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Rollie Fingers was 45 years old when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992. He has returned every summer since, and he wants to be there this July when Ted Simmons, his old catcher, is scheduled to be enshrined.
But Fingers is 73 now, and he cannot imagine that happening. As the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the thought of cramming tens of thousands of people onto a field in Cooperstown, N.Y., less than three months from now seems unrealistic — at least without a vaccine for the coronavirus.
“Until they do that, I don’t see a whole lot of people gathering in one place, especially at the Hall of Fame, when you’re expecting older players, and older people, to be there,” Fingers said this week from his home in Las Vegas. “You’ve got guys my age there — 73, 74, 75, up to 80 or 85. Do you want to take that chance on maybe catching it? You’re writing your own ticket then.”
The Hall of Fame’s board of directors is meeting virtually this week, and will most likely decide then on the fate of this year’s induction ceremony, scheduled for July 26. With Derek Jeter as the headliner in a class that also includes Simmons, Larry Walker and the late Marvin Miller, the Hall of Fame was expecting a crowd that would exceed the record 80,000 or so who showed up for Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn in 2007.
Now, the ceremony seems likely to be the next slice of baseball Americana to disappear from the summer calendar. Both the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., and the Cape Cod Baseball League in Massachusetts have already been canceled, and Cooperstown Dreams Park — where thousands of players flock for youth summer tournaments — is closed for the 2020 season. The Hall itself has been shuttered since March 15.
“Once Dreams Park canceled its season very early, people have been skeptical that the induction can happen this summer,” said Jeff Katz, who served three terms as mayor of Cooperstown. “Would the village want a monster crowd now? There’s a certain sense of safety being up here, and there’s a real unknown in how it would play out.”
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony is essentially an all-or-nothing event. It is free to attend — just pull up a lawn chair — but laborious to plan, with one hotel, the stately Otesaga, serving the Hall of Famers and their families, and many local residents renting their homes to out-of-towners. The workarounds of the day, like Zoom conference calls or social distancing, do not apply.
“Our staff came up with a lot of different options, a lot of what-if scenarios, and we’ve eliminated several,” said Tim Mead, president of the Hall of Fame. “We would not have a made-for-television or a virtual program. That induction ceremony is a special moment for the baseball community across the country and beyond.”
Mead emphasized that no decision had been made. The only plausible option, however, seems to be canceling the ceremony and moving it to next summer. The 2021 class has no obvious first-ballot inductees — the best newcomers, statistically, would be Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson and Torii Hunter — and only one holdover, Curt Schilling, came close last year.
Schilling got 70 percent of the vote, with 75 percent needed for election. The candidacies of Roger Clemens (61 percent) and Barry Bonds (60.7 percent), both complicated by ties to performance-enhancing drugs, have stalled.
In theory, Mead said, it is possible to delay the 2020 ceremony indefinitely, as Major League Baseball has done with the season itself. But that does not seem likely.
“It would be problematic to have floating target dates because of the realities of the village, transportation and lodging,” Mead said. “So you have to focus on July 26.”
Safety and health are the obvious factors driving the decision, Mead said, but the Hall of Fame also feels a responsibility to the inductees. Making a speech on a Cooperstown stage — with thousands of fans in front of you and dozens of legends behind you — is the moment a player crosses an imaginary threshold into baseball immortality.
“That’s the biggest day of your life when it comes to baseball,” said Fingers, who elevated the closer position and the handlebar mustache as an Oakland Athletic in the 1970s. “You want that big day, you want all your fans to be there, your whole family. It’s not just getting into the Hall, it’s a whole lot of other things. Everybody wants that.”
Fingers was scheduled to join Wade Boggs, Goose Gossage, Fergie Jenkins, Tim Raines, Ozzie Smith and recent retirees from each team for an annual exhibition game in Cooperstown on May 23. That event was canceled in March, and the Hall has been staging virtual events online, including a weekly podcast with Chipper Jones and the broadcaster Jon Sciambi on Instagram Live.
Hall of Fame officials are considering the health protocols of a return — is it sufficiently sanitary for visitors to touch the plaques, to sit beside one another in the Bullpen Theatre, to peruse the bookstore and gift shop? And without the usual summer visitors, what will become of the shops and restaurants on Main Street, with its one stoplight and millions of memories for sale?
“The induction weekend is one thing, but the summer business that we’re losing is the majority of it,” said Adam Yastrzemski, who runs a popular memorabilia store on a corner near the Hall. “We’ll just do the best we can.”
So will the hallowed museum down the block, which has staged an induction ceremony every year since 1943, when World War II forced a cancellation. But this is a year like no other, and a ceremony seems unimaginable.
“If there’s 70,000 people there, you know someone is going to have it, even if they don’t know they have it,” Fingers said. “They may infect somebody, and then it’s a domino effect. It’s the same thing with baseball itself. If they’re playing with fans in the stands, you don’t know what can possibly happen.”
The league still hopes to have a season — somehow, somewhere. But the staples of the summer are already slipping away.