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TELANDER: Lack of living inductees dampens ceremony, but Hall already was hurting

Jerry Watkins Anne VernDennis McNamara

Jerry Watkins, Anne Vernon, Dennis McNamara

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Updated: July 30, 2013 8:28PM



COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The chill rain.

Perfect.

Here it is, the big day for inductions into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the weather, which has abruptly turned cold and dark and wet, is the ideal atmosphere for a hallowed institution that is slowly killing itself.

Soaked to the bone is the 49-year-old mayor of Cooperstown, Jeff Katz.

A baseball fan of epic proportions, Katz huddles with other attendees in the open field in front of the induction stage. The ceremony will be delayed an hour.

There are no living baseball players getting in and very few spectators here, so the delay is irrelevant, in a sense, like so much of what has gone on in Cooperstown of late. The long-delayed, unstoppable and unprecedented effect of performance-enhancing drugs and the cheaters who took them has made the Hall of Fame a vestigial fin on a whale, a place where only the antique and the dead matter.

So Katz waits.

Saturday at a café across from the 221-year-old Tunnicliff Inn on Pioneer Street, we had chatted about the dilemma that rules this delicate little town (pop. 1,800) where baseball is king.

“In the summer, baseball is the driving force for the whole region,” Katz says. “Ninety percent of our visitors come between Memorial Day and Labor Day.”

There are lofty old homes here and the gorgeous Otsego Lake and an arts culture created years ago by the likes of James Fenimore Cooper (not to be confused with former Newark Bears player James William Cooper). Indeed, at the Fenimore Arts Museum, a stunning collection of the paintings by the extended Wyeth family — from N.C. to Andrew, Carolyn, Henriette and her husband, Peter Hurd — are on display this summer.

But you don’t go to Paris to see Babe Ruth. You don’t come to Cooperstown to see Van Gogh.

It’s so pitiful that no recent superstars were elected to be enshrined in 2013, and one can only hope commissioner Bud Selig — who was booed by the tiny, soaked crowd when he took the podium — gets his head out of his shorts and does something to overcome the evil his drug cluelessness created.

Think of what this class could have been: Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell.

But we baseball writers would not vote them in because we have been burned by cheaters and rumor way too often and because the voting rules say that sportsmanship and character matter.

Katz, a former Chicago Board Options Exchange worker who moved from Chicago to Cooperstown with his wife and three boys eight years ago, is bummed by the well-intentioned morality code that is wrenching his village.

Of course, other halls of fame are suffering in this techno/Google world. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, now has under 200,000 visitors a year, its longtime norm. The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is down to 300,000 from 500,000 visitors 20 years ago. It’s an entertain-me-fast universe.

But Cooperstown, celebrating America’s slow-paced pastime, should be immune to the pull of bells and whistles. Yet its 260,000 visitors last year was the lowest ­total since the mid-1980s. This year, when calculated? Don’t ask.

“We might be projecting some image of purity,” Katz says, “but what is it?”

He mentions how he had to pass a much protested parking-meter law this year, something never considered before. Cooperstown always equaled free parking. But, as in Chicago, parking is money. And the coffers are down. The move will bring in a much needed $325,000 in revenue to the village, Katz projects.

“Look, what happens to the Hall affects us all,” he says. “There are ramifications for our businesses. I’m not a big fan of purity. I have no problem at all with Pete Rose being in, for instance.

“I worry about next year because I hope Greg Maddux gets in, and Tom Glavine and Piazza and Biggio and Frank Thomas.’’

They all should be in. And if Maddux and Thomas are dirty, then God help us all.

Now at the ceremony, which plugs along under dubious skies, the speeches for the three long-deceased men inducted — Hank O’Day, Jacob Ruppert, and Deacon White — come forth.

O’Day’s grandnephew Dennis McNamara, a 70-year-old former Chicago cop, tears up three times during his tribute to a man he never knew. White’s great grandson Jerry Watkins, from Wheaton, admits he’s a Cubs fan and his credit-card PIN numbers are all combinations of Ernie Banks’, Billy Williams’, Fergie Jenkins’, Ryne Sandberg’s and Ron Santo’s jersey numbers.

Chuckles. Yet it’s stunning to think that the three honored men here have been dead for a combined 226 years.

Is this what anybody in baseball wants? A graveyard of irrelevance?

The rain has made gloomy this valley that is cradled like a baby by the green hills around.

“It’s symbolic,” Katz says of the rain. “But the sun has come out.”

For sure, it can only get brighter in Cooperstown.



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