More Than 50,000 Fans Flock to Cooperstown for Griffey Jr. and Piazza
Reflections on Hall of Fame Induction Weekend
By Charlie Vascellaro
July 25, 2016
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.–They rolled into town more than 700-strong riding on a caravan of 13 busses, the New York Mets fan collective known as the “7-Line Army” was among the estimated crowd of 50,000 that descended on Cooperstown this past weekend fueled by the election of former New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I think for most of us making the trip it was very important to us because Piazza was our guy. He was someone that so many of us recall watching him play and help make our team relevant again. He’s our first position player in our history to make the Hall of Fame and that in and of itself is important. So it was very special for us to watch him get enshrined and be there live. Even if that meant sleeping on the ground for a night,” said Andrew Indart, also known as “The General” of the 7Line Army.
Departing Citi Field in Queens on Saturday morning The Army arrived at Brewery Ommegang in the afternoon and immediately set up its tent city camp on the expansive pasture behind the brewery and rode shuttle busses back and forth into town while a non-stop party continued well into the evening. The local Flux Capacitor band played on the back patio behind the café and food trucks and satellite bars were stationed along the campground. The group re-boarded busses to the Clark Center for the induction Sunday morning.
Photo: Charlie Vascellaro
“The camping experience itself was a completely new one. I’m a kid from Brooklyn who’s never been camping before. Needless to say setting up the tent took a little longer then anticipated but my girlfriend Amanda and I eventually got our mobile shelter up and running for the evening haha. My girlfriend Amanda coined the term “Tent City” after seeing all the tents lined up in different sizes and colors spread out across the open field,” said Indart.
This year’s blockbuster Induction Ceremony also included all-time great center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. who received a record 99.3% of the Baseball Writers Association of America vote and was equally responsible for the large crowd on hand. The charismatic pair combined to draw one of the top three largest Induction Day attendance figures equaling the estimated 50,000 that showed up for the 1999 class that included, George Brett, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and Orlando Cepeda.
The 2007 Induction of Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn remains the largest HOF weekend crowd at an estimated 75,000-80,000.
Like Ripken and Gwynn; Griffey and Piazza represent cross-country regional appeal and popularity that transcends particular team loyalties. Griffey Jr.’s spectacular five-tool skills and boyish enthusiasm made him the face of the game in the 1990s while Piazza is commonly regarded as the greatest hitting catcher of all-time enjoying iconic status from coast-to –coast with both his Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets former teams.
Photo: Charlie Vascellaro
It’s been 24 years since New York Mets fans have been able to join one of their own for a Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown, well kind of, Tom Seaver was the first major leaguer to be eternally immortalized in the Hall of Fame’s plaque gallery as a member of the team in 1992. Other Hall of Famers who spent at least part of their careers with the Mets include: 2015 inductee Pedro Martinez (2005-2008) who went in as a member of the Boston Red Sox and catcher Gary Carter (1985-1989) whose Hall of Fame plaque is adorned with a Montreal Expos cap among 13 others including Yogi Berra, Willie Mays and Casey Stengel to name but a few associated with the team.
Long suffering but eternally hopeful Mets fans can count their post season appearances on both hands and have two fingers left over and so celebratory occasions like this year’s HOF induction have proven few and far between.
While Piazza failed to gain election to the Hall in his first three years of eligibility Mets fans waited in eager anticipation of returning to Cooperstown until he was eventually elected this past January and immediately solidified their travel plans.
Nowhere was Mets fans enthusiasm more evident in Cooperstown than with the presence of the 7-Line Army.
“I can’t speak for anyone else, but it wasn’t a hard decision to make. It’s not often one of your guys makes the HOF and as only the second Met to go in. I just had to be there. Could be a once in a lifetime experience that I’d have kicked myself if I had passed it up,” said the group’s founder Darren Meenan, the creator of a New York Mets t-shirt clothing line. The grass roots fan club has grown to include more than 1,000 members that follow the team on the road their exploits can be followed on the group’s website: (http://the7line.com/).
Photo: Drea Goode
I attended the all-night party at the brewery and found the 7-Line Army to be a youthful fun loving group of hardcore Mets fans whose collective memory dates back to the time of Piazza’s Mets if not back much further but their passion for the team and each other is genuine.
Photo: Drea Goode
The mutual affection between Piazza and Mets fans was a running theme in his induction speech.
“How can I put into words my thanks, love, and appreciation for New York Mets fans?” said Piazza, adding, “You have given me the greatest gift and have graciously taken me into your family. Looking out, today, at the incredible sea of blue and orange, brings back the greatest time of my life. You guys are serious.”
Mets fans in attendance responded with a standing ovation and broke into the familiar “Let’s Go Mets!” chant.
Photo: Greg Klein, Cooperstown Crier
Piazza sniffled and wiped his nose often during his speech and broke into tears talking about his father.
“My father, Vince, was the son of Italian immigrants. He’s so proud of his Italian heritage,” said Piazza adding in Italian, “Un Grazie infintio al Paese Itaslia che ha fatto il regalo di mi Padre (trans. “many thanks to the country if Italy for giving me the gift of my father). My dad always dreamed of playing in the major leagues for his All-American love of baseball. He could not follow that dream as the realities of life and having to support his family forced him to work. He built a great business and employed many people. My father’s faith in me, often greater than my own, is the single most important factor of me being inducted into this Hall of Fame. Thank you, Dad…He is a man deeply devoted to his family and after having suffered a major stroke a few years ago, is stronger willed than ever. We made it, Dad. The race is over. Now, it’s time to smell the roses,” said Piazza.
Not to be outdone the wide sweeping appeal of Ken Griffey Jr. was on full display all weekend long as surprisingly large contingent of Seattle Mariners fans converged on Cooperstown for the Induction of the franchise’s first identifiable Hall of Famer. Griffey Jr. also tapped into his home town Cincinnati Reds fan base where he spent the latter years of his career and where his father was a member of the celebrated “Big Red Machine” back-to-back World Series champion teams of 1975 and 1976.
Griffey Jr. bawled his way through a sweet and sentimental speech speaking predominantly about the significance of every member of his family including his parents, his brother, his wife and his three children often addressing them directly from the podium.
“Looking back, I got to do and say things that have never been said. I got a chance to play with my dad. I got to yell at him and tell him to get a hit. And in baseball there’s certain things…, you can call somebody — a fossil, gray beard, grandpa, dad, pops — but I got a chance to say it, and mean it. We hit back to back home runs. We’re the first father and son to win MVPs in All-Star Games,” said Jr.
He also recognized the various groups of people that had made the trip to Cooperstown from all parts of the country and other countries as well.
Photo: Charlie Vascellaro
“I would also like to thank the families and friends and the thousands of baseball fans who traveled all over the country and who are also watching this on MLB Network. I would like to point out one fan, Rob [whom Griffey Jr. later identified as a friend from Isreal], who traveled 6,000 miles to get here. I just wanted to say thank you. I stand up here humbled and overwhelmed.”
Towards the end of his speech Griffey Jr. focused on his time with the Mariners in Seattle. He mentioned many of his teammates and opponents in a roll call that included: Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds, Dave Valle, Jeffrey Lenard, Mickey Brantley, Darnell Coles, Chili Davis, Kirby Puckett… “These guys were like my big brothers. They took me out to lunch and dinner, made me share rides with them in the cab and drilled me on life problems,” said Jr. also singling out Jay Buhner in particular.
“Then we have Jay Buhner, as we referred to each other as brothers from a different mother. He was the greatest teammate I ever had, a guy that gave you everything on the field and a guy that spoke the truth, even though you didn’t want to hear it. And I love you for that.”
He also recalled a few career highlights like hitting the warehouse during the Home Run Derby in Baltimore, winning the Home Run Derby in Pittsburgh, the ’95 American League division series, Randy Johnson’s no hitter and Jay Buhner hitting for the cycle. He also advocated for the Hall of Fame candidacy of one of his former teammates mentioning Edgar Martinez winning his first batting title.
“And, yes, he belongs in the Hall of Fame,” said Griffey to rousing applause and chanting of Martinez’ name. In closing he reiterated his affection for the Seattle franchise.
“Out of my 22 years, I’ve learned that only one team will treat you the best, and that’s your first team. I’m damn proud to be a Seattle Mariner,” said Griffey Jr., finishing with a dramatic gesture he reached behind the podium for a Mariners cap and placed it on his head backwards in his signature style.
Photo: Charlie Vascellaro
The crowd of 50,000 dustily dispersed from the field at Clark Sports Center and down Susquehanna Avenue as the Induction Day festivities came to a close.