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10 Questions with ... Jeff Idelson

10 Questions with ... Jeff Idelson

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Jeff Idelson joined the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Sept. 26, 1994, as director of public relations and promotions, and in April, at 43, became its president.

As the Hall enters a new, expanding era that mirrors the widening horizons of the game whose tradition it protects and displays, he is the guiding force entrusted with overseeing the growth.

While Induction Weekend is the Hall of Fame's highest-profile period, it is merely the tip of the promotional, educational and historical iceberg the Museum floats year round. When the speeches are over and the newly minted plaques are hung, Idelson and his staff simply turn the page and plan the next chance to commemorate the game and impact its fans.

Idelson's varied career included serving as the New York Yankees' director of media relations and publicity from 1989-1993. He and wife Erika reside in Cooperstown with children Aaron, 12, and Nicole, 8.

Unplugging him briefly from Cooperstown's busiest weekend, MLB.com caught up for 10 Questions with Jeff Idelson.

MLB.com: How big is the letdown after this weekend, considering the build-up to it, which begins in earnest with the early January announcement of the new Hall of Fame electees?

Idelson: Historically, there has been little time for letdowns. When the weekend ends, we start thinking about how satisfied so many people were and what a wonderful experience they had, and we ride that euphoria into planning the next year's inductions.

We reflect on how great the weekend was, anticipate the height of our season in August. We relish the experience, and move on.

MLB.com: The end of the Hall of Fame Game -- the annual exhibition between Major League teams on Doubleday Field -- appears to have been a very controversial issue among traditionalist fans. Do you have a particular take on this development?

Idelson: The fact it's over is sad, because I'm one of those traditionalists. By the same token, for every tradition that dies, a new one is born. Instead of being bitter about the end of the game, we're thankful to MLB for 76 years of a gift. [The game] helped put Cooperstown on the map in the early stages.

We understand the predicament they've had with the schedule. It's not easy finding two teams east of the Mississippi who haven't been here in five years and are willing to waive an off-day. When we first started scheduling the game, teams played maybe two series in a week. Now they're pushing three. It'll be up to us to come up with the new traditions that will bring more visitors to Cooperstown.

MLB.com: MLB is totally focused on globalization; what are the Museum's plans to begin reflecting that?

Idelson: We already are. We're reflecting the internationalization of the game in players and milestones achieved. Omar Vizquel's cap and spikes are on display from the game in which he set the record for most games played by a shortstop. We have a number of artifacts from Ichiro Suzuki's time with the Onyx Carp. We have plans to open a permanent exhibit in 2009 exploring the story of Latin American baseball and the impact of Latino players on MLB.

MLB.com: Dale Petroskey stepped down as the Museum's president rather abruptly; was this sudden change at the top a "crisis" for the Hall?

Idelson: It was unexpected, but the change went very smoothly. We have a very well-seasoned and dedicated professional staff at the Museum, and everyone on it reacts well to change. We haven't changed the way we do business. The transition has been smooth, and we're extremely optimistic about the immediate future and beyond.

MLB.com: But you did assume the Museum's presidency under sudden, difficult circumstances; have you had a chance to step back and formulate your own mission agenda?

Idelson: There really was no need to do that. No one is bigger than the institution, and we had already begun planning for 2009 [prior to Petroskey's departure]. Things were already in motion ... how we would fundraise, develop sponsorships, our calendar or events.

MLB.com: What has been the biggest change involving the Hall since you became a part of it, in 1994?

Idelson: The accessibility of the Hall of Fame, its transformation into a living, breathing history museum, far more experimental than it used to be. In communication and education, we have up to a thousand programs in the course of the year. Heck, we have a sleepover in the Hall of Fame gallery.

We adapted to the times. The exhibit is much more sophisticated, deeper in terms of storytelling. Our collections are richer than they've ever been. The national travel exhibit ["Baseball As America"] brings the Hall of Fame closer to more people than ever.

MLB.com: Actually, that brings up an interesting point -- baseball was in the midst of a long strike when you joined the Hall family late that September ... did it take the Museum as long to recover as it did the game?

Idelson: Yes, I came to the Hall 42 days after the strike began. People said incredulously, "You're going to work for a baseball museum when there is no baseball?" It was a bit of a challenge, in a lot of ways. But Cooperstown has always acted as a place where fans could renew their faith in the game before returning to games.

We are a pendulum for baseball; we swing the same way. So our attendance did drop, and it took longer to recover. In 1995, I talked to so many visitors who said they were not ready to go to a game until they could come to Cooperstown to renew their faith.

In 1997, our attendance was still down, to 284,000. After the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa homer chase, from 1998 to 1999 our attendance went through roof, to 384,000; we made up in one year the 100,000 visitors we'd lost.

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MLB.com: What are some of the special displays Museum visitors can look forward to in the foreseeable future?

Idelson: We have three new exhibits on tap for next year: the Latino exhibit; the life and times of Hank Aaron; and International Baseball, before and after the '09 World Baseball Classic. The WBC will be a major initiative, including artifacts from the '06 WBC.

MLB.com: We assume the economy -- particularly gas prices -- has impacted Museum traffic. How dramatic has the impact been?

Idelson: Attendance is holding steady with last year. As prices soar, people's discretionary spending drops. The reality is, we all work incredibly hard, and feel we need to treat ourselves to some sort of vacation. There's nothing better than coming to Cooperstown, where there is something for everybody. Within a couple of hundred miles, we market Cooperstown as being in your own backyard.

MLB.com: For years, you were the hands-on guy when it came to procuring items for display in the Hall. Acquisition you're proudest of? Strangest get?

Idelson: Among my favorites is Elston Howard's uniform, which was donated by his wife, Arlene, because it helps people realize Howard's role in how the Yankees integrated. And Harry Caray's glasses ... a bat from Ichiro's seventh batting title in Japan, with Onyx.

Strangest might have to be the Jack Kerouac bobblehead. He'd wax poetic about baseball in his writings, and the doll was handed out by the Lowell Spinners. But he was kind of 'out there.'

Tom Singer 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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