In the eyes of voters, David Ortiz’s baseball credentials are Hall of Fame-worthy.
To the Village of Cooperstown, N.Y., Big Papi is a certifiable Pied Piper.
Legions of New England Ortiz fans will hit the road this weekend, filling the streets, stores and motels surrounding the tourism-dependent hamlet. In doing so, they’ll provide a Papi-sized economic relief package that is perfectly timed. It will mark the first “normal” Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum induction weekend since pre-pandemic 2019.
“We still want the Hall of Fame to be cream of the crop and you definitely need that standard, in my mind, but business-wise, Ortiz really did help us bounce back from the two years that our area has gone through,” said Scott Barton, owner of the Lake ‘N Pines Motel and Hickory Grove Motor Inn. “Even though I’m an avid Yankees fan, a diehard Yankees fan — trust me, he put a lot of heartbreak in us in his time — I’m definitely excited to see him going into the Hall of Fame.”
Twelve hours after the Red Sox icon’s election was announced on Jan. 25, Barton’s lodges went from 50 percent occupancy to 100 percent for induction weekend, with the bulk of new reservations coming from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
With studies by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum showing that visitors spend approximately 90 cents of every dollar on surrounding businesses — with the other 10 cents going to the museum itself — Ortiz’s election hits the upstate New York region’s sweet spot of timing, geography, and personality.
“When you have somebody with that sort of popularity and whose primary team was that close to Cooperstown, it certainly is going to mean an uptick in not just visitors for this weekend, but in the future,” said Josh Rawitch, president of the Hall of Fame. “People wanting to come and see his plaque, people wanting to purchase the merchandise that we have surrounding the induction because it is such a, frankly, once-in-a-lifetime experience for someone who’s a David Ortiz fan — there’s never going to be another thing like this.
“For the village itself, it’s the feeling that things are going to be back to normal and in a good way,” Rawitch continued. “That there’s just going to be tens of thousands of people here, coming to the local businesses and spending money on restaurants and hotels and bars and souvenirs. All of that, it’s pretty powerful.”
The Hall of Fame refrains from making estimates on attendance, but a “normal” induction weekend draws between 30,000 to 50,000. A turnout at or exceeding the high end of that range looks realistic this year.
It’s too soon to say if the crowd will break the record 80,000-plus who came in for Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. in 2007, but there will be a throng all weekend, including a Sunday night “Cooperstown Dominican Latin Fest” with Ortiz and other notables at the nearby Brewery Ommegang — free to the first 5,000 who show up.
The last “normal” induction in 2019 was also when the first unanimous electee, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, was inducted. Around 55,000 were in attendance.
The following summer was going to be another story.
The 2020 induction ceremony was to feature Yankee icon Derek Jeter and “they were thinking of anywhere up to 100,000″ Yankees fans making the trek to Cooperstown to pay homage to their captain, said Tara Burke, executive director of Cooperstown’s Chamber of Commerce. “The pandemic really created a challenge there.”
The July 2020 induction was wiped out, and so was the following summer’s.
When Jeter was finally inducted in a mid-week, off-season ceremony last September, approximately 20,000 showed up.
While local businesses struggled to adapt to the tourist-less economy for two years, the hospitality industry was hit the hardest.
Otsego County, where Cooperstown sits, has a 4 percent occupancy tax. Revenue from the third quarter — when the traditional induction ceremony as well as the youth baseball tournaments drawing players, coaches and family take place — traditionally comprises roughly 65 percent of annual tax revenues.
The total occupancy taxes collected in 2020 totaled just over $612,000, about 72 percent less than the $2.17 million collected in 2019.
“With COVID and having Jeter here, you know, the county kind of got shafted in that and I think Jeter got shafted, too because we thought he’d draw a huge crowd,” said Allen Ruffles, treasurer of Otsego County. “But now that COVID is kind of past us in a way, David Ortiz might give us the huge bump that we were looking for with Jeter because Boston’s still local.”
Jeff Katz, former mayor of Cooperstown, said that it “already feels like a normal summer” in the village. Restaurants are busy, traffic’s picked up, adding up to what is “really a harbinger of induction.”
And while it’s too soon to say if COVID crowd hesitancy or gas prices will impact turnout, Katz senses Ortiz will draw an “above-average” crowd for what Katz describes as “the best baseball block party in the country.”
It’s hard to imagine an Ortiz fan who’d want to miss that.