COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – While wins and loses are the least bit of concern at the Baseball Hall of Fame Classic, Desi Relaford did happen to lead Team Knucksies to a victory with a two-run walkoff single against Team Wizards Saturday at historic Doubleday Field.
For that, Relaford earned Bob Feller Player of the Game honors and Phil Niekro has bragging rights over hall of fame brother Ozzie Smith and the Wizard crew.
Observations from Doubleday: It’s always interesting to see how hall of famers play baseball as old men. For the most part, despite a sometimes sluggish approach, they’re still far superior than the average man. Bert Blyleven was throwing smoke and his location was dead on. His off-speed pitches were also working affectively. Niekro, 73, could locate his pitches – regular pitches, not his signature knuckleball – and lasted a few innings. Tony Perez may have hit the most interesting ball of the day in the first inning when he lined a shot foul down the third base line. His lightening bat speed instantly took you back to 1976. Dmitri Young and Relaford looked to be the closest to playing shape as anyone in the game.
Hitting challenge recap: For the second straight season, Young, sporting his Rio Mesa High jersey, captured a hitting challenge title. He and Dante Bichette exchanged long drives and home runs for three rounds, including balls that hit houses and traveled deep into the farthest parts of the ball park in left centerfield.
Hall of Fame Weekend: While Hall of Fame Classic weekend has quickly become a modern staple of the hall of fame, the crown jewel of festivities in Cooperstown is Hall of Fame Weekend. This year Barry Larkin and Ron Santo will be inducted on July 22 at 1:30 p.m.
Reliving Hall of Fame Classic history: This was the fourth year of this Hall of Fame Classic set up. According to a member of the communications staff at the hall of fame, it became difficult to have two Major League Baseball teams find time in their schedules for an exhibition game – formerly known as the Hall of Fame Game – so the next best thing was creating the current weekend. It began in 2009 when then 90-year-old legend Bob Feller took the mound and started for Team Wagner and led his crew to a 5-4 win over Team Collins.
Niekro on R.A. Dickey: Niekro’s team wasn’t called “Team Knucksies” for nothing. Niekro is the most famous knuckle hurler of all time and he appreciates the craft of pitching a good knuckleball as much as anyone. Right now the clear-cut favorite for knucklers is New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, who has been unconscious on the mound this season and is coming off a one-hit performance during his last outing. Niekro said he has worked with Dickey in the past and saw him pitch live once during a game in Atlanta.
“Right now he is as good as any knuckleball pitcher who has every pitched in this game,” Niekro said. “He’s getting it over the plate, he’s not walking guys, he’s almost unhittable. Full of confidence; he doesn’t care who comes up to the plate, he’s going to get you out. I don’t know of anyone in baseball who wants to face him right now.”
Blyleven was relaxed: By the looks of it, Blyleven was in a comfort zone on the mound Saturday, just as he was for his 287 career wins. Last year things were a bit hectic for Blyleven, who was officially inducted into the hall. “This year I don’t have to worry about a speech and all the other stuff that comes with it,” he said. “I’m very honored to be here.”
Asked if his life has changed since being inducted, he said it’s remained relatively the same.
“Other than when you sign a baseball you put HOF,” he said, “and that’s a nice honor.”
Fisk misses playing, sort of: Fisk said he misses playing the game, but like many former players, doesn’t miss the arduous scheduling and constant grind.
“I played until I couldn’t play any more,” said Fisk, who at the time of his retirement in 1993, played the most games of any catcher in baseball history (2,226). “I ran the table on how long a player can play at my position. When I retired I had enough. I really had no desire to go back on the field because I know what it takes to get on the field and stay on the field.”
Fun weekend fact: Fisk, Murray, Niekro, Smith, Perez and Blyleven combined for 605 wins and 5,826 RBI, according to Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson.
Key players from Wizards
- Ozzie Smith, hall of famer
- Bert Blyleven, hall of famer
- Tony Perez, hall of famer
- Dante Bichette
- Darrell Evans
Key players from Knucksies
- Phil Niekro, hall of famer
- Carlton Fisk, hall of famer
- Eddie Murray, hall of famer
- Desi Relaford
- Russ Ortiz
- Dmitri Young
Check out our Facebook page to see some more photos from the Hall of Fame Classic.
Stay tuned to the Topps Pennant Tumblr page for more coverage from Cooperstown over the next couple of days. To have an inside look at baseball history, check out the new Topps Pennant app today and follow us on Twitter @ToppsPennant.
-Chris R. Vaccaro