ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Baseball fans normally don’t see a pitcher embrace a hitter who has just taken him deep. Fans also don’t expect a birthday cake to be delivered to a player in the middle of a game. And most games don’t feature introductions where the participants emerge from cornstalks in the outfield.
The Pepsi MAX Field of Dreams Game is no typical baseball game.
The exhibition, featuring some of the greatest players in Major League Baseball history, allows former players a rare opportunity to relive the glory on the baseball diamond while providing a once-in-a-lifetime chance for baseball fans to take the field with all-time greats. On May 18, over 13,000 baseball fans filled Frontier Field in Rochester, N.Y. for the second annual game featuring Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Pedro Martinez, Wade Boggs, Frank Thomas, Ozzie Smith, Trevor Hoffman, Mike Schmidt, Fred McGriff and Johnny Bench.
Johnny Perotti, a 27-year old Yankee fan from Rochester, won the Pepsi MAX consumer sweepstakes that allowed him to recruit a team of friends and family to take the field alongside American League legends including former Yankee greats Jackson, Henderson and Boggs. Yes, all the players emerged Field of Dreams style through a cornfield set up in center field.
Although Perotti’s American League team lost the six-inning game 11-7, the debt collector played shortstop alongside a team made up of his childhood heroes.
“This has been incredible,” Perotti said. “It’s basically a dream come true. These legends have been great. Their interaction, the stories. It’s incredible. It’s the only way I can describe it.”
While the game represents an amazing opportunity for fans like Perotti and his National League counterpart Stephen Katchmark Jr. to suit up alongside living legends, the exhibition is special for the former major league players as well.
“This is all about baseball and it gives these people an opportunity to see some of their heroes when they were growing up,” National League team member and Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith said. “Of course for us, the camaraderie is what we miss the most when we get out of the game. So having a chance to visit with these guys is always great and we have a chance to give the fans a chance to live their childhood dreams.”
Wade Boggs, the 12-time All-Star and 1996 World Series champion with the Yankees, looked forward to coming back for the game after participating in the inaugural event in 2012 in Columbus, OH.
“It gives you an opportunity to get back on the field and hear the fan applause,” Boggs said. “The big thing that you miss when you leave the game is the applause and it makes you feel good. Plus all the legends and Hall of Famers that are here, it’s always fun to play with them.”
Fred McGriff, who hit 493 home runs and was a five-time All-Star during his 19-year career, made his Field of Dreams game debut, representing the Atlanta Braves. The lanky first baseman, now retired and living in Tampa, looks as long and lean as he did in his playing days. Before the game, McGriff talked about how participating in the game represented a return to his youth.
“This is a chance to play against some of my legends growing up,” McGriff said. “I remember Johnny Bench. I grew up in Tampa and the Cincinnati Reds had spring training in Tampa so when I was young I would go to Al Lopez field back then and get a chance to see Johnny Bench play. Now today to get to play with him.”
Bench, who retired 30 years ago from the Reds after a Hall of Fame career that included 14 All-Star appearances, two World Series championships with the “Big Red Machine” and 10 Gold Gloves, also relished the chance to be back on the field.
“It’s great to be with the guys,” Bench said. “It’s just a brotherhood. It’s just a respect for each other. We’ve been having so much fun kidding and doing. It’s what baseball really is all about. Because we can’t do it anymore. That’s the reason we’re here is that we’re people of dreams now, so that’s why it’s all possible.”
Watching the legends interact during batting practice and on the field during the game showcased how special an experience the game is for all the participants. Reggie Jackson surprised Ozzie Smith with a bear hug during a pre-game interview. Pedro Martinez kept up a steady chatter in the AL legends dugout (“Take him deep!”). Rickey Henderson and Reggie Jackson laughed together, no doubt sharing memories of their time in the Bronx. Wade Boggs confirmed that when he was a kid, he wore Reggie’s number 9 as an homage to one of the greatest sluggers in the game’s history. Boggs even used Reggie’s bat. The word respect doesn’t go far enough to describe the feelings the legends share.
“It’s love,” said Jackson. “I was like that when I saw Mays and Aaron. When they see me they say, ‘That’s our guy.’ It’s cool.”
Jackson, who turned 67 on Saturday and was serenaded with “Happy Birthday” from the fans when the game was stopped in order to bring out a cake, contemplated the greatness of the players on the field with him in Rochester.
“Seeing Rickey, big Frank, Mike Schmidt, a very close friend of mine, considered by many to be the greatest third baseman in history,” Jackson said. “Johnny Bench, considered by many as the greatest catcher in history. Ozzie Smith considered by many the greatest shortstop in history. Trevor Hoffman -- on his worst day he’s one of the best ever. When you roll out Mariano and you roll out him and Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley, there’s only four aces in the deck.”
Hoffman, as great as he was during his 18-year career in which he amassed 601 career saves, had a bit of an off-day on Saturday, surrendering a three-run home run to Perotti’s younger brother, Jesse. (Perhaps the closer intentionally left a hanger up to allow Jesse to live out his dream.) It resulted in an unlikely and heartwarming embrace between Jesse and Hoffman as he rounded third.
“I can’t even explain it,” Jesse said of his home run. “I didn’t even think it was going out but everybody just told me to keep going. Did that really just happen? I don’t know. I don’t even know what to say. Rounding the bases was crazy.
“It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened in our lives,” Jesse continued. There are no words to describe how we feel today.”