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Weekend at Griffey's

I went to Cooperstown last week. Here's what it was like.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It is a small, haunted town resting under the shadows of three-storey buildings that for their time were the flexing bicep of American industrial innovation. This is not the assembly line of Ford, nor the factories that to Marx's conscience and mind became a red flag. No, the very bricks you pass by on hand-built streets seem to contain the history that their buildings, filled with images of the game's greats on tiny cardboard squares, had turned into a commodity.

The game was invented here, by Abner Doubleday, the man who was the first to pull a trigger at Fort Sumter, and a field carrying his name sits between the shops and the museum which stand to remember the near two-hundred year history of his miraculous creation.


Later that afternoon, I was going to watch the greatest athlete the Pacific Northwest has ever known, the man singlehandedly responsible for ensuring that the Seattle Steelheads' legacy would have some sort of continuity into the twenty-first century, enter the hallowed hall that recognizes the game's greatest. The man who once hit back-to-back home runs with his own father, the boy who returned to the city that raised him in the twilight of his career, the kid who saved an entire institution from obsolescence. And the incredible part is that only one thing I've written up to this point is demonstrably false.

The ceremony itself is, truthfully, abysmally boring. You have to get there two hours before it starts, because you won't be able to see anything otherwise. Hell, you get there two hours early and you still won't be able to see anything. Fifty thousand people, crammed a one field shoulder to shoulder, knowing full well they won't see the face of their respective hero talking but knowing that just being there means something, just like the Doubleday myth tries to tell us that there is some continuity to this whole thing that can be felt on the very ground upon which we were standing.

Think about this for a second:


The ceremony was mostly drowned out by Mets fans, able to drive a short distance to see their single greatest hero's finest hour as he legitimized a franchise relegated to either mockery or cocaine-induced luck. His name fit that four-syllable chant almost all too well, and it kept popping up in the middle of his speech at the most inopportune of times. But he talked about what it was like in September that one year, and he mentioned Queens, which made a 350-pound grown-ass man sitting next to me openly weep. He mentioned how Tommy Lasorda suggested the Dodgers draft him simply as a favor to his blue-collar father, and he held it together as his words made even my jaw quiver a little bit. Then he finished up and stepped off the stage, and Mets fans started picking up their chairs and heading for the exit. And if we're being honest, I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Ken Griffey Jr walked up to the podium and the crowd started to thin. He was at once everyone's favorite baseball player but more importantly, he was our favorite, my favorite. He meant different things to different people but as I watched space between bodies start to grow greener, and listened to my childhood hero choke his way through the highest honor of his life, I knew that this was how it was meant to be: despite the rumors, despite the headlines and the trades and the thisandthethat, if you were there for him, he would be there for you:

Griffey's speech was, if we're being honest, nothing to write home about. But that's exactly why it was perfect: he stumbled, nakedly, in a way that he was never allowed to on the field. The best of his generation, the backwards hat, a superstar whose abilities for a ten-year window were all but unmatched was able to finally put his guard down and stand up in front of the people who loved him the most and let his bottom lip quiver a little bit. By the time he said that the one thing he learned was that your first team is the one which will treat you the best, I was wiping my eyes with him.

As we left I thought about how great it would be to drive up here for Edgar, and Ichiro. I started to do math in my head to plan when I'd be sitting here to see Felix, and realized that if I was able to make it to the end of Griffey's speech I wouldn't be able to even see the king through blurry eyes. Then we all funneled onto the tiny street designed for a tractor, or two Model Ts, and it looked like this:


Those are indeed people, head to head, as far as you can see to the vanishing point.

The rest of the weekend was great--the Hall brought me face to face with a Christy Mathewson card, the original Ichimeter, the stained sock, and even the bat from The Natural. But as I was shepherded through those designed rooms I was bumping into others wearing Griffey jerseys, and it felt kind of like one big, collective hangover. Knowing we were looking at things important and yet still asking questions about the night before. It could not have been better. Well, except for the whole not wearing sunscreen thing.