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Beyond the Outfield in Cooperstown

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — It's snowing!"

Coming down the stairs for breakfast at the Cooper Inn, two boys were distracted from the bagels and cornflakes by the sight of snow -- finally! -- falling in great white clumps. They were thrilled, but I was worried: If the roads were coated with snow, how would I ever fill a long weekend in Cooperstown?

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The Baseball Hall of Fame is lovely, but one can only spend so much time there. After a while, all the Yankees memorabilia begins to taunt you, as if maybe you'd be having a better time if you'd only chosen the right team to root for as a child. (I grew up an Orioles fan, and, despite the team's best efforts to shake me, haven't quite kicked the habit.)

But I needn't have worried. As it turns out, Cooperstown is about a lot more than baseball. On my first full day in town -- after a continental breakfast on tables set with white linens at the quaint and historic Cooper Inn -- I never made it to the eastern end of Main Street, where the Hall of Fame occupies a sprawling brick complex.

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It was not for lack of trying. I started off down the tree-lined Main Street, the snow swirling and the light poles wrapped in seasonal greens and topped with wreaths, and was soon distracted by a farmers' market. In a large, old garage, its doors swung open to the elements, more than a dozen merchants sold everything from handknit baby hats to wood cutout roosters to creamy Dutch Girl Cheese from nearby Madison, N.Y.

My first stop, though, was the table set up by Perry Owen, "the British Baker," who sold homemade Welsh cookies, lemon tartlets, mince pies and pumpkin snowdonia squares. Owen, 75, a Welshman who came to the area 27 years ago to work for Procter & Gamble, now makes baked goods from British recipes to sell exclusively at the market.

"The most important thing about selling at the farmers' market is it's not very often that customers can actually talk to the guy who made the stuff," Owen says. "They can ask about me about the recipes, and I teach them how to say 'Good morning' in Welsh."

The market is open Saturdays from May to December, and stands next to Doubleday Field, a 9,000-seat stadium that is home to the annual Hall of Fame game. Before leaving the market, I sampled the granola from Blue Stone Farm - packed with English walnuts, sunflower seeds, coconut, dried cranberries, raisins and other delicious items that combined for the best granola I've ever tasted. I bought a bag and, as soon as I had left the market, ripped it open and ate it with my fingers.

There were few people on the street to notice. In winter, Cooperstown is reclaimed by its 2,000 residents - retirees, staff from the local hospital, and employees of Bassett Healthcare (which includes the large regional hospital) and the state university's biological field station. In the evenings, some of them gather at the Doubleday Cafe on Main Street.

And so I found myself at the bar there one night, a doctor still in his scrubs on my right and Carl Good on my left. Good, 69, lived most of his life in Princeton, N.J., as an engineer. But in 2002, his wife, Pam, on one of her annual trips to Cooperstown to see the Glimmerglass Opera, happened upon a circa-1820 Federal-style house for sale. It was yellow clapboard, with window boxes and old pine floors, and it looked out onto Ostego Lake.

Within 45 minutes, she was in a lawyer's office drawing up a contract for the house. Then she called her husband.

"He was as calm as a cucumber," Pam Good said. "And I said, 'We'll just spend summers here, you can have a boat, and the house needs nothing.'"

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She was right on one of the counts: Her husband keeps two boats that he sails on the lake. As it turned out, the house needed some work (starting from the top - a new roof) and the couple spent more than just summers there. By 2003, they had sold their house in Princeton and moved full-time to Cooperstown. Carl, who had never set foot in the town before 2002, now wouldn't think of leaving.

"I don't think you could drag him out, unless it was feet-first," said his wife.

Fan influx

Residents say they don't mind the crush of visitors that comes every summer, especially on induction weekend. The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum gets about 325,000 visitors each year, 70 percent of them between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

This year's induction ceremony, to be held July 29, is expected to be among the biggest in the hall's history. Until now, the highest attendance was in 1999, when about 50,000 people saw Nolan Ryan and George Brett inducted. But with fan favorites Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn entering this year, the town is bracing for a deluge far exceeding last year's crowd of 11,000.

"Given the national profiles of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, the extremely loyal Baltimore Oriole fan base that we always see in Cooperstown, and having [an inductee's] home team within driving distance, we expect that if the stars align, we would have one of the best induction ceremonies in history," said Brad Horn, communications director for the hall.

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For those who may need a break from the baseball festivities, Cooperstown and its environs offer a surprisingly rich array of diversions. Just outside of town is the Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard, which uses a 19th-century cast iron water turbine and a 1924 gasoline engine - both on display for visitors - to turn apples into cider.

Only visitors in the fall get to see the cider-making process, though. Between early September and December each year, the mill produces 20,000 gallons of sweet, delicious cider. Another 5,000 gallons is frozen to be sold during the summer.

Year-round, the mill offers preserves, apple butter, maple syrup, cheese, fudge (including a variety made with cider) and hard cider. There's also apple wine and apple cranberry wine, as well as wines from a local vineyard - all available for tasting. And in the winter, hot and spicy wassail makes the mill's farmhouse feel as cozy as a small cottage.

For those whose tastes veer more toward hops-based beverages, try the Brewery Ommegang a few minutes outside of Cooperstown. That was on my list, too, but after sampling four wines and two hard ciders - all before lunch - at Fly Creek, I thought a break was in order.

I found the perfect spot to unwind - the Fenimore Art Museum, on the banks of Ostego Lake. Occupying a stately 1930s neo-Georgian mansion, the museum has 11 galleries of permanent and traveling exhibits, including one of the finest folk art collections in the country.

That permanent collection is filled with whimsy and unexpected beauty - including a 6-foot-tall wooden carving of Uncle Sam that doubles as a mailbox, a huge red-and-white quilt from 1870, a pine sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and dramatic works from the Hudson River School of painters.

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On temporary exhibit during my visit were dozens of paintings by Grandma Moses and a collection of photographs by area sixth-graders, who were given cameras by the museum and asked to document their town.

One of them wrote in an introduction to her work, "While I was doing this project, I learned that there is more to Cooperstown than just baseball - you just have to look a little harder to find it."

More than hotdogs

One favorite hangout for residents, I was assured, is the Cooperstown Diner, on Main Street near Chestnut Street. A tiny restaurant no wider than a Baltimore rowhouse, the diner offers basic comfort foods, served in Babe Ruthian proportions.

The Famous Jumbo Cheeseburger I ordered featured a 13-ounce beef patty that was 1 1/2 inches high, lettuce and tomato. It was without a doubt the largest burger I have ever seen, and I gallantly tried to finish it in one sitting. If not for the side of fries, I would have made it, too.

For more refined dining, Nicoletta's Italian Cafe on Main Street can't be beat. With ultra-high ceilings, soft lighting and Sinatra playing in the background, the restaurant possessed the aura of an elegant New York brownstone. And the food was superb, particularly a scallops carbonara and a delicate crab bisque that even crab lovers from Baltimore couldn't find fault with.

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Work off all that great food with a walk through the Farmers' Museum, a collection of 19th-century farm buildings on land that was once a working farm owned by James Fenimore Cooper. Like a miniature Historic Williamsburg, the museum is actually a village that includes a one-room schoolhouse, a general store, a tavern, private homes, a church, a pharmacy, a printing shop and other buildings - all original from the 1800s and carefully moved to the site during the past 50 years.

In each building, staff dress in period costumes and explain their work and lifestyle. In the tavern, a woman played violin and piano and led a group of visitors in classic Christmas carols.

Cooperstown can keep you so busy you almost forget the real reason most people come to town - the Baseball Hall of Fame. I finally got to the hall on a Sunday morning, when there were few other visitors and I could linger over the most fascinating exhibits.

A section called The African-American Baseball Experience was the most moving. The exhibit did not pull punches and included a wide selection of the hate mail sent to Jackie Robinson after the Brooklyn Dodgers made him the first black major leaguer in 1947. (One letter said: "We have already got rid of several like you. One was found in river just recently.")

The hall also includes everything you would want it to - the bat Babe Ruth used to hit his legendary "called shot" during Game 3 of the 1932 World Series; bats, jerseys and gloves belonging to Joe DiMaggio; and old, leathery catcher's mitts from the 1800s.

The Orioles get a display case that expounds on "the Oriole way" - the combination of fundamentals, pitching and three-run homers that powered the Oriole teams of the late '60s through the early '80s. The case includes the bat used by Eddie Murray in the decisive Game 5 of the 1983 World Series, as well as a large collection of Jim Palmer artifacts - orange stirrups, gloves, shoes, the ball from his 1969 no-hitter and the nameplate from his locker.

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Palmer's stats, recorded on his plaque in the hall, are still unbelievable. His lifetime ERA was 2.86, and he never gave up a grand slam.

A $20 million renovation to the hall was completed in 2005, and it now includes more interactive exhibits, a theater space and other diversions that can easily stretch a visit out to three hours.

On induction weekend (July 27-30 this year) the Cooperstown hotels fill up quickly. But come during any other weekend, and you should be able to find a room in town, within walking distance of the hall, the lake and restaurants and shops.

I stayed at the Cooper Inn, a brick Federal-style manor house built between 1813 and 1816. The rooms are small but tasteful and comfortable, and the inn's large first-floor living room with fireplace provided a relaxing hideaway after a long day in town.

With a cup of tea and a book in hand, and the snow softly piling up outside, it was easy to see why so many people who visited Cooperstown decided to stay.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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IF YOU GO

The Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend is July 27-30 in Cooperstown, N.Y. Also keep in mind, May 21 is the annual Hall of Fame Game at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown. This year, the exhibition game is between the Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays. About 1,500 tickets will be available to purchase in-person at the hall Feb. 17. Starting Feb. 26, tickets will be available online, at baseballhalloffame.org, or by calling 888-HALL-OF-FAME. Tickets cost $11 to $12.50.

GETTING THERE

Albany, N.Y., has the closest airport, but there are no nonstop flights from Baltimore. And once you get to Albany, it's still a 90-minute drive to Cooperstown. So for most travelers, driving is probably easiest. It's about six hours from Baltimore. Take Interstate 83 north to Interstate 81 north to Interstate 88 east toward Albany. Take the exit for Route 28 north and drive about 15 miles into Cooperstown.

LODGING

Cooper Inn -- Main and Chestnut streets. 800-348-6222 or cooperinn.com. Winter rates start at $115. The inn is booked for Hall of Fame induction weekend.

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Other -- Rooms in Cooperstown will be hard to find during induction weekend. But there are several surrounding towns that also offer lodging. For information on hotels that still have vacancies for induction weekend, go to cooperstownchamber.org or call 607-547-9983.

DINING

Nicoletta's Italian Cafe -- 96 Main St. 607-547-7499. Open for dinner 4 p.m.-9 p.m. daily. Reservations recommended. Italian cuisine.

Yum Yum Shack -- 4918 Route 28, three miles south of Cooperstown. 607-547-8088 or daveneil.com/yumyum/index.html. Open 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Pastas, steaks, seafood and a children's menu.

Doubleday Cafe -- 93 Main St. 607-547-5468. Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. American cuisine.

ATTRACTIONS

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Baseball Hall of Fame -- 25 Main St. 888-HALL-OF-FAME or baseballhalloffame.org. Open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Fenimore Art Museum -- 5798 Lake Road. 607-547-1400 or fenimoreartmuseum.org. American art, folk art and photography exhibits. The museum is closed January through March.

Farmers' Museum -- 5775 Lake Road. 888-547-1450 or farmersmuseum.org. Take a tour of a 19th-century village featuring blacksmiths, weavers, printers and other examples of rural life. Closed January through March.

Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard -- 288 Goose St., Fly Creek. 800-505-6455 or flycreekcidermill.com. Visitors can sample different types of freshly made ciders as well as a variety of specialty foods. Reopens in mid-May.

Brewery Ommegang -- 656 County Highway 33. 800-544-1809 or ommegang.com. Open noon-5 p.m. daily. Tours and tastings available.

INFORMATION

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Cooperstown/Ostego County Tourism -- 242 Main St., Oneonta, N.Y. 800-843-3394 or visitcooperstown.com.

Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce -- 31 Chestnut St. 607-547-9983 or cooperstownchamber.org.

[STEPHEN KIEHL]

For the record

An article about Cooperstown, N.Y., in the Travel section Sunday included incorrect flight information about getting there. Direct flights are available from Baltimore to Albany on Southwest Airlines. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR


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