By Tony Paige
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Even though football is happily back on track for many American sports fans, I still feel the pull of baseball — at all levels — when I sit back and watch the Mets and Yankees play and when I watch young kids trying to learn the game.
While these battles are going on, I will remember a trip I made last month to Cooperstown, NY to watch my 12-year-old son, Jalen, play in a baseball tournament for his travel team.
The Central Jersey Braves, headed by Tom Fogarty, captured the Cooperstown Baseball World championship.
I have coached Little League and District All Star teams, but this time I was just a proud papa watching my son play second, the outfield and pitch all through a painful neck injury.
I have never been so proud, but I also saw the youngsters make the same mistakes the major leaguers make. Little League is the major leagues and the major leagues is Little League. Kids make the same errors the big leaguers make and visa versa.
In Cooperstown, I got to see kids hit bombs over the 225-foot fence. I saw kids hit the fence on the fly and get thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a double. I saw kids get picked off and make outstanding plays. All the while the parents, cheered, moaned and supported their kids.
How can you not love baseball?
The kids got to experience dorm living as they stayed on the campus of Oneonta State University and enjoyed the variety of college cafeteria food.
They all had roommates and all that goes with it, but they got to see what college life is all about as most of them have turned 13. Real college life is in the not-too-distant future for most of these kids.
In addition to playing a total of eight games and going 6-2, the team got to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
They got to meet Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall, and a good friend.
We go way back to when he was public relations director of the Yankees and I was a sportswriter another life ago. He spoke to the team inside the Hall by the entrance. While he recognized everyone wants to play in the Major Leagues, he told them that not too many guys actually make it to the pros but he also told them not to give up the dreams.
“Who knows?” Idelson said, with a smile. “Maybe in 20 years or so I’ll be presenting a Hall of Fame plaque to one of you.”
You could hear the gears turning in a lot of the kids’ heads.
Then they toured the Hall.
My son wanted to see Babe Ruth’s plaque.
When I asked why, he stated, “He was the greatest baseball player that ever lived.”
The team walked through the Hall, staring at the plaques of Mays and Snider and the Robinson boys — Jackie, Frank and Brooks. There were exhibits on women in baseball and the similar sport of cricket and countless names that the kids had heard about. There were endless questions and lots of smiling.
Even my wife enjoyed the Hall.
I also got to see that today’s youngsters are being raised properly.
One young pitcher on the Braves walked past the Negro Leagues exhibit where there was a door that had the words “Colored Entrance” stenciled on it.
After stopping to look at it, he muttered under his breath, “This was so wrong.” Then he headed inside the exhibit to check it out.
After the visit to the Hall, the players and parents strolled Cooperstown buying t-shirts, bats and momentos of the trip.
The town hasn’t changed much since I was there back in 1986 for the inductions of Willie McCovey and Ernie Lombardi and the chance to meet Negro League Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and Philadelphia Stars player Gene Benson.
The town is still a one traffic light town set among some of the prettiest country you’ll ever see. Plus, there are lots of pizza and ice cream shops.
Even heard a familiar voice while I was browsing a sports shop.
I heard Mike Francesa’s voice and I was surprised they got the FAN so clearly. I picked it up on my car’s radio, but it was faint.
This shop had it clear as a bell.
When I turned a corner in the shop, the voice got clearer, because Mike was on TV. Yes, it was the YES Network.
Cooperstown has cable.
My family also spent time at Doubleday Field and watched some American Legion ball. The aging stadium had it’s metal polls blocking your view ala the old Yankees Stadium and I loved it. I felt like I was an extra at the filming of “The Natural.”
If you haven’t been to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame, whether you are a baseball fan or not, you need to go.
It’s historic, it’s educational and if you have kids, it’s also fun.
You can learn more about this country through the impact that baseball has delivered. Sure the sport has issues, but it is so ingrained as part of the fabric of this nation.
If nothing else, you can hang out in the Media Wing of the Hall, sit down and chuckle at the ageless comedic bit, “Who’s on First?” by Abbott and Costello.
The look on my son’s face as he laughed out loud at the timing of the bit (it was his first time hearing it), was priceless and I will remember it for the rest of life, especially if he continues to play baseball — no matter the level of competition.
If nothing else, as long as my body holds up, we can always have an afternoon catch.
How can you not like baseball?
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