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Chuck Williams: Cooperstown becomes Braves' field of dreams

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. --

This village they call Cooperstown is being invaded this weekend.

The state of Georgia should go ahead and annex it and save everyone the trouble. Draw up the papers and do it quickly so we can have grits for breakfast Sunday morning just before they induct a National Baseball Hall of Fame Class that has a distinct and peachy Georgia flavor.

Three former Braves -- Manager Bobby Cox and pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux -- make for a Georgia triple. Throw in Columbus native Frank Thomas, who spent most of his 19-year big league career with the Chicago White Sox, and you have a Georgia grand slam. Former big league managers Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre, who had a brief stint with the Braves, round out the 2014 class.

Thomas got into town Thursday and his wife surprised him with a party attended by 100 of his closest friends.

But Friday afternoon all of the action was on Main Street, which was closed to traffic and felt like the plaza at Turner Field. And if you were not looking at shops like Mickey's Place and Shoeless Joe's, you would be tempted to ask someone who was pitching for the Braves.

Everywhere you turned someone had on a Braves cap, T-shirt or jersey. There was even a B.J. Upton jersey -- insert your own joke here.

And if the Braves fans were not enough to give you the Atlanta feel, all you had to do was look at the former big leaguers signing autographs for cash.

Just a block from the Baseball Hall of Fame, former Braves slugger Dale Murphy had them lined up. Murphy was being Murphy, chatting up everybody who paid $45 for his signature.

There was an irony in the fact that this is the Braves weekend in Cooperstown, and Murphy is not in the Hall of Fame, and likely won't be despite being a two-time National League Most Valuable Player.

That's baseball.

Andrew Gibbon, a Braves fan raised in Columbia, S.C. and now living in Washington D.C., was walking Main Street with his father, Julian.

"You walk down the street and Wade Boggs just walks right by you," Andrew Gibbon said. "Every baseball fan should do this at least once."

Rickey Henderson, Pete Rose, Andre Dawson and dozens of other players were mixed in with the fans along Main Street.

But that is not who the Braves fans are here to see. It is all about Maddux, Glavine and Cox. And the big show is at 1:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon. The rest of the weekend is just an excuse for a party and few rounds of golf for the more than 55 living Hall of Famers in town.

The planes leaving Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport headed to this part of New York were full of Braves fans.

On one flight from Atlanta to Albany, N,Y., a good 70 percent of the passengers had on Braves gear of some sort.

Former Brave John Rocker -- the man from Macon, Ga., who should have probably declined that 1999 Sports Illustrated interview in which he said a lot of things he should not have about New York -- was signing autographs for $20 a pop in front of a memorabilia shop.

"Two out of every three people I see are Braves fans," he said.

Rocker wasn't the only former Braves making a little cash signing shirts, hats and balls.

And to show it's not all classy. Rocker had a stack of T-shirts in front of him that read "Speak English," a tip of the cap to one of his quotes in Sports Illustrated.

Like the fans, Rocker said he was in Cooperstown to support his former teammates Glavine and Maddux and his old skipper Cox.

"This is a big deal," Rocker said.

Yes it is. Big enough that the Braves radio crew did their pregame show Friday night from here.

Former Brave outfielder Ryan Klesko was signing at a table beside Rocker. Business was a little slow, so he was on the phone hashing out dinner plans.

Better make a reservation. Everything here in Cooperstown and the nearby communities are full. Braves fans are staying as far away as Albany and Syracuse, each an hour an a half drive in opposite directions.

Hall of Fame officials are expecting crowds in excess of 50,000 for Sunday's induction.

Others are guessing it could reach 70,000 or more.

Imagine squeezing that crowd into Manchester, Ga.

That is what they are trying to do in the Leatherstocking Region of New York.

That sock is going to be tight.

Some, like the Gibbons, showed up Friday to get a feel for the place before gridlock sets in today and Sunday.

"This reminds me of South Carolina," said Braves fan Julian Gibbons from Columbia, S.C. "You got corn fields and all of the farmland coming in."

That is appropriate,

This is truly a field of dreams for Braves fans.

Chuck Williams, senior reporter, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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