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McCarver deserves the respect he's earned

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- I'm sticking to the story. It was written in the second week of June in 1975. With Carlton Fisk missing the first two months of the season, Tim McCarver at the age of 33 had become a backup catcher for the Red Sox, had batted over .300 in Boston since his acquisition the previous August and had become a galvanizing voice on a team that was building toward a run to the seventh game of the World Series. Along with Luis Tiant, McCarver lightened bus and plane rides for a team burdened with a monumental collapse the previous September.

Fisk was returning in a few days, so an off-day column about McCarver seemed appropriate. The gist was about what he had brought to the team, and that he was one of the few players that when he retired -- in his case, with a couple of World Series rings -- would have the opportunity to either manage or broadcast. It was true then; it is true now.

Not to try to steal from Stephen Carter's novel on what might have happened had Abraham Lincoln survived his assassination, but some have wondered that had McCarver remained with the Red Sox whether or not general manager Dick O'Connell might not have named McCarver as manager in July 1976 when Darrell Johnson was fired and replaced by Don Zimmer.

Before one gets too deep into pondering how different Zimmer's life might have been, how the Buffalo Head Gang might have departed and how McCarver would not be standing at the podium Saturday here at the Hall of Fame as the recipient of the Ford Frick Award, please understand: That column opened the door to be run from Boston.

A couple of days later, knowing Fisk was coming off the DL, McCarver went to Johnson's office. He explained that his family was moving to Boston the next day, that he had rented a house and just wanted to know whether or not they should come. "As long as I'm the manager here, you're on this team," Johnson assured him, so the next day, the McCarver family drove to Boston and moved into the house in Peabody, Mass.

They stayed one night. When McCarver got to the park the next day, he was released.

That eventually led to McCarver re-signing with the Phillies, becoming Hall of Famer Steve Carlton's catcher of choice, eventually getting into broadcasting and playing in four separate decades. But it must have been a great night to live in Red Sox infielder John Kennedy's house in Peabody.

This weekend on the shores of Otsego Lake is one of the great holidays of the year. There will be buses streaming in from Cincinnati to honor Barry Larkin, a no-brainer Hall of Famer. There will be thousands from Chicago to rightly honor the beloved Ron Santo, even if in memorium. The Baseball Writers' Association will be proud as Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, a giant of the industry, receives the Spink Award.

And there will be Cardinals and Phillies and Red Sox teammates, broadcasters and friends for McCarver, who I believe loves baseball as much as anyone I've ever known, a man whose extraordinary people skills and understanding of every layer of the sport would have made him a manager whose career may still have been thriving.

Understand that Tim McCarver was a very good player. His Memphis Christian Bros. High School teammate Phil Gagliano once said, "We were known as 'The Gold Dust Twins' -- Tim got the gold and I got the dust." He was signed as a bonus baby in June 1959 at the age of 17, and he was in the big leagues that September before he turned 18.

McCarver was the catcher for the World Series champion 1964 and '67 Cardinals -- in fact, in '67, he was the runner-up in National League Most Valuable Player balloting. He was a rare catcher who led the league in triples (13, 1966). He caught more games than all but 41 other players. Like Joe Torre, he always respected his teammates and the game, and he could never understand how when Red Schoendienst sent word to the clubhouse as the Cards were losing Game 7 in '68 that he wanted rookie Alex Johnson to pinch-hit so he could have a World Series appearance, that Johnson would decline, only to never get another World Series opportunity.

"Alex sent back word that he was eating a sandwich," McCarver said. "It must have been a very good sandwich."

I remember after the classic Game 4 of the 1997 American League Championship Series -- when the Indians beat the Orioles, 8-7, to lead to a monumental series upset -- sitting in the Cleveland Ritz for hours afterwards with Tim, replaying the game like a couple of kids.

McCarver might have played with and been a close friend of Hall of Famers, but when the improbable story of Daniel Nava unfurled on a Fox Saturday two years ago, it showed McCarver's heart. He had talked with Nava for two days as if he were Josh Hamilton, and when Nava hit the first pitch he saw in the Majors for a grand slam, McCarver was as excited as if he were his nephew. It was simply a great baseball people story, and as always, McCarver never was too big-time, too jaded to be caught in the moment.

Maybe when McCarver signed in 1959, there were those in the Cardinals' organization that believed he'd someday be enshrined here in Cooperstown. As a player, it didn't happen. He never got the chance as manager. But he is there now for his broadcasting, and because of what and who he is, he will grasp the moment and humbly appreciate what it means to be honored in a museum that is about the history and the love of baseball.

That June 1975 day that McCarver was released by the Red Sox, several players from Rick Wise to Bill Lee to Carl Yastrzemski were critical of the move. Four months later, when Boston beat Oakland to win the pennant, Wise and Lee each said, "We wouldn't be here if Tim McCarver weren't with us for nearly half the season."

To know him was to respect him, and to have some form of HOF attached to his name is a great thing for the game he loves so much.

Tim McCarver