Some 45,000 visitors are gathered this weekend in a cozy village where the main street is known as Main Street. It has one stoplight.
On Friday morning, as tourists taking smartphone photos of each other were bumping into other tourists taking smartphone photos of each other, John Odell, among Cooperstown’s 2,000 full-time residents, recalled the day he, too, was an awed visitor.
Odell is curator of history and research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In early January, when Ken Griffey Jr.’s election to the shrine became official with landslide approval, Odell arranged to spend a day with Griffey at his Florida home.
The day went well for Odell. He left the house with Griffey’s most precious possessions.
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Among them: The American League MVP trophy from 1997, when the Mariners center fielder won the award in a unanimous vote.
“First thing he said was ‘Here, you’ll probably need this,’ ” recalled Odell, a curator at the Hall of Fame for the past 17 years and an expert on what an MVP trophy looks like.
But the spikes Griffey brought him were something else. They had been painted silver for one of the quirkier Mariners promotions: “Turn Ahead The Clock Night.” Envisioning what uniforms might look like in 2027 — the 50th anniversary season of the franchise — the Mariners went full-throttle gaudy in a 1998 game against the Royals. Nobody was more onboard than Griffey. Along with the painted spikes, he suggested cut-off sleeves, backwards caps and untucked jerseys.
Everybody went along with the cut-off sleeves and backwards caps, but Kansas City manager Tony Muser objected to the untucked jerseys because — true story — he thought they would give the Mariners a competitive advantage.
That kid over there, he never saw Ken Griffey Jr. He probably thinks of somebody in his 40s as a geezer. Our museum gives kids that age the chance to get to know about players who were stars years before they were born.”
John Odell, curator of history and research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame
In any event, that’s how Griffey’s silver spikes ended up in a display case with the other items he has loaned to the museum that soon will hang a permanent plaque of his smiling face.
“The moment I saw the spikes, I knew they were perfect for us,” said Odell. “They show that he was a guy who loved to play baseball. As a curator, I’m looking for the essence of the connection between player and fan.
“That kid over there,” continued Odell, pointing to a boy wearing a T-shirt stamped with “Class of 2024” on the back, “he never saw Ken Griffey Jr. He probably thinks of somebody in his 40s as a geezer. Our museum gives kids that age the chance to get to know about players who were stars years before they were born.”
In other words, the Griffey artifacts were collected in the spirit of the Hall of Fame’s tag line: Preserving History. Honoring Excellence. Connecting Generations.
“I’ve been coming here every summer for the past 20 years,” Jay Caldwell, who lives in Kirkland but grew up 10 miles from Cooperstown, said Friday. “I think it’s the best sports museum in the country, hands down. The second-best? The Negro League baseball museum in Kansas City.”
The third best might be contained between Caldwell’s ears. He can recall when the many baseball memorabilia stores on Main Street sold rare items that today are purchased online.
He also can recall the time when, as a young child, he met a baseball legend outside the Hall of Fame.
Not necessarily a rare occurrence, given how the chances of seeing somebody famous on Main Street during Hall of Fame weekend are better than the 99.3 percent Griffey accumulated on his first ballot.
But when the baseball legend happened to be Ty Cobb, it rates as a Cooperstown highlight for a 63-year-old who has dozens of them.
“He was gracious and friendly,” said Caldwell. “He even gave me a batting tip on how to hold my hands. I remember that, even though I had no idea who he really was.”
Caldwell isn’t eager for batting advice any more, but inside his backpack was a precisely decorated item designed as an homage to the first Hall of Fame player primarily associated with the Seattle Mariners.
It’s the work of an artist who specializes in custom-painted baseballs. (The stuff you see in Cooperstown: My oh my.)
“I heard Junior’s not signing this weekend,” Caldwell said as he pulled out the ball, “but you never know.”
Interjected his son, Jason: “When he played for the Mariners, our house was five minutes from his. Maybe we can guilt-trip him into signing!”
If the Caldwells obtain the signature, the hand-painted ball would be a worthy addition to a display case that includes the bat Griffey used to hit a home run on Sept. 22, 1998.
In a museum where thousands of relics are associated with accomplishments far more momentous than a home run produced during an inconsequential late-September game at the Kingdome, a black bat, splintered along the knob, does not appear to have significance.
But it’s significant to Griffey. He used the bat to connect on career home run No. 348, which when combined with the 152 homers Ken Sr. hit, gave the father-son duo 500 homers.
Good thing the bat will be returned to Griffey after its year on loan to the museum that preserves history, honors excellence and connects generations.
It might be his most precious possession of all.