COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The timeless magic of this place is evident all around, from Frank Thomas’ sweet tears to cellphone coverage more spotty than a hitter’s plate coverage against Tom Glavine.
You could see it Sunday in Greg Maddux being “as nervous as I’ve ever seen him”—Glavine’s scouting report—and in Tom Seaver’s advice on the bus as the Hall of Famers rolled past green pastures toward the induction ceremony.
“All right, boys, don’t forget your wife’s name,” Seaver barked to the new inductees. “Say it right now! What’s your wife’s name?”
“Pam,” Bobby Cox replied.
“All right, don’t forget,” Seaver instructed. “Say it again!”
Say it again: This is a place where you brake for a deer to cross the road on your way into town, a mystical place that can even rattle the legends you assume simply emerge from local cornfields each July.
“No matter how many times I come here, when I hear all of the introductions, it still gives me goosebumps,” Tigers president Dave Dombrowski said.
As St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was sending the congregation forth Sunday with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”—a longstanding tradition—some 48,000 pilgrims were making their way out to the fields surrounding the Clark Sports Center for what might be the most potent induction class we will see for decades.
Joe Torre and Tony La Russa joined Thomas and the Braves contingent of Cox, Glavine and Maddux in a powerhouse class.
The third-largest crowd ever at an induction ceremony was waiting for them.
Torre spoke for 28 minutes yet still felt horrible afterward because he somehow forgot in the midst of it to thank the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
“The proudest time of my entire career, and I just feel terrible that I omitted that,” he said afterward.
Torre could not stop apologizing. But you’d like to think even The Boss himself, were he still with us, would have given him a sarcastic barb followed by a genuine pass on this one.
As Tim McCarver said in the video introduction to Torre, “He has given his life to baseball and now, for a brief afternoon, baseball is returning the favor.”
Sure, this is a place for history and entrepreneurs. “Do you think Derek Jeter will get in with 100 percent of the vote?” Pete Rose asked a couple of us the other day while signing autographs inside a store on Main St. (Answer: Fat chance. Nobody ever has batted 1.000 in the voting, not even Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb).
But this also is a place for returning favors, as not only McCarver, but the inductees themselves, so eloquently expressed on an afternoon that was just like the game itself: warm, graceful, poetic, emotional, a little bit long and a lot funny.
It was, perhaps, the first time an inductee offered up an ode to passing gas.
“I was very fortunate to have a brother that I could learn from,” Maddux, who always has had a sharp and wicked sense of humor, said of Mike, now the Rangers pitching coach. “He even taught me a little bit about science.
“It has to do with a little methane and a lighter, and I still get a huge kick out of it today.”
Laughter rolled from the stage across the crowded fields, rippling up the hills.
“That’s funny, huh,” Maddux, whose 355 wins rank as the second-highest win total for a pitcher since the 1920s, said.
Indeed, you must be a man to play this game, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you as well.
“As a kid, when I used to think it was a good idea to stand on the front porch of my parents’ house and throw snowballs over the trees trying to hit the cars passing by, little did I know how far my left arm was going to take me at that time,” said Glavine, with 305 career wins.
“Needless to say, there was one passerby that was less than pleased with my accuracy. He had a conversation with my mom, and the wait-until-your-dad-gets-home scenario played out. And after a good talking to, needless to say, my snowball-throwing days were over.
“We all figured I could come up with a better, more productive way to work on my accuracy. I think that was probably the start of the painted square on the chimney outside my parents’ house.”
Like Glavine’s native Billerica, Massachusetts, this is a place for chimneys…and lessons. The lessons found here are as sturdy as the old oak trees, and every bit as long-lasting.
Be it tightening a relationship with your brother, even, ahem, through a “scientific” bent, or learning something from your parents that you pass along to your kids.
Glavine recounted a time early in his life in the car on the way home from a hockey game when his father, Fred, wanted to discuss the game.
“Didn’t want to criticize me, just wanted to have a conversation,” Glavine said. “So after a short time of me being less than pleasant in the conversation because things didn’t go so well, my dad told me something that I never forgot.”
What Fred Glavine told his son was: “You’re going to go into that locker room with a smile on your face and you’re going to come out with one, or I’m not taking you anymore.”
Most of all, Cooperstown is a place for families, and for the ties that bind. Glavine, Maddux, Thomas, Cox, Torre and La Russa all thanked theirs. Wives. Children. Extended families that trace all the way back to the clubhouse and teammates.
“Don’t look at your family or you’ll cry,” Johnny Bench advised Torre on Sunday morning.
He should have been speaking to Thomas, who was a 6'5", Big Hurt bowl of jelly from the minute he opened his mouth. It was genuine, it was moving, and it was downright sweet.
“It was rough,” said Thomas, who was in tears and relied on a handheld hankie throughout. “So many people who meant so much to me in my life are gone.”
His father, Frank Sr., with whom he was particularly close, passed away in 2001 because of heart problems.
His mother, Charlie Mae, left the family hometown of Columbus, Georgia, for the first time in 15 years to travel here.
Thomas, incredibly, name-checked 138 teammates in a rapid-fire roll call, as well as many others. He also delivered a message specific to children in the audience or watching on television.
“Just remember one thing from today,” Thomas said in closing in as close to an anti-steroids warning as was issued Sunday. “There's no shortcuts to success. Hard work, dedication, commitment. Stay true to who you are.”
He also relayed a message imparted by his father.
“You can be someone special if you really work at it,” he said.
In so many ways, those are the messages this place consistently delivers, day after day, induction Sunday after induction Sunday, generation after generation.
“There is a power to both patience and persistence,” Torre said in concluding his speech. “Baseball is a game of life. It’s not perfect, but it feels like it is. That’s the magic of it.”