COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — A constellation of stars gathered here this weekend. So many, in fact, that it’s enough to make a baseball fan’s head spin and his heart race.
Over there, having lunch on the patio of the famed Otesaga Resort Hotel, is Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, looking like he could still melt a batter with his glowering stare and then strike him out with his slider.
Holding court in the lobby is Hank Aaron, baseball’s true home run king. Hammerin’ Hank is 83 now, but there remains an air of majesty about him.
At a swanky party Friday night, Rod Carew was greeted warmly, and hugged gently, by those friends in baseball who thank God he’s still alive, thanks to a transplanted heart and kidney.
Saturday afternoon, at a ceremony at Doubleday Field, I had the honor of introducing Claire Smith as she was awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for her “meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” No other award for a baseball writer is more prestigious, and she became the first woman to receive it.
But a lesser-known star is Tom Shieber, the senior curator for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He looks, and speaks, like a professor of baseball history.
The thousands of fan who flocked to Cooperstown this weekend don’t know Shieber or his co-workers, but they should thank them. Here, in this quaint hamlet in upstate New York, American’s grandest game is researched, authenticated, preserved and displayed.
My wife, Nancy, and I were fortunate to get a behind-the-scenes tour at the Hall of Fame. Shieber was our congenial and most-knowledgeable Hall of Fame host.
We saw a cooled storage vault where thousands of priceless photographs are kept safe from the elements. We saw Lou Gehrig’s scrapbook, complete with newspaper clippings announcing he had the deadly disease that would take his life and take on his name.
Shieber led us into an artifacts room, where baseball treasures are stored until they go on display in the museum.
— Here are the cleats worn by Mike Trout when he hit for the cycle as a rookie in 2013. Trout was the youngest player in American League history — 21 years, nine months, 16 days — to hit for the cycle.
— Shieber allowed me to hoist, but not swing, a bat used by Honus Wagner in the early 1900s.
— I was able to cradle (wearing white gloves, I should add) a signed Mickey Mantle baseball that was used in the Yankees’ final game of the 1956 season. Mantle won the Triple Crown that year, hitting .353, with 52 homers and 130 RBIs.
— Knowing that I’m from Colorado, and that I cover the Rockies, Shieber brought out a bat used by Todd Helton in his final game of the 2000 season. To refresh your memory, Helton won the National League batting title that year, batting .372, while slugging 42 home runs, hitting 59 doubles and driving in 147 runs.
— Shieber also showed us items most of us would never think to hang on to, but nonetheless enrich baseball’s tapestry. For example, when Russ Hodges called Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” to give the Giants the 1951 NL pennant in a dramatic playoff over the rival Dodgers (“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”), Hodges was so excited, he never finished filling out his scorecard. In the column where a shaded diamond should denote a home run, there is nothing but a blank space.
So thanks, Mr. Shieber, for a peek inside America’s greatest game.
Spotlight on Yoenis Cespedes, LF, Mets
What’s up: The Mets’ season and Cespedes’ season have been a hand-in-hand disaster. The “Amazin’s” are languishing under the .500 mark as they come to Denver on Tuesday to open a three-game series. Cespedes, plagued by various leg injuries, had played in just 56 games and was hitting .277 with 10 homers and 27 RBIs through Friday. In many ways, the left fielder’s season has mirrored that of Rockies right fielder Carlos Gonzalez, who also has struggled. The two outfielders have been among baseball’s biggest disappointments, the difference being that Cespedes can blame injuries, while Gonzalez cannot.
Background: The 31-year-old Cespedes signed a $110 million, four-year contract in the offseason to remain with the Mets. His prodigious power at the plate and grace in the outfield made him a fan favorite, first in Oakland and then in New York. But he has learned a hard lesson: muscling up is not necessarily good for a baseball player. “My plan is to change my workout program,’’ Cespedes recently told The New York Post. “I want to become more flexible, more athletic, have less bulk (in my legs). I want to do less weight lifting. I’m going to do some different things, I want to do yoga, more stretching. I want to be lighter. I want to come back around 210, lose about 15 pounds.’’
Saunders’ take: It’s beginning to look like the Mets’ decision to re-sign Cespedes was a mistake, but that’s the chance teams must take in this age of big-money contracts. Interestingly, the left fielder recently told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that he wants to finish his career in Oakland. “I wish that happens,” Céspedes told the Chronicle, adding, “I told (former A’s and current Mets teammate Jerry) Blevins, ‘I don’t know how many years I’m going to play, but I’m going to play the last year of my career with Oakland. I don’t know if that’s possible or not, but that’s my goal. … I still love the A’s. They were the first team to give me an opportunity to play in the big leagues. I love Oakland all the time.’ ”
Three up, three down
1. Royals: Mike Moustakas became the fastest player to reach 30 homes in team history as K.C. rolled to its ninth straight win.
2. Indians: Rejuvenated Danny Salazar led Cleveland to its eighth consecutive victory, keeps just ahead of streaking K.C. in AL Central.
3. Yankees: Back in first in AL East and rookie Matt Judge has 37 homers through his first 125 career games, third-most in MLB history.
1. Brewers: Brent Suter turned back the Cubs on Friday night, but a 2-8 road trip has Brew Crew slipping out of contention in NL Central.
2. Rockies: Getting swept in St. Louis revealed just how fragile Rox young rotation is as the dog days of summer start barking.
3. Tigers: Trade rumors abound for underachieving Detroit, with catcher Alex Avila and reliever Justin Wilson at the top of the list — and Colorado as possible destinations.