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The Hall of Fame preserves Mike Piazza's legacy to baseball

Piazza's induction reminds us that the Hall is more than just a room full of plaques.

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Cooperstown is often described as a baseball mecca. That’s a fitting analogy. Walking through downtown Cooperstown, you get the distinct impression that you’ve entered the holy city in the universe of baseball fandom.

To a baseball fan, Cooperstown takes on the role of Vatican City to a devout Catholic—or Washington, D.C., to a political junkie, or Liverpool to a Beatlemaniac. Like those other cities, Cooperstown is a very self-contained environment devoted to one subject matter: in this case, baseball. And, like those other cities, it is a place to which every devoted fan should make at least one pilgrimage.

There are certain common elements of any Cooperstown experience: the vast cornfields and expansive mountain ranges you wind your way through as you approach the village. The picturesque views from the village itself, which is nestled between the Catskill Mountains and Ostego Lake.

When you arrive in downtown Cooperstown, you start to appreciate what baseball—and the Hall of Fame in particular—means to the village, and to the scores of people who visit it. Virtually every store and restaurant lining Main Street has a baseball motif. These include baseball card shops, merchandise stores, baseball-themed bars and restaurants, and the Doubleday Field complex.

The most recognizable building on Main Street is obviously the Hall of Fame. The Hall, it should be noted, is more than just the Plaque Gallery for which it is best known. The Hall is really a baseball museum, and contains a treasure trove of baseball history and artifacts.

The Plaque Gallery is the museum's centerpiece. As you walk through the gallery and browse the plaques on the wall dating back 80 years, you get a real sense of the history in the room—and the sense that you’re in a very special place.

This was all part of my experience last weekend, when I visited Cooperstown to witness Mike Piazza's Hall of Fame induction. However, being in Cooperstown for Induction Weekend gave me something I hadn’t experienced in my previous trips there, which is a greater appreciation for what the Hall of Fame is all about. The museum and the Village of Cooperstown are tributes to the game of baseball and its history. But the Hall of Fame itself is about a very select group of extraordinary players and their lasting legacies to the game.

I first started to appreciate this on Saturday afternoon—the day before the induction ceremony. For the entire day, Main Street was closed off as fans filled the sidewalks, awaiting the Parade of Legends taking place later that evening. Nearly everyone in the crowd was wearing Piazza- or Ken Griffey Jr.-related paraphernalia. (Griffey, of course, was the other player inducted that weekend.)

It was a fairly incredible scene. Here were thousands of people who traveled from around the country—be it from downstate New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, or Seattle—to this small, relatively obscure town in upstate New York, in order to celebrate the achievements of two professional athletes who made an impact on their lives. It was pretty cool.

The parade was also a sight to see. One by one, nearly every living member of the Hall of Fame was driven down Main Street on the back of a pickup truck as the adoring fans cheered him on. In less than an hour, we saw—in person—around 50 of the greatest players to ever play the game, most of whom I had only known through stories, pictures, and the backs of their baseball cards. Each player was dropped off in front of the Hall of Fame, his ceremonial home, where he joined the others for a private ceremony in the museum.

Piazza and Griffey were the last players driven down, and unsurprisingly got the loudest ovations. As Piazza stepped off the truck and greeted the fans, he was met with the raucous chants of "Mika Piazza!" and "Let’s go Mets!" that you would expect from a crowd full of Mets fans. Piazza proceeded into the Hall, where he joined the elite group of athletes with whom he will forever be associated from this point forward.

The weekend culminated with the induction ceremony on Sunday afternoon. Once again, it was an amazing scene: 50,000 people sitting under a clear blue sky on a perfect day in upstate New York to watch their heroes get honored. The 40-plus Hall of Famers from the night before were gathered on stage to watch the proceedings. Each one of them was individually called to the stage, accompanied by an introduction and a video montage.

Piazza and Griffey were both introduced with video highlights of their playing careers, and testimonials from teammates and coaches. Their speeches were thoughtful and even quite emotional at times. They gave us a glimpse of the human beings that fans rarely get to see by watching these players from a distance.

As we heard the stories and watched the highlights of their greatest moments on the field, we were reminded why Piazza and Griffey were there that day—and why the rest of us were too. These players played the sport we love to watch and led the teams we love to follow. They were incredible athletes, amazing performers, and gave us memories that we’ll hold onto forever.

And that’s the point of the Hall of Fame. The Hall is more than a room full of plaques. It’s an institution commemorating the game’s greatest players, and their contributions to the sport. The players enshrined there didn’t just play well. They helped define the game of baseball to the generation of baseball fans who got to watch them play.

When I visited the Hall that weekend, I saw a man standing in front of Ozzie Smith’s plaque. The man started sharing his memories of Smith with his young son, who was standing next to him. The man told his son that Smith was the best fielding shortstop he had ever seen, and that he did backflips on the field, and that he hit a famous home run in the playoffs that made the announcer scream, "Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!"

That was, in a few sentences, Smith’s legacy to the game. The Hall of Fame makes that legacy an official part of baseball history, and helps keep that legacy alive to the fans of future generations.

It’s gratifying to know that, from now on, people in my generation will be able to walk their kids up to Mike Piazza’s plaque and tell them, "This is Mike Piazza. He’s the best hitting catcher I ever saw, he took the Mets to the World Series, and he hit a home run that helped to heal a city in its darkest hour." That’s a legacy worth preserving. The next time you visit Cooperstown, New York, you’ll see that it has been.