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USA: Hit a Vacation Grand Slam at the Baseball Hall of Fame

"I have three things to say," said a very worried-looking teacher type to a group of boys sitting on the steps of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. "Number One - the bus has just blown a tire. Number Two - where's Shorty? He's late." We never did get to hear Number Three. The kids began to punch each other with excitement. Hurray for the flat tire and the missing Shorty! A gift had just been handed to them-time to explore this town that's become so much more than a cow pasture where baseball supposedly began.

I could relate to those kids. For years, I had been suggesting this vacation destination on the shores of Lake Otsego, New York, about a seven-hour drive from Toronto. I figured that my husband could show the boys every baseball that's been in a no-hitter since 1939, the fingerless gloves that looked like they couldn't catch a falling leaf let alone a ball, and photos of Mickey Mantle, his hero at their age. My daughter and I could observe at a distance. We would venture into the Hall of Fame for a quick look-see but it was not a day-long event- even if scribes had declared the museum one of the four must-sees in America, along with the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and Disneyland.

Well I figured wrong. From the moment we entered the building, greeted by a lifesize replica of Babe Ruth, through the displays of old catcher's masks (looking like twisted radiator covers), past the Negro Leagues exhibit on to the Great Moments room, a rousing film about the sport, and photos of World Series, all of us were captivated. It was a day-long event to tour three floors with a quick lunchtime stop at the Short Stop Restaurant down the street.

My husband lingered in the Hall of Fame itself, where the bronze plaques record the feats of the one percent of major league players that have been inducted. But my sons came away doing the famous Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine until we were sick of it (they'd never heard it before). My daughter recognized the Women in Baseball room from the film "League of Their Own" starring Rosie O'Donnell, Tom Hanks, and Madonna and spent time comparing the actual players with the film stars. There was something for every age from the small ball stuffed with rags from the mid-1800s through pieces of demolished ball parks to interactive displays introducing Hall of Famers. No wonder this building- and this town-has attracted more than 10 million visitors since it opened in 1939. Visitor attendance may be decreasing at the ball parks, but here, it's on the rise with hundreds of thousands arriving each year. Where else in the world can you shop for a signed bat, see Babe Ruth in wax at the wax museum, pose in baseball cutouts, and buy a hot dog from an old-fashioned stand, all within a few blocks?

Just as entertaining as the displays are the visitors. When Abner Doubleday chased the cows out of Elihu Phinney's cow pastures on an afternoon in 1839 to play a game resembling baseball, he had no idea what he was unleashing. Father -and-son teams stroll the main street wearing matching caps and jerseys; grown men arrive in shirts covered in pennants or ties strewn with home runs. When visitors start arguing about statistics, someone hauls out a record book, and within seconds, has settled the argument. At the recently installed Library & Archive, you can listen to play-by-play of historic games in radio booths, read newspaper clippings, or find out which of the 83 baseball movies you haven't seen yet. Now there's an activity to get you through the winter. For many parents and kids, this place is baseball heaven.

But what if you or your kids hate baseball? No problem. Part of the charm of this historic town is that there's still lots to do. There's the National Soccer Hall of Fame in nearby Oneonta, two state parks with hiking, cross-country skiing and skating, and the Fly Creek Cider Mill and Orchard, where until Christmas, Tuesday through Sunday, you can see apples being pressed into cider and sample apple pie. Younger kids will enjoy the Farmer's Museum and Village Crossroads, an old-fashioned 19th-century village open through December where they can watch the blacksmith, roll a hoop along the green, and pretend they're pioneers. Older kids will appreciate Fenimore House across the street with its fabulous collections of folk art and impressive displays of native artifacts, much of it from Canada. But that's another story along with the one that it was really the northern native peoples who invented baseball.

In the meantime, kids like Shorty and families like ours can discover that there's more to Cooperstown than just a couple of bats and balls-especially now when the crowds have dispersed and you can explore the town at your leisure.

Families can purchase a Discovery Pass that allows entry to the Farmers' Museum, Fenimore House, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum-$22 U.S. for adults/ $9.50 for kids seven to 12 and free for under 7's. Call (607) 547-7200. The Hall of Fame is open every day except American Thanksgiving, (Nov. 28 this year), Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is $9.50 U.S. for adults, $4 for kids seven to 12, free for under 7's. Group rates available.





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