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Classic Weekend kicks off with golf outing

Classic Weekend kicks off with golf outing

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- This tiny hamlet replete with rolling hills stands as the seat of Otsego County, but it doubles as the capital of baseball history. Cooperstown has held that designation since the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1939, and it kicked off another Classic Weekend to celebrate that fact on Saturday.

Fans of all ages came from several states to be part of the weekend, which began with the Cooperstown Golf Classic on Saturday and will wrap up with the second annual Hall of Fame Classic hardball game on Sunday. And if that wasn't enough, the Hall of Fame staged several clinics, tours and photo opportunities to make the journey worthwhile.

Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame and Museum, said that the Cooperstown Golf Classic was a first-time fundraising event, and one that he hopes to continue several years into the future. Idelson noted that participants were part of a cocktail party with several Hall of Famers on Friday, and got to eat breakfast with them before playing golf on Saturday.

"It's a lot of fun," said Idelson. "They get a behind-the-scenes tour of our archives and they've had three meals with the Hall of Famers, [and] autographs. And the knowledge that they're supporting a great history museum."

And if that wasn't enough, the assorted golfers got to share one of Cooperstown's most intimate secrets. The tournament was held at Leatherstocking Golf Course, which was rated by Golf Digest as the fourth-best public course in the state in 1996. Leatherstocking, much like Cooperstown, is framed by verdant hills and the shimmering Lake Otsego.

The tourney was headlined by Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Harmon Killebrew, Mike Schmidt, Phil Niekro and Ozzie Smith, and Idelson said that those all-time greats all shared one thing in common.

"It's interesting that baseball players have an affinity for golf and Cooperstown has one of the all-time great public golf courses," he said. "It's an opportunity for true fans of the game to get an insider's look at what it's like to be a Hall of Famer."

They got that look over the dinner table and over cocktails, and then again over 18 holes on Saturday. The team helmed by Niekro shot a 57 to win the tournament, but nobody seemed overly concerned with the bottom line.

"I played with three guys from Birmingham, Ala., and they shot very well," said Niekro on Saturday morning. "I was surprised they played as well as they did. We shot OK, and don't know if we won yet, but I'd play golf with these guys anytime."

That sentiment was also held by Mike Gallichio, an Albany resident and the fifth member of Niekro's fivesome. Gallichio invited three friends to play along with him and was thrilled with the way the event turned out.

"The Hall of Famers have been nothing but incredible to all of us," said Gallichio, a frequent donor to the Hall of Fame. "We had Phil Niekro, and if I started talking further about him I'd be gushing about him. Phil is tremendous, and the event's done great. The Hall of Fame knows what they're doing when they put on an event. Leatherstocking Golf Course is tremendous, and Cooperstown is beautiful. The weather was perfect, and I don't know what more we could've asked for."

When asked if Niekro told the group any Hall of Fame war stories, Gallichio got a little less effusive.

"Nothing we can talk about in mixed company," said Gallichio, playfully enacting an air of mock secrecy. "I think we actually signed a confidentiality agreement that anything we heard out there stayed on the golf course."

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the Hall of Fame was holding another popular event. Fans of all ages were invited for the "Family Catch" event at Doubleday Field, a stadium named for Abner Doubleday, the purported inventor of baseball. For nearly 70 years -- from 1940 to 2008 -- Doubleday Field was home to the annual Hall of Fame Game.

That game started as an old-timer's game and later became an exhibition game between two big league teams. The Hall of Fame Game was discontinued in 2009, when it was replaced by the Hall of Fame Classic. But the allure of Doubleday Field -- which has hosted baseball for more than seven decades -- still remains.

And you could see it in person on Saturday morning, when several families arranged around the infield and held their own game of catch. To some, the setting and the activity meant more than words could explain.

"We drove three hours from Tewksbury, N.J.," said David Knutsen, who made the trip with his son Schuyler. "This is our fourth time here, and we're going to keep coming back. We make it a tradition every year to come up here for the induction ceremony, but this was something special that I asked Schuyler to do on Father's Day and it's awesome."

A few hours later, the crowd reconvened at Doubleday Field for the Youth Skills Clinic, which featured several former big league veterans tutoring around 200 kids on the inside aspects of the game. Some of the kids were as young as 5 years old, giving their instructors a refreshing lesson of their own in the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the game.

"Whenever they ask me I'm willing to do it, because this is my way of giving back to something that made my life so complete and gave me an opportunity to play a game I loved to play," said Paul Blair, a two-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glover. "Ever since I was eight years old, this was all I ever wanted to do. Fortunately for me, I was able to do it."

"This place is awesome. It's actually my first trip here," added former Marlin Tony Saunders. "I was born and raised in Maryland and never got a chance to come up here, and to be around some of the greatest guys that ever played the game [is amazing.] I'm still a kid. I feel like a batboy right now. I'm sure I'll be running around at tomorrow's game and helping out the old guys any way I can, but more importantly, we're here for the kids. That's what it's all about."

That theme will be revisited Saturday night, when several Hall of Famers address a crowd at local Cooperstown High School as part of the Voices of the Game event. The players get older and the tales grow taller, but Cooperstown always seems to remain the same. And if the participants of the Classic weekend have their say, it will never change.

"I probably average two times a year. Sometimes three," said Niekro of how often he visits the Hall. "But it's not enough. I love this town.

"If we could get the temperature down here a little lower in the winter, I'd probably move up here," Niekro joked.

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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