Cooperstown, N.Y., is a game-changer for baseball fans

03/14/2014 4:09 PM

03/14/2014 4:09 PM

I go to sleep each night watched over by a portrait of Roberto Clemente. I wake up each morning and see a baseball signed by Sandy Koufax. In between, I can glimpse Los Angeles, Washington and Cleveland baseball caps hanging from the mirror in the guest room.

I don’t live in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It just sometimes feels as though I do.

The home-field artifacts that make up part of our oddball decor – which I allow and my husband adores – are bush league when viewed through the prism of the real hall. In September, we made the trip to Cooperstown.

The hall ended up in this burg because, the story went, Abner Doubleday created the game here in 1839. You have to want to come here to come here, set as it is in the rolling, wooded hills of central New York, about a four-hour drive from the Big Apple.

Just inside the entrance are statues of Clemente, Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, who exemplify “courage and character.” My fan was so transfixed I wasn’t sure we’d see the rest of the museum, and I wasn’t sure why sheer adrenaline didn’t carry him forward.

The memorabilia is fascinating – the American Tobacco baseball cards of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, the Chicago Cubs double-play combo who are memorialized in the poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” (“These are the saddest of possible words: ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance.’ ”); the gear of Dodgers Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey and Bill Russell, infielders who played together for more than eight seasons; a sombrero given to Angels manager Mike Scioscia by Arte Moreno after he acquired the team in 2003 (Moreno was the first Mexican-American to own an MLB team); reproductions of hate mail sent to the immortal Robinson. They are a glimpse into the history of the game and a commentary on our country. If you’re not a fan, you'll still be staggered by how the sport and our society intersect.

What amazed me were the spontaneous conversations that fans struck up with one another. My usually reserved husband chatted up a storm with another Dodgers fan, each adding to the other’s storehouse of knowledge in a place that was a repository of it.

We spent some time, too, in the wing honoring the writing greats. Like the best players, they plied their craft with grace and good humor.

When we finally reached the actual Hall of Fame, beginning with the “class” of 1936 (Christy Matthewson, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and Ty Cobb), I knew time would stand still and so would my husband.

He looked up at the plaques honoring Koufax and Clemente, reading them over and over.

Finally, it dawned on me that his was more than just admiration for Clemente’s and Koufax’s athleticism. These baseball players, extraordinary on and off the field, stood in for the father that one Angeleno boy lost just as he was on the cusp of manhood. They were his role models, his guide to being a grown-up, for doing one’s best and playing through adversity.

Like the father he idolized, they were his heroes. On that day, in a red-brick building dedicated to these boys of summer, they became mine, too.

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