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Recapping HOF weekend

BY CHRISTOPHER YOUNG

In Friday’s column, Mitch Krpata didn’t want to talk about the Red Sox, difficult as that might have been. After a memorable weekend in which the Sox took two out of three from their archrivals, the Yankees, I too wouldn’t mind at all talking about the Red Sox, because other than the DNC, there’s no subject more prominent in people’s minds around here than the local nine.

But I’m going to skip over the crimson hose as well, because I was nowhere near the place when all the shenanigans took place at Fenway Park over the weekend. I was westbound on the NY State Thruway when Boston dropped the heartbreaking 8-7 decision on Friday night; I was not in attendance on the cold, blustery day at the old ball yard when the fisticuffs erupted near home plate, leading to ejections and hard feelings galore amid the improbable 11-10 Sox triumph; and I was barely back in the Bay State on Sunday when the Red Sox held off a late Bomber rally to capture a 9-6 nationally televised victory.

No, I spent the weekend under the balmy, sunny skies of Central New York, where baseball’s alleged birthplace celebrated its annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Unlike at Fenway Park, fireworks were missing in Cooperstown, and there was no sign of inductee Dennis Eckersley having shoved his palm into the mug of co-inductee Paul Molitor, followed by a free-for-all in which Reggie Jackson and Phil Rizzuto squared off against Carlton Fisk and Bobby Doerr. Heck, there wasn’t even a hint of heckling of baseball commissioner Bud Selig during his time on the podium by former commishes Fay Vincent and Bowie Kuhn from the VIP seats. And despite the Hall scoreboard acknowledging that the Pinstripers have 15 members inducted compared to the Red Sox’ eight, there were few if any chants of "Yankees suck!" during the four-day celebration. Hall of Fame weekend was indeed a time of decorum and respect, and nearly everyone was bending over backwards in tribute to everyone else, with nary a spit in the eye or a brush-back pitch in sight.

To set the stage, you need to know that Cooperstown is normally a small, slice-of-America type of village nestled at the end of scenic Lake Otsego. The only reason that it seems any different from any other typical US town is that its Main Street is lined with baseball-themed storefronts, and there is a small ballpark — Doubleday Field, of course — smack-dab in the center of town. There are a number of small motels and B&Bs on the outskirts of town, but only one real hotel in town: the monolithic and picturesque Otesaga Resort Hotel, where all the Hall of Famers and the VIPs stay while in town. (If you wanted to stay there for a weekend in August, it would cost you nearly a grand for two nights.) Cooperstown, not surprisingly, gets its share of baseball aficionados during any typical weekend, but on induction weekend the town is overrun by fans. Most of the visitors are usually associated with teams that the particular inductees played for, which explained the plethora of Milwaukee, Minneapolis (Molitor’s home city), and Oakland fans in town.

Only a couple of minor events took place on Friday, but on Saturday there was the annual Hall of Famer Golf Tournament at the nearby Leatherstocking course, though media access was limited (probably for their own safety around the tee boxes). While Molitor and Eckersley conducted a press conference at the high school that afternoon, Main Street was packed to the gills, with tables of displays set up before nearly every storefront. Fans were inundated with merchandise including first-day postal covers, baseball cards, books, photos, and memorabilia, and if you were lucky you might even have stumbled upon an actual Hall of Famer signing stuff. The shameless Pete Rose had his store open for business, but in the window was posted a signed letter stating that "because of scheduling conflicts beyond my control," he would have to cancel his weekend appearances. That was "His Story," anyway.

The afternoon press conference was the best way to see "Molly" and "The Eck" at their casual best. As anyone even remotely familiar with Eckersley knows, he has a knack and a flair for fielding questions and storytelling. At one point he mentioned feeling a bit nervous about meeting certain Hall of Famers, because he was afraid that they hated him for his brash displays of bravado on the mound during his career. Molitor was typically humble and outgoing, and neither inductee wanted to give away too much about what he would be telling the crowds at the following day’s ceremony.

Until a dozen years ago, the induction gala was held outside the library behind the actual Hall, but inclement weather and the occasional hugely popular inductee often made the setting ill-suited or too cozy for the event. Thus, the ceremonies were moved to an impressive facility adjacent to cow pastures on the outskirts of town. The Clark Sports Center not only offers a bigger area for all who want to attend, but also allows for a quick transition to the indoor gymnasium should the skies open up.

The stage was set up under a FleetBoston Pavilion–type roof, so those on the podium would be out of what turned out to be sunburn- and raccoon-eyes-inducing conditions. Friends and families of the inductees and special guests were seated inside a fenced area in front of the stage, while the next set of chairs was reserved for the riffraff, a/k/a the media. Some fans set up their lawn chairs outside the fence more than a day in advance. Those who were still too far away to see the stage itself could look to the closed-circuit TV screen set up to the left of the stage.

Pre-event hype noted that more Hall of Famers than any other year would be in attendance, and indeed 50 of the 58 living members were introduced. Those still looking like they could still go an inning or two included Jim Palmer, Dave Winfield, and Sandy Koufax; that was less true of Rizzuto and Ralph Kiner (86 and 81, respectively), who were clearly getting on in years, and Willie McCovey, who now gets around with the help of a pair of walking canes (and who departed the ceremony early). Fifty of 58 was indeed impressive, but one had to wonder where the other eight were for baseball’s biggest weekend, including relative young bucks such as Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Luis Aparicio, Henry Aaron, and, particularly mysterious, Carl Yastrzemski.

First to be honored was New York Times baseball writer Murray Chass, who as recipient of the Spink Award probably didn’t endear himself to copydesks everywhere when he complained about the risks of sending his columns "to a group of editors who very likely never reported and wrote, or did so and failed ..." Lon Simmons, the radio voice of Bay Area teams for decades, was next up to the podium, receiving the Ford Frick award for broadcasting (will long-time Sox radio man Joe Castiglione be similarly honored someday?), followed, strangely enough, by a special tribute to Harmon Killebrew. Then — nearly two hours after the 1:30 p.m. start — came Molitor and Eckersley.

Molitor did a nice job, as a nice guy should, managing to salute nearly everyone who coached or supported him along the way, including the large contingent of Twin Citians and Brewmeisters in attendance. It was a nice speech, but nothing unexpected.

Eckersley was gracious and emotional throughout his speech, although it would probably have been even more effective if he had just talked off the cuff, rather than reading the printed pages. Yet he didn’t sugarcoat or gloss over any of the hard times, and I found it surprising and classy that he acknowledged both of his ex-wives (I’m not sure they attended, but his three children from his earlier marriages were there) and apologized for the pain that he had caused them. He was particularly emotional when he thanked his parents, who had flown in from California (despite his dad’s emphysema). He also alluded to his substance-abuse problems, which, had they not been addressed back in the mid-’80s, would certainly have denied him entry to Cooperstown without paid admission. Whenever he’d get choked up during the speech, he’d clear his throat audibly, as if in disgust that he was losing his composure. Several of the Eck’s former teammates were in the audience, although the man who probably had the most influence on the closer’s rejuvenation — manager Tony La Russa — was absent due to his day job managing the Cardinals (Eckersley mentioned him on numerous occasions, along with pitching coach Dave Duncan and former manager Don Zimmer, who attended). Like Molitor, the Eck traced his career, praising the stops along the way (Chicago: "Great place to hit; bad place to pitch. I mean, even I hit three home runs at Wrigley Field!") and sprinkling one-liners throughout, but the heart of the speech was the theme of humility: counting his blessings and acknowledging his shortcomings.

Despite needing glasses to read the speech, Eckersley still looked tanned and terrific. His likeness on the bust that will appear in the Hall gallery doesn’t quite resemble the long-haired fireballer, but there’s no doubt that it’s a worthy addition to the baseball shrine.

And so it was, that the Hall of Fame’s class increased by two, and 50 of baseball’s best were on hand to celebrate the pair’s worthy induction. The rain held off throughout the weekend (unlike in Boston), and everyone left the grounds sunburned but satisfied, with Eckersley’s final words still ringing in their ears: "I’d like to leave an offering of a message of hope. That is, with the grace of God you can change your life, whoever you are."

For Dennis Eckersley, first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher, it made all the difference in the world.

COMING FRIDAY: "You've Been Traded: Baseball's Best and Worst Destinations."

"Sporting Eye" runs Mondays and Fridays at ProvidencePhoenix.com. Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com


Issue Date: July 27, 2004
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2004 | 2003 |2002
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