About this time every summer, Larry Puleo feels like a kid again, about to relive a Christmas morning with plenty of presents under the tree.
That's because the 66-year-old longtime Oil City resident is preparing to once again take a journey to Cooperstown, New York, to work as a volunteer for the 13th straight year at the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony weekend.
"It's a fun event, and for me, it's a great opportunity because I'm a self-proclaimed baseball nut and this is right up my alley," Puleo said. "I just got the email back in June saying what chores I'll be doing up there. It will be a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it."
This year's Hall of Fame weekend will take place from Friday, July 19, through Monday, July 22, in the tiny village located in the southern end of Otsego Lake.
The roster of inductees for the 2019 HOF class is quite large with a total of six players entering the Hall. The class features pitching greats Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay (posthumously) and Lee Smith as well as a pair of designated hitters in Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines.
"They always have large crowds and they should have a good-sized crowd again this year with the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera going in," Puleo said. "The first year I was there, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn were going in and I didn't know what to expect. There were about 75,000 people there and I was like, wow, that's a large crowd, and that's the largest crowd they'd had at that point."
Puleo began his yearly trek to Cooperstown back in 2007 after reading about a need for volunteers in the HOF's quarterly publication called Memories and Dreams.
"Back in 2007, they put a notice in Memories and Dreams that they were expecting a big crowd and were in need of volunteers," Puleo said. "I was retired and I thought that it sounded like a lot of fun, so I applied and they sent me a form to fill out and I sent it in. Lo and behold, I got a letter saying this is when we need you and I've been going ever since.
"There are two things that trigger my mind in regards to this every year," Puleo said. "In January, when the HOF class is announced, I will get on the phone and make my hotel reservations if I hadn't done so already. Then in February or March, they will send me the form and ask me to fill it out if I'm still interested and send it back to them. And usually, I will get an email about a month before the event saying what I will be doing up there."
Puleo, who retired from Polk Center in 2005, always begins his six-plus hour journey to Cooperstown on the Thursday before the festivities, and he stays in a nearby town about a 45-minute drive away due to the lack of available rooms.
He then takes a day to himself on Friday to walk around the scenic town with its tiny stores and shops and see what HOF legends have set up booths to sign autographs for a fee.
"I like to walk around on Friday and see if there is somebody downtown that I want to get an autograph from and I take some baseballs with me," Puleo said. "I don't like to pay for autographs, unless it's somebody special, and one that was pretty special to me was former Pittsburgh Pirates great Ralph Kiner. He was always my dad's favorite, so getting him to sign was real special for me."
Puleo then begins his duties working security on Saturday morning at a golf outing held for the returning Hall members and their guests at the Leatherstocking Golf Course. After volunteering there until about 1 p.m., he moves on to work security at an awards banquet held for broadcasters and writers at Doubleday Field at 4:30 p.m.
"Two years ago, they added the golf outing to my duties and this will be my third year working that," Puleo said. "That's a pretty neat affair and it's been a lot of fun. There's maybe 40 Hall of Fame members there and my job is just to make sure that nobody bothers them when they are playing their round of golf. Guys like Wade Boggs, Randy Johnson and Bobby Cox will all participate in that and some of them will stop and sign autographs for the fans. Boggs is one of the players who really likes to sign for them."
After the banquet, the Hall members load up in the back of pickup trucks and ride down Main Street in the Parade of Legends, which culminates at the steps of the Hall of Fame and Museum. A dinner for the members and their spouses or significant others takes place after the parade.
Puleo's weekend duties are capped off on Sunday as he works more security at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony at 1:30 p.m. at the Clark Sports Center, which is located about a half-mile out of town.
As much as Puleo enjoys seeing the new crop of ballplayers achieve their dream of getting inducted into the Hall, his real pleasure comes from being around the old-time legends of the game.
"I'm not allowed to ask the players for autographs or pictures while I'm working, but it's a real kick for me just to get an opportunity to get up close and say hello," Puleo said. "I prefer the old-timers. Over the years I've gotten to be around some of these guys, and in my opinion, they are the best.
"Guys like Kiner, Robin Roberts, Orlando Cepeda, Brooks Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Ferguson Jenkins, Tom Seaver, Ernie Banks and Whitey Ford were all class acts and real gentlemen. These guys played the game when they didn't get millions of dollars. They enjoyed the game, they respected the game and they loved the game. I'm not saying the younger guys don't, but it's just a real kick for me to get to see a lot of guys I watched on TV when I was a kid or saw in person at Forbes Field or Three Rivers Stadium."
But one of Puleo's fondest memories of his time there came out of an act of kindness from former pitcher Jenkins.
"Ferguson Jenkins was uptown there a couple of years ago and he was offering an autographed baseball for $25 and all the money went to charity," Puleo said. "When you see these guys doing stuff like that, it adds to your level of respect for them. There are a lot of cool things like that happening up there and I really enjoy it."
After all the enjoyment Puleo has gotten out of being in Cooperstown over the years, he would definitely recommend going there to any baseball fan who hasn't done so already.
"It's like being a kid again at Christmas," he said. "If you've never been to Cooperstown, you owe it to yourself to go there sometime. Cooperstown is a small little village with lots of little shops and stores. It's maintained that village image and it hasn't changed. It's like stepping back in time or being in a Norman Rockwell painting."