Last week’s news regarding the death of the Hall of Fame Game came as no surprise, considering that strong rumors of its demise had been floating for weeks. Still, the news is no less disconcerting; the game, while only an exhibition, has meant so much to fans in upstate New York (many of whom cannot afford to attend major leagues games in person), not to mention the benefits to the Cooperstown economy. It has also provided a natural link between the Hall of Fame—the repository of baseball history—and the current-day game as it exists at the major league level.
The Hall of Fame and MLB are taking the bullet for the termination of the game, and that’s really not fair. Some internet posters immediately tried to blame Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey, perhaps because of their dislike of him over the Tim Robbins/Bull Durham incident of a few years ago. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Petroskey, along with just about every high-ranking Hall of Fame official, wanted this game to continue. The game promotes the Hall of Fame while providing an economic boost of about $30,000 to the local economy. As the saying goes, what’s not to like? The end of the Hall of Fame Game—that’s the last thing that Petroskey and other Hall officials wanted to see happen.
MLB has tried to absorb some of the heat, citing the scheduling difficulties created by inter-league play and the lack of available off days during the regular season. Scheduling problems have certainly created large roadblocks, but that’s largely because of contemporary major league players, who have made a habit of complaining about the trip to Cooperstown. Even if a team has a day off and happens to be somewhere east of the Mississippi, the team’s players still have to approve participating in the game. And that was becoming increasingly difficult, because of the growing number of players who wanted nothing to do with traveling to upstate New York during one of their scheduled days off. Now, let’s keep in mind that a player might have to play in one, maybe two Hall of Fame games during the course of his entire career. That was apparently too much of an inconvenience, weighing more heavily than the wonderful public relations that the HOF Game created for baseball on the whole.
The termination of the Hall of Fame Game represents the opposite of public relations. The decision to end the game after this year’s June matchup between the Cubs and Padres has created such a firestorm in upstate New York that Senator Chuck Schumer has lent his efforts to a petition calling for MLB to reverse its decision. (The online petition, for those who are interested, can be found at ipetitions.com.)
While I applaud the efforts of those who are supporting the petition, the realist in me dictates that it’s time to move forward. After this year, the Hall of Fame Game will have ended, nearly 70 years after its inception, and there’s likely nothing that can be done to change that. Very smartly, the Hall of Fame realizes that the game needs to be replaced with some other tangible event. The Hall has already begun exploring alternatives, including some kind of a "Futures Game," a game involving minor league teams, or perhaps even an "Old-Timers" or "Legends Game." And I’m all for that. While each of these concepts carries logistical problems, their potential benefits will bring some much-needed juice to the Hall of Fame calendar.
Last week on MLB Radio, afternoon host Seth Everett asked Hall vice president Jeff Idelson about the possibility of a Futures Game featuring prospects from two different organizations. Idelson seemed receptive to the idea. A mid-season Futures Game, coinciding with the All-Star break and featuring top prospects across the board, has already proved successful since its inception in 1999. By narrowing the concept, the Hall of Fame could take advantage of existing rivalries, such as the "future stars of the Red Sox against the future stars of the Yankees." Still, such a game would require some compromise. Since it’s highly unlikely that all of a parent team’s affiliates would have off on the same day, the parent team would have to be willing to give their top prospects a one-day leave of absence. For organizations that value winning at the minor league level, that stipulation could pose a problem.
As for the second possibility, a game featuring minor league teams will actually take place at Doubleday Field this May. It’s not affiliated with the Hall of Fame, but has been scheduled as part of the International League’s 100th anniversary celebration. This matchup, pitting the nearby Syracuse Sky Chiefs against the Rochester Red Wings, will count in the International League standings. Some Cooperstown observers believe that the Red Wings-Sky Chiefs game could become a precursor to an annual minor league game at Doubleday Field, one that the Hall of Fame might affiliate itself with. Hey, how about a game featuring the Yankees’ top affiliate at Scranton-Wilkes Barre against the Mets’ top minor league team, currently stationed in New Orleans? That would become even more feasible if the Mets relocate their Triple-A team to Syracuse, which has been hotly rumored.
An Old-Timers Game would be an even better idea than a minor league game or futures game, given the name value of retired stars. Such a game could be attached to Induction Weekend, when 50 or so Hall of Famers are already in town. Hall officials have resisted the idea in the past, in part because of worries that some Hall of Famers wouldn’t want to embarrass themselves in a game setting. Fine, that’s a legitimate concern. So let’s supplement the Old-Timers Game with a few non-Hall of Famers who are a little bit younger and in better physical condition. Twenty or 30 retired players, in addition to the Hall of Famers, usually attend Induction Weekend anyway. Another possibility would be to invite retired players who are scheduled to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. The Hall could easily offer each player a reasonable honorarium to have their names introduced to the crowd, followed by two or three innings of participation in a game.
There is precedent for Old-Timers games at Doubleday Field. In 1989, the Hall of Fame celebrated its 50th anniversary by featuring a game of retired legends, including Hall of Famers and recently retired stars like George Foster and Manny Sanguillen. I’ve talked to a number of longtime Cooperstown residents about that game; every one of them has raved about the commercial and artistic success of that game. Not only did the game draw a strong crowd, but the participants also did well in playing to the fans, taking full advantage of the intimacy of Doubleday Field.
Perhaps the time is right to bring the old-timers back to Doubleday Field. That would be a great way for the Hall of Fame to counteract the unhappiness that came with last week’s demolition of a Cooperstown institution.
Bruce Markusen, the author of seven books on baseball, writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com.