Editor's note: This is the extended version of a story that appears in the Dec. 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
Cooperstown is not easy to get to, but it’s even harder to leave.
I’ve made it a point to go back every year since I was inducted in 1999, and I have, with the exception of one year when a close friend died just before Hall of Fame weekend and I decided to go to his funeral.
I remember calling Jeff Idelson, the president of the Hall, to apologize for not coming even though I had promised I would, and he said, "George, don’t worry. You’re doing the right thing."
The Hall of Fame is kind of like family that way.
The year of my induction, I was on the veranda of the Otesaga Hotel, where they have these great rocking chairs. You sit in them and look out over beautiful Otsego Lake and the 18th green at the Leatherstocking Golf Course.
I sat down in one of the chairs, and who should pull up the rocking chair next to me but Brooks Robinson.
He was my idol growing up, so much so that I chose No. 5 as my uniform number, just like he wore. So now we both make it a point every year to sit in those rocking chairs, reminisce and have a drink.
Another induction weekend event I love is our golf tournament at Leatherstocking. It’s a shotgun scramble, and in 2005, I was paired with Bill Murray and Yogi Berra. Yeah, I know: Just the names Bill Murray and Yogi Berra make you smile.
We’re on the fifth green, and Yogi has this long putt. He comes up short and says, "If I had hit it harder, it would have missed closer."
Bill and I looked at each other and started laughing hysterically. We had just heard an original Yogi-ism.
I also love the banquet at the Otesaga. Hall of Famers only. I sit with the wine snobs: Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Carlton Fisk, Rollie Fingers and Sandy Koufax. We each bring a special bottle to share. Seaver usually brings one from his Napa Valley vineyard, GTS -- stands for George Thomas Seaver, his real name. Koufax always brings a really interesting wine.
We let Robin Yount sit with us even though he forgets to bring a bottle.
Joe Morgan is at the table too, although we kid him that he should be over at the Punch-and-Judy table with Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith.
It’s like a high school cafeteria. Guys sit with guys from their own era, managers with managers. But you have to pinch yourself. I mean, I’m drinking wine with Sandy Koufax.
The year I was inducted, Mike Schmidt came back for the first time since his induction in 1995. He told me it was out of respect for Yount and me, which meant a lot.
Mike and I played in the same era, even posed for a Sports Illustrated cover together, but we didn’t really know each other until Cooperstown. Now he’s a really close friend. Our wives are really close, and we've vacationed together. Imagine that.
Reggie Jackson has also become a close friend because of Cooperstown. I hated Reggie when we played. And now we’re buds.
The All-Star Game was in Kansas City this year, so he called to tell me he was coming out for the game and asked if we could get together. I invited him to a barbecue at my house on the Saturday before the game -- just close friends and family. Thirty years ago, we wanted to beat each other’s brains out, but there he was, staying 'til the end and having a great time with the people who are closest to me.
I always knew the Hall of Fame was special. I just didn’t know how special.
I feel like the Kevin Costner character in "Field of Dreams" when Joe Jackson asks him, "Hey, is this heaven?"
No, it’s Cooperstown.