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A day for legends and heroes // FANS TURN OUT, TOO

John Nezolosky is a Yankees fan. And he vividly remembers a game back in the 1940s when Ted Williams led the Boston Red Sox to a victory.

Though he thinks Williams was on the wrong team, the Long Island resident still regards him as one of the finest to ever play baseball. So Nezolosky trekked to Citrus County this week to capture the Hitters Hall of Fame induction on film.

"I think this is something I'll never forget," said Nezolosky, 68, who plans to donate some of his photos to a sports bar back in New York. "I was probably one of the last people to see Ted Williams play baseball and at his museum. I wish I could have gotten his autograph."

Sure, it was hot outside. They craned their necks, but some people still couldn't see inside the tent, where only VIPs were allowed. And yes, the souvenir programs ($15 plus tax) may have been overpriced.

But nothing could calm the diehard baseball fans who turned out Tuesday to see, hear and seek autographs from the players. For many, it was a return trip to childhood, when baseball was what it was meant to be.

"It's very good this year," said a flushed Barbara Meier, 61, who drove from Spring Hill with her husband, Bob. "Ted Williams is the greatest ball player. Today, it's not for the game, it's for the money. But I have no complaints; I love it."

Meier was more forgiving than others, but most fans agreed that this year offered better access for fans who traveled to Citrus _ some more than two hours _ to see, if only for a second, the baseball greats.

In years past, fans couldn't snap photos of the baseball players as they got out of their limousines and walked into the museum.

Citrus Hills resident John Longden, 61, stood just outside the crowd-control cord with a childhood friend dressed in a Cardinals jersey. As the limos arrived, the two, who grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., could hardly contain their boyish excitement.

"I want to see Stan Musial," Longden said.

Nearby, a retired couple from Minnesota greeted a former neighbor who would later be inducted into the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame: former Minnesota great Harmon Killebrew.

"Hi Harmon! Friends from Burnsville, MN," read their sign.

This year, the crowd was significantly smaller, and the tent flaps were raised so people could peek inside to see the speakers. But the tent was smaller, so few could sit down. A better sound system took care of that, so even if fans couldn't see, they had no trouble hearing.

Unlike in last year's event, no baseball card show was set up in the background for fans to pay for autographs. That presented fans with a challenge: to come up with creative ways to secure those coveted signatures. The younger set turned out to be the most adept.

Diane Kelley steadied her 11-year-old son, Dustin, as he snapped photographs with his bright yellow camera, even though some of the stars played long before his time.

This was an opportunity not to be missed, Dustin said, especially because he might just get San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds to sign his baseball. Of course, getting an autograph wouldn't be easy, he said. But he was hopeful.

Then the limo came.

"That's him," Dustin said, "Oh God, look at him."

Flanked by a bodyguard, Bonds stopped to sign an autograph, and children scrambled over with pens to try to get him to sign more. But he walked on, and Dustin came back autograph-less.

Hours later, Bonds accepted his Hitter of the Year award with a quick speech and ducked out, saying he had to make his plane.

"Thank you," he said, hurrying past a horde of children, leaving Dustin with an unsigned ball in hand.

Sean and Brook Roberton, who live in Canada, fared better. Sean, 14, caught Colorado Rockies player Dante Bichette in the tent and prodded his brother to secure Bichette's autograph.

"Just go in there," Sean told 12-year-old Brook as they ran off. "He's really nice. He's taking pictures with people!"

Museum officials never promised people would be able to pose with the celebrities or get close enough to get baseballs or cards signed. That didn't stop eighth-grader Cheri Bixler.

Bixler and several friends made use of a small tear in the tent near the stage to pass baseball cards to the players sitting nearby. The players were gracious.

"We've been sneaking in getting autographs," said Cheri, who collected baseball cards in 1987, and skipped part of the day at Citrus Springs Middle School. "We have a better chance of getting autographs because we're some of the only kids out here."

BASES FULL: Ted Williams, with his back turned, shares some baseball memories with (from left) Hank Aaron, Dante Bichette and Duke Snider. Bichette and Snider joined Aaron, the all-time home run king, in receiving Hitters Hall of Fame honors this year.

BARRY SIGNS: Three-time National League MVP Barry Bonds signs a few autographs on his way into the Ted Williams Museum on Tuesday.

MAKING CONTACT: Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner greets an enthusiastic fan after Tuesday's ceremonies. Players generally were friendly as they passed, but few stopped for autographs.

EDGAR SIGNS: Seattle's Edgar Martinez, a two-time All Star, signs baseballs for Little Leaguers on his way into the museum Tuesday.

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