Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, has spoken to groups of kids before.
But over 1,000, and at the same time?
“Not that many, not in one place,” Idelson laughed. “It was great. I’ve done a lot of fun stuff here. I went to Yoro (in Gifu Prefecture) to see them turn bats at the Mizuno bat factory. I saw them turn an Ichiro bat.
“What happened was, I wanted to see Little League baseball while I was here,” he told The Japan Times on Wednesday at Tokyo Dome. “Working with the Hall of Fame in Japan, they said ‘OK, Tokyo’s Little League opening day is Sunday.’ So they asked me to speak.”
Idelson, who also threw out a ceremonial first pitch for the little leaguers, is in Japan to take in the sights and sounds of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
“I’m here on behalf of the Hall of Fame,” Idelson said. “The WBC has such importance on our baseball calendar that every time the event happens, I go. I hadn’t been to Japan since the Mets and Cubs opened the 2000 season here, so I thought it was an opportune time to plug into the WBC, renew some relationships and develop new ones.”
The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown works closely with its Japanese counterpart, located just outside Tokyo Dome. The museums share ideas and officials from each have visited the other.
Idelson walked through the Japanese Hall Wednesday morning and came away with a little deeper understanding of baseball’s place in Japan.
“I didn’t realize the depth of amateur baseball here,” he said. “I knew it was big. I spoke at the Little League opening ceremonies in Tokyo to over a thousand kids, which is different than what we have in the U.S. To see in the museum this morning, all of these different tournaments and leagues . . . not just Koshien, of which I’m very familiar with; the U-23 teams, to the Olympic teams, to all of the different amateur teams, it shows me just how prevalent baseball is throughout the year at all levels. That to me is different than the U.S.”
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown has probably had a similar effect on Japanese baseball icon Ichiro Suzuki, seemingly one of its biggest fans. Ichiro has visited the Hall seven times, and has pledged his entire collection of artifacts to the museum.
“He’s a guy who has a great appreciation for baseball history,” Idelson said. “When he comes to Cooperstown, it’s always under the radar for the sole purpose of learning something new about the game. He’s a master at his craft not only because of his work ethic on the field, but his deep appreciation for the industry in which he works. I followed him when he was at Orix. We actually requested a bat from when he was at Orix. Then when he came to the U.S., we immediately began to document what he was doing. He came to the Hall of Fame after his rookie season and he immediately understood the Hall of Fame’s place in helping to promote the game and its history.”
Ichiro may one day be among the greats enshrined, if the 43-year-old outfielder ever decides to hang up his cleats.
“It remains to be seen if we’ll be alive long enough to see him inducted one day, because he has no intention to stop playing,” Idelson said. “He’s had a magnificent career. I would never presume he’d be inducted, but he’s certainly on a very, very good path to Cooperstown.
“If that day should come for him, I know it’d be meaningful for him. I also know how special it would be for people in Japan to realize this guy reached the top of the mountain and did it with pride and represented this country well.”
There are players who might not find the path as smooth as Ichiro might, owing to the myriad of steroid controversies that overshadow the voting process every year. Idelson said the Hall simply makes the rules, and that the baseball writers do the voting.
“Our rules for election are pretty straightforward,” he said. “They ask writers to look at a player’s ability, character, integrity and sportsmanship. The emphasis is on playing career, but integrity, character and sportsmanship is incredibly important to us. The wishes of the museum that those of strong character, those who respected the game, treated the game correctly, treated the uniform well, be part of the equation for determining election.
“There’s always going to be controversy, but when the voting is completed, our staff is prepared to honor whomever the writers choose to elect.”
While the Hall remains an important part of the game in the U.S., Idelson says it will continue to evolve.
“The wonderful aspect of working in Cooperstown is that we’re always making a concerted effort to be relevant and be evolving,” he said. “Our evolution is ongoing.”