Hall of Fame Classic Dips Its Toes in the Water

File this one in the category of “just for fun.”

Team Wagner edged Team Collins, 5-4, on Sunday afternoon in the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic, an old-timers game featuring 26 retired major leaguers. The Wagners (named for Hall of Famer Honus Wagner) rallied from a 4-0 deficit, scoring four runs on four singles and a double in the bottom of the sixth inning at Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field. Former Yankee Mike Pagliarulo capped off the comeback with a game-winning double that scored Steve “Psycho” Lyons. Ex-Phillies right-hander Rich Surhoff (the brother of former Brewer and Oriole B.J. Surhoff) finished the game with a scoreless seventh, saving the win for ex-Cub Lee Smith. Smith, by the way, still throws hard, even though he did arrive late for the game because of travel problems.

Team Collins (named for Hall of Famer Eddie Collins) assumed an early lead on first-inning RBI singles by Steve Finley and Kevin Maas. (Both players remain in excellent physical condition, especially Finley, whose career ended in 2007.) The Collins then added to their 2-0 lead with two more runs in the third, thanks to Finley’s triple and Maas’ long two-run homer to right field. Maas, the former Yankee one-year wonder, finished the game two-for-four with three RBIs and a run scored.

The game began with a bit of an oddity: 90-year-old Bob Feller facing off against fellow Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. Feller bounced a couple of pitches in the first before finally giving Molitor something to hit, resulting in a bloop single to shallow center field. Feller faced three batters, retiring Bobby Grich on a grounder to first base before giving up a single to Steve Finley and then leaving the game to a large ovation.

The Hall of Fame Classic effectively served as a replacement to the now defunct Hall of Fame Game, which ended in 2008. Although the old-timers format offered something less competitive than an exhibition game featuring current major and minor leaguers, it was refreshing to watch an event in which the players actually wanted to be there. In contrast to the frequent scowls and complaints from contemporary major leaguers, the retired players generally displayed enthusiasm for the game, while also signing autographs before, during, and after the seven-inning exhibition.

The gray-haired Bill Lee might have put forth the most impressive all-round athletic effort of the afternoon. Playing the unaccustomed position of right field, the “Spacemen” turned in a fine running catch, singled twice in three at-bats, and notched a scoreless inning of relief for Team Wagner. He outshined recently retired teammate Jeff Kent, who went 2-for-4 but failed to take advantage of the 336-foot power alley to left field. On the Collins side, former Padre and Tiger Johnny Grubb turned in a surprising effort; playing out of position at third base, Grubb made a fine catch of a smash down the line and stroked three singles in four at-bats.

Hall of Fame officials announced the crowd at 7,069, well below the perennial sellouts of nearly 10,000 fans for the Hall of Fame Game. I’d attribute the lower attendance to two reasons: the state of the economy and the negative fallout from losing the Hall of Fame Game, which left some fans pining for the days in which two major league teams made the annual trip to Cooperstown. Once fans accept the fact that the Hall of Fame Game will not return, I think they’ll more fully embrace the concept of an annual old-timers game featuring recognizable names from past decades.

One other problem arose when some unruly adult fans pushed out some younger fans as they grappled for position near the autograph tent that had been set up by the Major League Baseball Players’ alumni association. At least two fans told me that some of the adults acted unconscionably in wildly clamoring for autographs and then rudely yelling at some of the old-timers who had to leave the tent to return to the game. Hopefully, the alumni association can remedy that situation by creating a better flow of traffic around the autograph tent in 2010.

All in all, I’d call the first Hall of Fame Classic a solid success, given the upbeat attitude of the players, the surprisingly good caliber of play, and the opportunity for fans to acquire autographs before and after the game. For the price of $12.50, the highly reasonable price of grandstand tickets, it was a good day at Doubleday Field.

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Bruce Markusen is the manager of Digital and Outreach Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.

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