Kristian Connolly tried every curveball, slider, knuckler and fastball he knew to save it, but baseball’s annual Hall of Fame Game is history.
Connolly’s mighty one-man lobbying blitz couldn’t stave off the demise of the annual Cooperstown, N.Y., tradition any more than its fans could stop the rain that washed out the last-ever Hall of Fame Game this summer.
“We’ve made up our mind that this is the right way to go and … is better for the fans and, ultimately, we believe better for the Hall of Fame and Cooperstown,” said Major League Baseball President Bob DuPuy, explaining the decision to pull the plug.
In the end, Connolly, a Cooperstown native with fond memories of the game, may have learned a lesson that eventually comes to all Washington lobbyists: Persuasion is best accompanied by a bit of leverage.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “they hold all the cards, so their opinion matters most right now.”
Still, Connolly’s attempt to save the game got the attention of Washington players.
He’s not a registered lobbyist, but he manages communications for the Humane Society Legislative Fund. He used to work in PR and was a scout for the Minnesota Twins.
His quest began shortly after baseball’s announcement in January that this year’s Hall of Fame Game would be the last.
Connolly launched a one-man grass-roots lobbying campaign that grew from a small website to a movement that mobilized some 1,700 fans, drew the interest of some of the nation’s largest newspapers and landed the support of some of New York’s most powerful lawmakers.
All the attention and letter writing earned Connolly a face-to-face meeting with DuPuy and Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, during last month’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony weekend.
“It shows the kind of impact people can have if they collectively come together and work toward the same goal,” Connolly said. “The best thing about what we’re doing here is just being fans reacting to a decision that we don’t like.”
What Connolly and his supporters didn’t like was baseball’s decision to eliminate a game that has brought two professional ball clubs to Cooperstown’s historic Doubleday Field for decades.
The game dates to about 1940 and for most of its history was played the same weekend that baseball’s greats were inducted into the Hall of Fame. The tradition helped lure thousands of tourists to the Village of Cooperstown to grab a $12 ticket that put fans no farther than 25 rows from the action, Connolly said.
“To have that experience and do it affordably is unheard of,” he said.
The game was worth saving, Connolly argued, because it helped fuel the village’s tourism economy and preserved a piece of Americana etched in the memories of many as sepia-colored nostalgia.
The Hall of Fame Game is one of Rep. Michael Arcuri’s first childhood memories. The New York Democrat grew up about 40 miles from Cooperstown and remembers meeting the bus that carried the Major Leaguers into town and snagging the autograph of Minnesota Twin Tony Oliva.
“It’s something that has been a part of our summers as long as anybody can remember,” said Arcuri, whose congressional district includes Cooperstown.
Baseball, Arcuri said, is now all about big salaries, big stadiums and big ticket prices. The Hall of Fame Game helped connect baseball to its simpler beginnings in America’s fields and back lots.
“I’m worried that when they chip away at these institutions like the Hall of Fame Game, they’re chipping away at the very foundations that make baseball America’s pastime,” he said. “This is just one of the things that disenchants people with their idols.”
Arcuri and fellow Democratic New York lawmakers Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer and Reps. Maurice Hinchey and Kirsten Gillibrand wrote Major League Baseball several times to register their “strong disapproval” of its decision to scrap the game.
Still, the sternly worded letters and Arcuri’s informal talks with baseball’s honchos didn’t save the game.
Instead, the league decided to promote the Hall of Fame nationally instead of with a regional game that’s not broadcast and costs more than $100,000. This year, for instance, the league spent about $250,000 to bring 49 Hall of Famers to the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, DuPuy said.
In the future, the league plans to promote the Hall of Fame induction weekend in all of its ballparks, perhaps with a taped message from Commissioner Bud Selig and a souvenir, DuPuy said.
“Our goal is to drive more tourists to Cooperstown,” he said.
He added that he has heard talk of replacing the Hall of Fame Game with an old timers’ game or minor league all-star game, options Arcuri also mentioned.
Both DuPuy and Connolly described last month’s meeting in Cooperstown as friendly. And DuPuy complimented Connolly’s passion.
“I can’t think of anything that’s been quite as well organized by one person,” DuPuy said of Connolly’s lobbying effort.
DuPuy is not the only one impressed with Connolly’s campaign, which would have cost tens of thousands of dollars if the work had been done by a professional firm.
“He has been one of the driving forces behind it, and I really appreciate all of his efforts,” the congressman said, commending Connolly for reaching out to him.
And Maura Corbett, a partner at PR powerhouse Qorvis, said, “He led with his heart, knew how to talk to his base and then knew where to lead them.
“This guy, God bless him, through heart and sheer intuitive genius, caught lightning in a bottle. In our world, that’s the Holy Grail.
“Do you think he’d come in for an interview?”