NEW YORK -- Inside the New York Hilton's grand ballroom on Saturday night, a crowd gathered for the 19th annual Baseball Writers' Association of America dinner. Major League stars filled the dais, as dignitaries including Buster Posey, Miguel Cabrera, R.A. Dickey, David Price, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper received their major awards that had been announced after the last season ended.
The emcee began by reading aloud a long alphabetical list of names, those in the baseball family who had been lost in the past year. That is tradition. It ended with the reading of Earl Weaver, the Orioles' Hall of Fame manager whose passing had just been announced that morning. There was an air of sadness. Then pasta and filet mignon were served. Willie Mays was at a center table, in his Giants cap. He had flown all the way from San Francisco for this. That is how special it was. It was a night of nights, a midwinter signal that said Spring Training could not be that far off now.
Then it was time to start the awards presentations, but first there was news to tell the crowd.
Stan Musial had died.
The message was delivered by Jeff Idelson, the Hall of Fame president. The Cardinals had just announced the passing of Stan the Man at age 92, via email. A horrible groan rippled through the ballroom like a wave and a pall now hung over the proceeding. You looked at Mays in that instant and maybe you did so in a different light. You felt even luckier that the 81-year-old "Say Hey Kid" was there, luckier than you might have felt just a few moments earlier.
"It's a little hard to go back to the program after that ... but here we are," said Tyler Kepner, the New York Times baseball writer and dinner emcee, trying his best to segue from Idelson's news to an event. In baseball, it always goes on. Awards sat on a stand, waiting to be distributed. A crowd was gathered in anticipation. Baseball stories were waiting to be told.
A highlight reel of the 2012 season was shown. You were surrounded by baseball people and fans who were stung by great loss and yet now there were the scenes of today's game, and on the dais were perhaps the next generation's Musials and Weavers. Chipper Jones was among those being honored. He is beloved to many, joking that he is "itching to go to Spring Training." This is how it goes on. Soon there were smiles. There were standing ovations. There were inspirational stories. The show went on.
Davey Johnson, now in his 51st year in baseball, was presented with his 2012 National League Manager of the Year Award. In his acceptance speech he said of Weaver, his former Baltimore manager, "I'm gonna really miss him."
Mets manager Terry Collins presented that award to Johnson, who managed the Mets to their last title in 1986 but now is a division rival in Washington.
"I want to thank Terry for that great introduction," Johnson said, "but more importantly I want to thank him for trading R.A. Dickey out of the National League East. And I want to thank Chipper for retiring."
Bob Melvin was presented his American League Manager of the Year Award after guiding the A's to a stunning AL West title. He said it was "an organizational award more than anything else."
"We have a lot of good people in Oakland," Melvin said. "We gained a lot of momentum along the way, through a lot of good young selfless players that played for their team instead of themselves, and we ended up doing some great things."
Hall of Famer Phil Niekro presented Dickey with his NL Cy Young Award, the first won by a knuckleballer. "I've never been close to one of these," Niekro said. "If I were single and I was going to get married today, I probably would have rescheduled it. ... That is what it has meant to us knuckleball pitchers."
Dickey, who won 20 games with the Mets before being traded to Toronto, gave "a special thanks to the Jedi Council of knuckleballers." He said he had "run my course as a conventional pitcher" in 2005 before meeting Charlie Hough. Now, "75,000 knuckleballs off a cinderblock wall later, here I am. I would not be here if it weren't for Charlie, Phil and Tim [Wakefield], and this is an award not only to be celebrated with them, but also the city of New York and the New York Mets' fan base."
Harper and Trout accepted their Rookie of the Year Awards, in the NL and AL, respectively.
"It was a dream come true to get to that level, and I was able to play against Chipper Jones," Harper said, giving his speech as Jones sat beside him. "What a great person to look at and see how the game was played the right way. I was so lucky and humbled this year with a great team and great players. I owe it all to them and my family."
"To be a part of history at such a young age is especially rewarding, and I'm extremely humbled by it," Trout said. "I also realize that an accomplishment like this does not come easily and could not have happened without the assistance and encouragement of many people along the way. ... They gave me an opportunity, and I'm not looking back."
Jones presented fellow Georgia native Posey of the Giants with his NL MVP Award, and said, "When I think of Buster Posey, jealousy is the first thing I think of. I mean, how many guys in their first three years get a Rookie of the Year, now an MVP, a couple of rings? What makes it more amazing is that Buster bounced back from a career-threatening injury."
"You can't win an award like this without the help of a lot of great people," said Posey, who thanked his wife, Kristen, his Giants organization and its fans. "I'm very lucky to play this game."
Price was presented his AL Cy Young by Yankees ace CC Sabathia, who was there to receive an award for community service. The Rays lefty said Sabathia "took me under his wing" and has been an inspiration, and Price then told a story about how he had left his glove behind in Tampa Bay once last season, and Sabathia had loaned him one of his that Price used in winning a decision.
"This glove was about this big," Price said, holding his hands two feet apart. "He sent me this brown Nike glove that I've seen him use ... I went seven innings and my right arm had not been that tired in my entire life. This glove was like a beer-league softball glove."
One of the most special moments was the presentation of the local BBWAA chapter's Arthur and Milton Richman "You Gotta Have Heart" Award. One went to MLB.com broadcaster and former front-office exec Jim Duquette and his 10-year-old daughter, Lindsey, after their inspiring story
of a kidney transplant, and the other went to MLB Players Association chief Michael Weiner, who has battled a brain tumor.
"It's a story of hope, really," Duquette said of his daughter's positive recovery to date since he gave her his kidney in June. "Post-surgery, she's back into the swing of things in school, she missed so much time," Jim said. "She missed all of first grade, all of third grade. So she comes home one day and she has a 12 out of 20 on her paper, it's a D. I said, 'Lindsey, come on, you're better than that. What happened here?' She gets out of her chair and she looks at me and she points at her kidney and she says, 'Dad, does it really matter?'"
Lindsey said there were some "good things" to come out of her recovery, such as: a new iPad, she got to eat a lot of ice cream, and she is back in school "and can have sleepovers."
"My disease, FSGS and nephrotic syndrome [a complex kidney ailment], controlled my family and I for eight years. So the transplant is working, I'm hoping to be a normal kid. So far, the last seven months has been really fun. It's the best I've felt in a long time. I hope we can find a cure for this terrible disease. I want to congratulate my dad's friend, Mr. Weiner, for sharing this award with us. If you ever need any advice when you're in the hospital, I'm available."
Dickey presented the award to Weiner, who has continued to serve in his union-boss capacity.
"All I've tried to do is live my life the way I've always lived it," Weiner said. "All I've tried to do is to do my job as I've always tried to do it. The only thing that's been different is the off-the-charts support that I've received from so many people. It's a lot easier to have heart when so many ... have opened their hearts to me."
Cabrera accepted his AL MVP Award after a Triple Crown season with the Tigers.
"Wow," Cabrera said. "I'm so nervous." He motioned to Sabathia sitting nearby and said giving his speech felt like facing him at the plate, not knowing how it would turn out. Cabrera proceeded to thank God, his family, and said, "I want to thank the baseball writers for giving me the opportunity to be the first Venezuelan-born player to be MVP."