“I’ll have what Mr. Feller’s having.”
When my dad and I heard those words just a few feet away from us, we knew it was going to be a special night.
I was 10 years old in 1996, and my enthusiasm for baseball was just starting to heighten. The previous September, my dad took me to see Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2131st consecutive game. That night, and the anticipation leading up to it, sparked my interest in the game. So much so that, the following summer, my dad planned a trip for us to visit baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York for the first time.
Our drive from Bel Air to Cooperstown was an eventful one, marked by a dense fog that forced us to pull into a diner while the conditions improved.
When we finally arrived at the Otesaga Hotel, it was unlike anything I’d seen before. Built in 1909, its antique furniture and fixtures seemed otherworldly to a 10-year-old. A slightly musty smell in the rooms and hallways added to the experience of being in such a historic place.
The scenery was equally overwhelming. The hotel is built on the shores of Otsego Lake, and the waterfront views from the back veranda are breathtaking.
It was the last week of July, and Earl Weaver was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame that same weekend. But we were leaving a few days before the ceremony, so my dad didn’t think much of it.
A few memories from the trip stick out in my mind. At the museum, it was the famous Ted Williams display. If you aren’t familiar, the exhibit includes a strike zone made up of 77 baseballs. On each ball is a hand-written batting average – estimates of how Williams thought he performed on pitches in each location of the strike zone.
Around town, we visited every memorabilia shop, buying countless packs of baseball cards. Back at our room, my dad and I sorted them in hopes of building a complete set.
We picked up a newspaper one afternoon and read how Peter Angelos had rejected general manager Pat Gillick’s proposals to trade Bobby Bonilla and David Wells for prospects. The Orioles would rally in the second half of the season and make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
But the best and most vivid memory came from dinner the final night of our trip. We ate in the hotel’s formal dining room, with its white table cloths and fine dining menu. Since we arrived fairly early, the room wasn’t anywhere near being filled yet. But there was a large party seated at the table next to us, including an older man who spoke a bit loudly and wore large glasses. My dad thought he recognized him, but he couldn’t place him.
When the waiter returned to take their orders, we were able to hear what they’d selected. Especially from the loud-speaking older man.
“I’ll have the king crab legs,” he said.
A much younger man sitting beside him was the next to order.
“I’ll have what Mr. Feller’s having,” the younger man told the waiter.
My dad nearly jumped out of his seat. We were 10 feet away from Bob Feller.
I listened intently as my dad began telling me all about Bullet Bob and his flame-throwing career with Cleveland Indians. I couldn’t believe we were sitting so close to a legend.
My dad hadn’t realized that our hotel – the distinguished Otesaga – is where many of the players stayed (and ate) during induction weeks. But it soon became obvious.
Within minutes, Brooks Robinson entered the dining room, and that’s when I jumped out of my seat. Even at 10 years old, I instantly recognized Brooks and knew of his place in Orioles baseball history.
“16 gold gloves! 16 gloves!” I thought I was saying this quietly to myself, but it was much louder than I’d realized. Brooks heard it and graciously looked in my direction, smiled and waved. The grin on my face lasted through dessert.
Countless other Hall of Famers soon poured in, including Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and the Earl of Baltimore himself. Some of the names I knew. Others I quickly learned thanks to my dad. But either way, sitting among baseball royalty that night left me with a newfound thirst for the game’s history.
We checked out of the hotel the next morning and saw Phil Rizzuto in the lobby. When I recognized him as the man from ‘The Money Store’ television commercials, my dad laughed and delivered another baseball history lesson.
A few months later, one of this year’s inductees, Mike Mussina, pitched for the Orioles in the 1996 playoffs. He did so again the following season. I attended playoff games with my dad both years and cried when the team failed to advance to the World Series.
I often think about this stretch of time in my childhood and Orioles’ fandom: Ripken’s record-breaking game in 1995; our Cooperstown trip and the surprise playoff berth in 1996; and the wire-to-wire 1997 season. Without those three years, I may not have grown up loving the game like I did (and still do). With them, it was pretty much unavoidable.
Editor’s Note: I’m thankful those events and those seasons had so much influence on Steve because they led to the bold step he and former Sun baseball writer Dan Connolly took three years ago when they launched BaltimoreBaseball.com. Dan left a year ago to accept a position with The Athletic, and he recommended that Rich Dubroff replace him on the Orioles’ beat. It was a good call, but none of it would have happened without Steve’s commitment to the site. Glad Bullet Bob Feller was in that dining room.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.