Fans upset HOF game absent from inductions

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 30, 2003

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - By his own count, Leo Pinckney has been to every Hall of Fame game since the tradition began in 1940 at Doubleday Field. He didn't like what he saw this year.

''It's part of Hall of Fame weekend, always has been,'' said the 85-year-old Pinckney, who was sports editor of The Citizen of Auburn, N.Y., for 37 years and still writes a weekly column. ''It just wasn't the same.''

It wasn't the same because it was staged June 16 - the day after Father's Day - instead of induction weekend, which this year falls on the last weekend in July.

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Sam Nader shared Pinckney's sorrow.

''I think it's a disgrace. Major league baseball should be ashamed,'' said Nader, who has owned the Oneonta franchise of the New York-Penn League since 1966. ''I think they owe the fans that much. It really makes it very significant on Hall of Fame weekend.''

From 1940 to 1978, the Hall of Fame game was played on the same day as the induction ceremony. It was switched in 1979 to the day after and has become a big hit, usually selling out within hours. The game could not be scheduled with the induction ceremony this year because of a scheduling quirk.

''We just can't say, 'OK, here's the date,''' said Matt Gould, a spokesman for major league baseball. ''It's a year-by-year decision.''

When the scheduling problem arose, baseball's brass looked at June 16, and Hall of Fame officials thought it could be a winner.

''We looked at it as the perfect exclamation point on Father's Day weekend,'' said Jeff Idelson, spokesman for the Baseball Hall of Fame. ''The attraction of having two major league teams in this part of the country is a once-a-year deal. We built a lot of events in around the game.''

The events included a round-table session featuring this year's inductees - Gary Carter and Eddie Murray - and a good, old fashioned parade. Main Street of this quaint one-stoplight village was teeming before the exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Philadelphia Phillies.

, helped out no doubt by the snow day students were given by local school officials.

''It was a wonderful mix of residents and visitors,'' said Polly Renckens of the local Chamber of Commerce. ''The residents kind of stay out of it each year, but this time they were embracing it. Everybody had a good time.''

Merchants were apprehensive initially with the change, but the blue skies, puffy white clouds and 80-degree temperature helped boost the turnout and ease any fears.

''Now, I guess you'd say it's two medium-sized good weekends as compared to one overwhelming weekend,'' said Don Oberriter, who founded Cooperstown Bat Company 23 years ago with his wife, Sharon. ''I think we sort of expected this, but a lot of them (merchants) didn't really understand what it might imply.''

And yet despite what was a perfect day to play and the presence of Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk, Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins, Robin Roberts and Johnny Bench, hundreds in the sellout crowd began streaming for the exits halfway through the only exhibition game that remains on the major league schedule.

''It didn't feel like the Hall of Fame Game,'' said Brian Domion of Oneonta, N.Y., whose 8-year-old son, Joey, played hooky to tag along. ''There was a lack of enthusiasm, I thought. You never see people leaving the park, especially in the third or fourth inning.''

Although Main Street was hardly bustling afterward, Hall of Fame officials considered the day a success.

''It's major league baseball's call as to when the game is, but I think we've showed them that June can work,'' Idelson said. ''It's something that Major league baseball has a stake in, too. They feel the importance. That's why they kept our exhibition game as the only in-season one.''

With induction weekend still on the horizon, exactly what impact this break with tradition will have remains up in the air.

''We don't know what it will mean for Hall of Fame weekend,'' Renckens of the Chamber of Commerce said. ''We won't have the full repercussion until then.''