Todd Zeile’s Zest For Cooperstown’s Hall Classic is Refreshing
In six weeks, a baseball tradition continues in Cooperstown and Todd Zeile is excited to be included.
After a two year hiatus due to COVID related restrictions, the annual National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Classic makes a return to Doubleday Field. Since the game's inception in 2009, the plan has been for each MLB franchise to be represented by a former player that once wore their team's uniform. Through corporate sponsorship, in the past Ford Motor Company and currently Boeing, several Hall of Famers are recruited to manage and coach two teams for the seven-inning exhibition game.
Zeile will be representing the New York Mets, a club that he played for three of his 16-year major league seasons. The Classic, and all the small town glory that the Village of Cooperstown has to offer, is a trip circled on Zeile's calendar as soon as the date is confirmed. With his wife Kristin, along with some close friends, the former catcher/infielder make the drive to Upstate New York's Otsego County from the southern part of the state.
"I like spending time in the Hall of Fame," says Zeile, who tallied 2,004 hits during his career that saw him suit up for 11 different clubs. "I can't get enough of what the Hall offers. I feel an emotional connection with the game, each time I see the film they (Hall of Fame) show in their theater."
In today's MLB landscape where player salaries and analytics appear to garner equal time in the media as accomplishments settled on the diamond, Zeile's interest with those who paved the way for him to succeed in is rare refreshing.
Prior to participating in the Classic, Zeile has had opportunities to visit the many exhibits inside the baseball museum at 25 Main Street in Cooperstown on numerous occasions. When there was an annual MLB Hall of Fame Game, traditionally one club from the American and National Leagues made their way to Cooperstown in mid-season, Zeile played in several of these exhibitions.
"I played on a lot of different teams, and during my career I got to play in them (Hall of Fame Games). I never had a problem taking one of our off days, getting away from the regular grind of the season, and getting to Cooperstown," said Zeile who appeared in four Hall of Fame Games ('95 Cubs, '97 Dodgers, '99 Rangers, and '02 Rockies).
As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Zeile was a Dodgers fan, a club which he payed parts of two seasons with. Through his dad's following of the club, now when Zeile walks the Hall's plaque gallery, a stop at pitching great (and former Dodger) Sandy Koufax's bronze remembrance remains special.
There's another plaque, one of a player associated with being an incredible home run hitter, that Zeile is only to pleased to revisit.
"Hank Aaron is is one of my favorite all-time Hall of Famers," explains Zeile, who currently offers his baseball analysis during New York Mets pre-and post-game shows on SNY TV. "Growing up, you knew about your team, but you really didn't know much about the other players. (Aaron) was a prolific home run guy, and he put up fascinating numbers all around; doubles, runs scored, and hits. Joe Torre tells me stories of hitting before and after Hank in the line-up when they were teammates with the Braves."
Last playing in an MLB game 18 years ago, while with the Mets, playing in the Classic allows Zeile to feel "young", by not only putting on a uniform again, but also throwing on catcher's gear, as well. At 56, you wonder what convinces Zeile, who broke into the big leagues in 1989 with the St. Louis Cardinals, to gear-up and be the batterymate of his fellow MLB alumni pitchers.
"The Mets have given me the gear to use. Playing in (Classic) can be a double-edged sword. My body keeps me in check, through. I get a kick out of competing on some level. Before the game, I'll play catch, throw batting practice, and work up a sweat," explains Zeile during a telephone conversation earlier this week.
Being included in the Hall of Fame Classic allows Zeile to see faces of former players from his era. Many of the alumni participating in the Classic Zeile hasn't been in contact with for some time. His visit to Cooperstown allows him the luxury to catch up, and hear how their lives after baseball are going.
Kristin Zeile, Todd's wife, equally enjoys visiting Cooperstown annually in late May. Staying the weekend at The Otesaga Resort Hotel, on the southern shore of Lake Otsego, offers a quick walk to both Doubleday Field and the baseball museum.
"The weekend goes really fast," tells Zeile. "The Hall and museum represent part of my past. The fundraising that goes with the game for the museum makes me feel really good about my contribution to such an iconic place."
Announced participants in the Classic (and possible teammates of Zeile's) range from former pitcher Gio Gonzalez (representing the Washington Nationals) who played in MLB games just two seasons back in 2020 with the Chicago White Sox, to Steve Sax ( wearing Dodger colors), who retired following the1994 season while playing seven games with the Oakland A's.
As someone who respects baseball's past, this Classic's coaching staff will be filled with a half dozen Hall of Fames. Wade Boggs, Ferguson Jenkins, and Ted Simmons are included in this unique gathering of baseball elites, for their fans and alumni to make the Classic an overall stress-free environment
Aside from mingling with his fellow players on the Doubleday's grass, later that Saturday evening after the Classic, Zeile will have another opportunity to speak informally with the others players who round out the roster, as well as meet with the fans. For two hours on May 28, beginning at 6:00 p.m., Zeile and the rest of the players and coaching staff will be positioned throughout Doubleday Field for a "Night At The Ballpark" adventure. Fans will have opportunities to meet the participants of the Classic at this time.
Potentially, this offers more chatting time for Zeile with his brethren, and to make additional lasting memories for fans attending this event . Lest we forget, sharing time in his perspective team's dugout surely will bring smiles and laughter to all the participants.
Coming to Cooperstown for the Classic is akin to going back to the future for Zeile this Memorial Day weekend. Given his enthusiasm for the Hall of Fame's event, odds are Zeile will be the first of his 29 other MLB alumni to have his bags packed for his trip north. Why wouldn't he be? Above all else, Todd Zeile is a baseball fan.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter from the Mohawk Valley, now living in Florida. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.