Next month’s Baseball Hall of Fame induction will be Jeff Idelson’s 26th, and last, as an employee of the Hall, but it will be his first with a new member voted in unanimously.
“It’s incredible,” the Hall of Fame’s outgoing president said on Wednesday of former Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera. “I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.”
Now he thinks he might witness something else he never thought he would see: a Cooperstown crowd larger than the record estimate of 82,000 in 2007 for Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn.
Nothing since has approached that. Last year was the second-biggest crowd, and that was 53,000.
“There’s no reason, if the weather behaves and Mother Nature deals us a good hand, that we shouldn’t have 70 to 75,000 in attendance,” Idelson said, based in part on projected bus traffic. “If the weather holds out, this could be potentially the biggest one ever.”
That is not only because of Rivera. Idelson noted the class of Rivera, Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines and Lee Smith covers several big, avid baseball markets.
“The players who allow themselves to have a relationship with the fans at any level are the ones who draw the most,” Idelson said. “It’s not necessarily the greatest, biggest stars, but those that connect with the fans. Mariano connected with the fans really beautifully. I have no doubt New York is going to come out to salute him.”
Idelson also expects many Panamanians to show up in support of a native son.
As for the speech itself, Idelson said, “For a guy who made a living with a smooth delivery, I don’t expect anything to change on the induction stage. He’ll be well-prepared. I think in some ways the enormity of it all is starting to set in, but I know he’s enjoying every moment of it.”
Idelson, who turns 55 on Saturday, joined the Hall in 1994 — after leaving the Yankees’ public relations department – and was named its president in 2008.
Although he will stay on as a consultant until after the induction on July 21, his last day as president is Sunday. Idelson will be succeeded by longtime Angels communications man Tim Mead.
Idelson said he simply felt “it was time” to move on. His new baseball-related project is called “Grassroots Baseball,” which promotes amateur baseball at every level.
“I spent eight years promoting the major league game [with the Red Sox and Yankees]; I spent 25 years promoting Hall of Famers and the history of the game,” he said. “At this point in my life I want to do a little bit more on the giving-back side and go back to my roots, which is amateur baseball.”
Idelson and his partner in that venture, Jean Fruth, appeared at a launch party in Manhattan for a lavish, coffee-table book titled “Grassroots Baseball, Where Legends Begin,” that features more than 250 images captured by Fruth, a photographer. Proceeds from the event went to the Harlem Little League.
Among the Hall of Famers whose words accompany the pictures are former Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford and Kings Park High School alumnus Craig Biggio.
“I was aiming for telling the story of grassroots baseball from a cultural level,” Fruth said. “Baseball looks different in different places.” One of those places, New York, has its own chapter.
Idelson grew up in the Boston area and worked as a Fenway Park vendor in his youth, but he spent five years with the Yankees in the mostly dark days of the early 1990s.
“Whenever I walk back into Yankee Stadium, even though it’s not the one I worked at, I feel like I’m coming home in a lot of ways,” he said. “The Yankees are always a big part of my heart.”
Idelson said his first day at the Hall was for Phil Rizzuto’s induction in 1994, “so perhaps it’s apropos that I end with Mariano Rivera, another Yankee – and a closer, at that.”