Reliving Hall of Fame weekend

HOF COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — There was so much that happened during the Hall of Fame induction weekend that it was impossible for a guy to write about all of it. What also makes it difficult for one guy is that my train of thought is to encapsulate each event instead of simply reporting what happens. For instance, when Bert Blyleven talked about his curve ball, well, that was a 1,000-word story and not something to summarize.

Hey, some people think about weird things like that.

Nevertheless, with the benefit of this little site and a lazy day at home, here's the best of what I saw at the Hall of Fame induction weekend…

The point of the trip was to cover Pat Gillick's induction into the Hall. Gillick, of course, was the Phillies' general manager from 2006 to 2008 where he put together the start of the greatest era of the franchise's existence. The Phillies were founded in 1883 and since then have lost more games than any professional sports franchise on earth. That's not hyperbole, that's the truth.

The Phillies' history is crowded with bad moves, bad thinking, bad players and bad losses. The Phillies were the last franchise in the National League to integrate its roster and needed 97 years to win its first championship. Don't think for a second that those two elements do not go together. Almost 10 years to the day after Jackie Robinson broke destroyed segregation in Major League Baseball, the Phillies got a guy named John Irvin Kennedy, who played in five big league games in 1957 and then that was it. Kennedy got to the plate twice, struck out once and scored a run as a pinch runner.

Kennedy stuck around with the Phillies until May 3 before toiling away for the next five years in the team's farm system, mostly in the south, which must have been a lonely existence for him. For the Phillies, though, it wasn't until a trade with Brooklyn brought aboard a shortstop named Chico Fernandez that they fielded a black ballplayer in the regular lineup. Fernandez, however, was from Cuba and it wasn't until Dick Allen came along in 1964 until the Phillies had a significant African-American player.

By 1964, Jackie Robinson had been retired for nearly a decade.

So yeah, the Phillies' history is littered with bad times. Yet since Gillick came around before the 2006 season, the team has been in the playoffs in every season since 2007, been two the World Series twice and have one of the most diverse rosters in the game. Sure, the club may have been headed that way with Ed Wade as the general manager, but it was with Gillick where everything came together.

Besides, it's been said that the Phillies needed Gillick more than he needed them, though it seems as if the Hall of Fame career reached its apex with the 2008 World Series title. Ask Gillick and he'll tell you that without the World Series victory in '08 and he probably doesn't get to Cooperstown.

"Baseball is about talent and skill and ability," Gillick said poignantly during his induction speech. "But at the deepest level it's about love, integrity and respect. Respect for the game, respect for your colleagues, respect for the shared bond that is bigger than any one of us."

Then again, it's not like people try to get to Cooperstown… do they? Don't answer because they do. Billy Wagner, the former closer for the Braves, Red Sox, Mets, Phillies and Astros outwardly aspired to achieve enough to get into the Hall of Fame. It was a numbers race for Wagner and with 422 career saves, he probably fell a bit short for election by the BBWAA. Injuries cost him the end of the 2008 season and most of the 2009 season, but at 38 Wagner came back and saved 37 games for the Braves last year. The fact that Wagner was a terrific quote and always able to fill up a reporter's notebook should not hurt him when the Veterans' Committee gets its shot.

Of course when Lee Smith retired, he had saved more games than any pitcher in history. Despite that, he is headed to his 10th year on the Hall of Fame ballot and just got 45 percent of the vote last time around. If Lee Smith can't break through, what chance does Wagner have? Add in the facts that neither Smith nor Wagner ever got to the World Series and the road to Cooperstown gets even rockier.

Regardless, there were always whispers that Bill Conlin quietly campaigned to win the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which is the de facto "writers' wing" of the Hall of Fame. Moreover, the Spink Award is the highest honor given to a writer from the BBWAA and the common mistake is to label it an induction into the Hall. It's not, but that's just semantics.

Nevertheless, whatever campaigning tricks he employed worked and Conlin had his day in Cooperstown on Saturday where he delivered the first address at the inaugural Awards Presentation at Doubleday Field. And frankly, the speech was terrific. As Conlin's colleague Rich Hofmann wrote in the Daily News' web site:

Conlin thanked his family and friends, and then the technology cooperated, and then he was off. All of the tools familiar to his half-century of readers in the Daily News were in evidence during his 10-minute speech: needle, scalpel, bludgeon, pie-in-the-face, and Battle of Gettysburg.

He was him.

Rich nailed it. But it is always curious to me that Conlin has always been labeled as a baseball guy for the past couple decades despite the fact he doesn't regularly go to games. Excluding postseason and spring training, where he often is found at the ballpark, I can count on one hand the number of times Conlin was seen at the ballpark for a regular-season game. The way it seems is that it is a badge of honor for the old ball writer to show up at the park four hours before game time to make the scene, yet Conlin gave up on that long ago. I can’t say I blame him, because the waiting around is for the birds. However, Conlin stopped going to the ballpark regularly when he was at age younger than guys like Jayson Stark. If we're talking as pure baseball writers, who adhere to the old-school unwritten laws of the BBWAA, Stark should be the next Spink Award winner.

Besides, if a baseball writer doesn't actually go to the park, he's pretty much just like those bloggers he has been railing against for years and years.

Photo2762 The elite club

As far as speeches go, Conlin was fantastic. Better yet, he had something to tick-off everyone, including Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson and chairman of the board of directors, Jane Forbes Clark, who dropped their heads as if to say, "Oh no he didn't!" after certain sentences.

Still, induction weekend is about the Hall of Famers and its new members. Actually, to those in the know, Hall of Fame induction weekend is like the debutante party, prom and homecoming dance all rolled into one for Jane Forbes Clark.

Heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune and of the famous Dakota building on Central Park West in Manhattan, Clark's grandfather started the Hall of Fame in 1935 when he converted an old gym into a small museum. By 1936, Clark's grandfather had turned the little museum into the capitol of the game of baseball and invited Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Connie Mack and Walter Johnson to his little Shangri-La on the banks of Lake Otsego to be the first Hall of Fame class.

And as the decades have raced on, everyone associated with baseball knows all about the Hall of Fame and Cooperstown. Though named for author James Fennimore Cooper and his family and once the summertime home for Union general Abner Doubleday, the town could very easily be named Clarkstown instead. After all, not only does Clark run the Hall of Fame down to the tiniest detail where she even determines how the museum is decorated, her family owns nearly all of the land around the area with the aim to keep it from ruining the perfect idyllic quality of Cooperstown.

Besides, the Hall of Fame not only is baseball's apex, it's Clark's family showplace. In the meantime, her aim seems to make the Hall of Fame the most elite of the elite secret societies.

In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Clark said the Hall of Fame more or less defines its members.

"I think it's important for fans to see all of the Hall of Fame members, and in talking to the Hall of Famers it's important to them because the Hall of Fame is a huge part of their life," she said.

"I don't think you've ever interviewed a Hall of Fame member who didn't say how special it was to be a part of that elite fraternity. And that's exactly what it is. I wanted the fraternity to start coming back together and spending time together."

Only 14 of the 65 living members of the fraternity did not return this past weekend. Gary Carter could not make it because he is fighting brain cancer. Poor health also made it difficult for Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Stan Musial to attend. But Henry Aaron, Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken were noticeably absent. So too was Carl Yastrzemski. Meanwhile, Mike Schmidt did not attend and Steve Carlton has been absent the past couple of years.

But Ryne Sandberg took a few days off from managing the Phillies' top farm team to be there, as did the big brass in the Phillies' front office like Ruben Amaro Jr. David Montgomery, Bill Giles and Dallas Green.

Alomar The best since Morgan

Still, the weekend was Ms. Clark's celebration for baseball and her family's museum as well as the new members of the elite fraternity. Gillick, just the fourth general manager to receive the induction, is someone we've written about exclusively for the past week, but haven't had much of a chance to mention the other inductees, Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven, both of whom had to wait a bit to get the call. Alomar missed by a handful of votes in his first year of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot last year, while Blyleven got in after 14 years along with a few of those spent actively campaigning for the votes.

I only caught Joe Morgan toward the end of his career and not in his MVP heyday during the 1970s. It was during that stretch where patron saint of the statistical wing of baseball fandom, Bill James, wrote that Morgan was the greatest second baseman ever to play the game.

In the years that followed, however, Roberto Alomar took the mantle from Morgan and ran with it. I missed the brunt of Morgan's career, but I saw every bit of Alomar's and he's easily the best second baseman I have ever seen. The best example of his hitting prowess I remember was during the 1993 World Series where he can Paul Molitor destroyed the Phillies' pitchers. Alomar went 12 for 25 with a couple of doubles, a triple and six RBIs. He had a hit in every game of the series, including four in Game 3 and three in the clinching Game 6.

Sure, Alomar was a career .300 hitter and played the third-most games at second base in history, but what makes him a Hall of Famer in my book was how he ratcheted it up for the playoffs. Frankly speaking, if we're looking at ballplayer and their career as nothing more than a pile of numbers, then maybe the postseason stats should be the most important? That is where the winners are decided.

Anyway, Alomar was the MVP of the 1992 ALCS where his home run off Oakland's Dennis Eckersley in the ninth inning of Game 3 sent it to extra innings and kept the Blue Jays on the path to win their first World Series title.

It's interesting to point out that Alomar received 90 percent of the votes in his second trip through the voting process after falling five votes short in 2010. Think about that for second… Alomar was not a first-ballot Hall of Famer because of five votes. In falling five votes short, Alomar was denied in an election in which five voters sent back blank ballots, while admitted steroid user David Segui, pitchers Pat Hentgen and Kevin Appier, as well as first baseman-turned-broadcaster, Eric Karros, combined for five votes. That’s 10 wasted votes and does not include the nine votes spent on Ellis Burks and Robin Ventura.

All of those guys were nice players, but there isn’t a Hall of Famer in the bunch. If the people who voted for guys like Diego Segui or Kevin Appier don't know that, then maybe they should reevaluate the voting process.

So with those 19 votes that were spent on making a point, silly politics, vendettas, or drunken dares, very easily could have been spread out so that worthy candidates like Alomar. Better yet, maybe Blyleven gets in with Andre Dawson in 2010 instead of 2011. Maybe then Gillick has the stage to himself this year or maybe a player like Barry Larkin, Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Jeff Bagwell or Tim Raines breaks through?

Apparently, what cost Alomar those five votes was the unfortunate incident where he spit on umpire John Hirschbeck during an argument at the end of the 1997 regular season. The voting writers held this mistake against Alomar despite the fact that Hirschbeck and Alomar have buried the hatchet and become friends. This protest vote was made despite the fact that Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Cap Anson, and Juan Marichal are Hall of Famers. Among those names are men who attacked a crippled fan, punched an umpire, beat an opponent on the head with a bat, and helped foster nearly a half-century of institutional racism and segregation.

Some say without Cap Anson, baseball never would have been a sport that denied the inclusion of some because of the color of their skin.

But, you know, Alomar spit at a guy…

Alomar is in now, though, and from the looks of it, Hall of Famers are not differentiated by the amount of vote they get. Shoot, Joe DiMaggio didn't even get elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Yeah, try and figure that one out.

Nevertheless, the neat part about Alomar's induction is that he is just the third player from Puerto Rico to get in. There is Alomar, Orlando Cepeda and the great Roberto Clemente, and that's it. Alomar is also the first Blue Jays player to be elected so that brought out tons of fans from Canada and Puerto Rico for Alomar.

It also brought out his family, including Sandy Sr., a former player and coach with the Angels, Braves, Yankees, Rangers and Indians. Sandy Sr. was a teammate with Blyleven on the 1977 Texas Rangers and faced both Alomar brothers. Roberto went 1 for 2 with a triple against his Hall of Fame partner, while Sandy Jr. went 3 for 7 with two doubles. Blyleven did strike him out once, though.

Sandy Jr. introduced his brother and told a story about when as minor leaguers in the Padres' chain, the pair shared an apartment with just one bed. Sandy Jr. says the rule was the guy who had the better game got to sleep on the bed and the other guy slept on the couch.

"I slept on the couch all season," Sandy Jr. deadpanned. "And I hit .300!"

Blyleven Blyleven finally made it

As for Blyleven, the long trip to the Hall of Fame seemed to be complete when he got to sit on a rocking chair next to his mother on the porch at the Otesaga Hotel that overlooked Lake Otsego. That was the pure, genuine moment that Blyleven could say to himself, "I made it."

“I did it yesterday. My mother Jennie, she's 85 years old, came in from California, so that's a long way for her to come. My sisters, my brother, my kids, we are all on that porch, we are chasing people away, but we got the rockers and we got my mother out front and we kind of reminisced a little bit about Pops, my dad, but mainly just enjoyed the company,” Blyleven said on Saturday. “And what I do, the broadcasting and also live in Florida, I don't see my family that much, so it was a nice reunion. And that's part of what this ceremony is all about for me, not only having the opportunity to have my mother here witness me go into the Hall of Fame, but also my family and friends.”

Blyleven was one of the more controversial inductees over the past few years. He fell two votes short in 2010 only to make it by 28 votes this time around. That’s a far cry from 17.5 percent Blyleven received in his first time on the ballot in 1998. In his second year his votes tally actually dropped more than three percent before his candidacy began to pick up steam about five years ago.

Truth is, I’ve gone back and forth on Blyleven’s Hall of Fame worthiness. In fact, I’ve been changing my mind about him all week, even while watching him give his induction speech. The drawback I had was if one has to mull over a players’ Hall of Fame-ness, then maybe he’s not a Hall of Famer. The answer should be, “yes” or “no,” immediately.

A Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, right?

Ah, but baseball is much more complicated than that. Sure, Blyleven had just a 287-250 record, won 20 games once and never finished higher than third in the Cy Young balloting. He also only went to the All-Star Game twice and gave up a major league-record 50 home runs in a season.

He was never a dominant pitcher.

Fair enough. But Blyleven was always there. He threw more than 270 innings eight times, with more than 290 innings three times. Once, Blyleven threw 325 innings during a season where he completed 25 of his 40 starts. Moreover, Blyleven was the staff ace on two different World Series champions—the 1979 Pirates and 1987 Twins. His biggest outing might have been in Game 5 of the ’79 series when down 1-0 in the sixth inning and down 3 games to 1, Blyleven came on in relief on three-days rest and pitched four innings of shutout ball.

From there, the Pirates won games 6 and 7 to stun the Orioles.

No, Blyleven’s stats aren’t sexy, but there is something to be said for a guy who was guaranteed for a minimum of seven innings for 22 years.

And of course he had that curveball, too. Yes, some say Blyleven’s curve, one he learned as a kid in Southern California from watching Sandy Koufax, was the best ever to be thrown. It was one of the 12-to-6 types that started out at the hitters’ neck and ended at his ankles. Hitters didn’t just bail out on it, they surrendered.

He called it a “drop,” though and made sure to listen in on the radio when Vin Scully called Koufax’s games.

“I grew up listening to Vince Scully describe Sandy Koufax’s drop,” Blyleven said. “Of course they had that 15-inch mound back in the '60s when I grew up in southern California. I remember the only Dodger game I ever went to was Sandy Koufax against Juan Marichal, one nothing. I sat up in the nose bleed section. I was just getting into baseball. I had to be 10 or 11-years old.  And I recall the foul pole was in my vision of the mound at Dodger Stadium and I had to lean on my left almost the whole ball game. And Sandy, we were sitting down the left-hand line, Sandy's back was to me, but Juan Marichal, we saw the high leg kick, which is unbelievable what he was able to do and then Koufax—I could almost picture it there the drop that, the mound, the tilt they had on that mound was incredible and I remember that and listening to Vin Scully describe his curveball or his drop, that's basically how I learned mine. I visualized what he did and then just on a block wall or playing with my friends, I picked up the curveball.” 

Maybe Blyleven is the Hall of Famer for those with specific talents. He ate up innings and had a rare pitch. His talent was not as all-encompassing like Alomar’s was, but it takes all kinds in baseball. That’s why Tommy John ought to be in the Hall of Fame and Jim Kaat, too, says Blyleven.

Why not? It takes all kinds.