and he has the capability and what it takes to be successful on that baseball field.''
It's been a really cool wrinkle all the way around, to have our boys introduced to autism and have Ethan surrounded by boys that don't look at him as an autistic kid but look at him as a great baseball player." -- Salt Lake Sidewinders coach Rob Jeppsen about Ethan Fowlks, who has autism yet hit a walk-off home run to win the tournament
Salt Lake coach Rob Jeppsen says the Fowlkses emphasize Ethan's abilities, not his disabilities, and that baseball has been a crucial part of this approach. "It's been a great thing for our boys, it's been a great thing for Ethan,'' Jeppsen says during a phone conversation. "It's been a really cool wrinkle all the way around, to have our boys introduced to autism and have Ethan surrounded by boys that don't look at him as an autistic kid but look at him as a great baseball player.''
As Ethan walks to the plate with his team trailing by two runs, his mother, Kristen, watches from the stands. That Kristen is here is another amazing element to the story. Just two days earlier, the Sidewinders were playing a team from Miami when a Salt Lake batter lined a foul ball into the seats down the third-base line. Guy was coaching first base, but he could hear the crunch of the ball striking bone all the way across the field. "Ohhhh,'' he remembers saying. "That doesn't sound good.''
The person hit was Kristen. The ball struck her in the face just below the temple, fracturing her cheek. Blood poured down her face as she was helped to an ambulance.
"Ethan literally thought his mom was going to die,'' Jeppsen says. "I sat by him, and he was crying and he said, 'Is my mom going to die?' And I said, 'No, your mom isn't going to die.' And he said, 'Yes, she is, because her head is broken up and her brains are going to fall out.' And I told him that I talked to his mom and 'she told me that she loved you and for you to go get these guys.' I had to sit there and keep him down because he was so rattled.''
Kristen was treated at the hospital, and though her fractured cheek would require surgery two weeks later, she was back at Dreams Park the next morning for Ethan's next game. And she is there again as her son steps into the batter's box.
Ethan stares at the Tallahassee pitcher, who has struck him out twice already this game. Occasionally, Jeppsen says, when Ethan has struggles at the plate, he has some autistic breakdowns. But not this time. This time he feels nothing but confidence.
The pitcher throws a curveball, up and away. Ethan swings and connects. He drives the ball deep to right. The ball is going, going ... gone! The kid with autism has just won the tournament with a three-run walk-off home run. And no, this is not a movie. This actually just happened. Ethan circles the bases and steps on home plate, where his teammates dog-pile him. "Hitting home runs is a pretty good feeling,'' Ethan says.
Ethan has just turned defeat into victory, but Jeppsen says, "He's had a lot more victories than just in the baseball game.''
Jeppsen knows this well. His six-year-old son, Crew, also has autism. "When your kid has autism,'' he says, "it's almost like he's trapped in a layer of fog and it's our job as parents and the people in the community who love them, to reach in and try to pull them through the fog. And that's what the Fowlks did with Ethan, and that's why he was able to contribute at the biggest tournament in the country at Cooperstown.''
And then there is the losing side of the game.
While the Salt Lake players leap and dance and shout and celebrate, the Tallahassee players trudge slowly off the field in defeat. Minutes later, Presutti calls them over to the first-base line. He looks around at the players. There isn't a dry eye on any face. Even several coaches are teary-eyed. He thanks the coaches for bringing such a great team to Cooperstown Dreams Park. He thanks the players for lighting up the field all week long. He tells the pitcher that with his talent and poise, he could pitch "any place, any time, for any team."
And then he delivers another message.
|Lou Prescutti gives Bailey Jeppsen a crew cut after Bailey's team won a Dreams Park tournament.|
"Listen," Presutti says. "I hear everybody always say, 'Hey, it's OK, it's all right.' Well, it's not OK, and it's not all right when you don't achieve your goal. And right now, all that pain you have in your heart, all those tears that are coming down your faces -- you're supposed to feel that way. Because winners hurt and champions feel pain when they don't attain their goal."
"Anything in your life you do, if you have a goal and you don't get to that finish line, you better feel exactly the way you feel right now. If you don't, then change and do something else."
Presutti walks away to congratulate the winning team. Afterward, he seeks out Rob Jeppsen's son, Baylor, who has curly blonde hair that flows from underneath his cap. Before the game, he and Baylor made a deal. If Baylor's team won, he would cut his hair. And so, now it's time for the payout. Presutti instructs his workers to bring a chair and an electric shaver to home plate. Baylor takes a seat and a worker turns on the shaver. As the team looks on with smiles and laughter, the worker shears off several inches of blond curls.
"My wife is going to divorce me," Rob jokes.
Presutti takes the shaver and proceeds to shear off more hair until Baylor is the not-so-proud owner of a crew cut.
Rob Jeppsen hugs his son and assures him the hair will grow back, adding, "Congratulations, B, you're a champion."
My week in Cooperstown is ending. The workers at Dreams Park are cleaning up after the 104 teams have departed. They are preparing for another 104 that will arrive tomorrow. Collectors are searching the Main Street shops for a deal. Customers are lined up for pizza at Sal's, where I have enjoyed many a slice. People are drinking beer out at Ommegang.
And I am in the Hall of Fame's plaque gallery, gazing at the bronze reliefs of some of baseball's greatest players. Hank O'Day and Deacon White, who no living human saw play, soon will join the Hall of Famers on the wall, as will Ruppert, an owner who helped perpetuate baseball's color barrier and once gave Babe Ruth a paycut. Meanwhile, all-time home run king Barry Bonds and seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens will not.
This angers me. I am a BBWAA member and I voted for both Bonds and Clemens. I agree with Katz that it is hypocritical for the BBWAA to vote in known cheats such as spitballer Gaylord Perry, as well as amphetamine users, while denying Bonds and Clemens a place in the Hall under the belief that those two took performance-enhancing drugs that weren't even officially banned for the vast majority of their careers.
Then again, Katz makes another point: The extreme and varying standards for baseball's Hall of Fame "lead to a level of intense debate that no other sport has." These standards aren't always fair or right, but they definitely make Cooperstown special. As Katz told me at lunch, Cooperstown is synonymous with excellence.
I leave the Hall, get into my rental car and drive west on Route 28 along the shores of Lake Otsego. I am sad to leave but content with the knowledge I will return to Cooperstown one day. Perhaps as early as next year for the induction of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Perhaps in a future summer for the induction of Bonds and Clemens.
And who knows? Perhaps sometime in the distant future for one of those young players I saw competing at Dreams Park or at Doubleday Field. Baseball was not invented in Cooperstown, but the fertile land here continues to grow the game, along with so much else.