Hall of Fame pitches a foul ball to movie cast

Friday, April 11, 2003

Not every screwball in the Hall of Fame is a baseball.

One of them just happens to be its president.

That would be Dale Petroskey, and after this latest mess, there's reason to wonder how much longer he will hold on to that exalted position.

Petroskey, a former assistant press secretary in the Reagan administration, wrote a letter Monday to actor Tim Robbins informing him the hall was canceling a 15th anniversary celebration of the movie "Bull Durham" scheduled for April 26 and 27 at Cooperstown.

Had Petroskey deep-sixed Robbins for a barely credible throwing motion while portraying fireballing right-hander Nuke LaLoosh in the movie, that would have been one thing. Instead, the hall boss cited Robbins' anti-war stance.

He said the actor's "very public criticism of President Bush ... helps undermine the U.S. position, which ultimately could put our troops in even more danger."

This is how far wide of the plate that pitch was delivered: Just a few days before Petroskey wrote the letter, sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt told a reporter that to lift spirits, they increasingly tuned off the news in favor of lighter entertainment. One of their favorites, naturally, was "Bull Durham."

"I donated the uniform I wore to the hall," Robbins said. "Man, what an honor that was. Now I just hope it's there the next time I get back."

By Thursday, the actor was more resigned than mad. A day earlier, he dashed off a response to Petroskey, telling him: "You belong with the cowards and ideologues in a hall of infamy and shame."

Until then, Robbins and Susan Sarandon, his co-star in the movie and longtime companion, had intended to take their sons to the anniversary celebration. While there, Robbins planned to look in on the uniform, part of the hall's "Baseball in the Movies" exhibit. Now they won't be going anywhere near the place.

"This was just a celebration, a chance to see some friends from the movie and make what's become almost an annual trip with our boys," Sarandon said.

"I'm not sure what he was so scared about. As far as I knew, we weren't speaking. I wasn't even planning to wear makeup. And to politicize baseball," she added, "is to violate the spirit of what it's all about."

Indeed, major league baseball distanced itself almost immediately, saying in a statement it had "nothing to do with the Hall of Fame event."

"It is not our practice to make political statements," spokesman Rich Levin added.

Petroskey, who became president four years ago, was unavailable for comment. But hall spokesman Jeff Idelson said, "The letter stands for itself." He added that 5,000 e-mails poured in Thursday alone, both pro and con.

"It's too early to sort them out," he said. "Suffice it to say we're an emotional venue."

Baseball's place in American life, while hardly as prominent as it was once, still matters.

During World War II, President Roosevelt ordered the games to go on and Hall of Famer Bob Feller still recalls how scores were printed on the same sheet as the orders of the day and how most mornings, he memorized both before settling in behind a 40mm cannon on the deck of a battleship in the South Pacific.

When an earthquake devastated San Francisco just moments before the first pitch of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, the city asked baseball to resume play as quickly as possible. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the game provided an emotional rallying point in one community after another. All told, there are 66 members of the hall who served in the military during wartime.

Say what you want about the propriety of celebrities sounding off on complex issues, but Robbins knows plenty about the lore and history of baseball. He grew up in New York City playing stickball, stoopball and softball in the park and made the first of his four trips to Cooperstown as a 10-year-old.

He signed his letter to Petroskey with a reference to an old World Series champion: "Long live democracy, free speech and the '69 Mets -- all improbable, glorious miracles that I have always believed in."

He didn't stop there.

"These kind of bullying, intimidating tactics have no place in democracy," Robbins said, "and certainly no place in baseball. I'm still wondering what kind of message they were sending me and anybody else who happens to disagree with this president."

On the plus side, Robbins vowed the cancellation won't keep him from returning to the hall. But he won't even start making plans to get there until the middle of the summer, sometime after an exhibit on "Baseball and the Presidency" has already closed.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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