COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Because baseball can sometimes resemble religion and a special Sunday service was scheduled, they poured into this tiny town, and they streamed up Susquehanna Avenue in paraphernalia-wearing packs. New Yorkers donning the No. 42, teal-clad Pacific Northwesterners and folks from all points in-between came to pay homage to heroes both here and gone.
An announced crowd of 55,000 -- the second largest in the history of the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony -- and 53 previous inductees came to hear the reflections of Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Lee Smith and Harold Baines and to see Roy Halladay’s widow, Brandy, deliver a touching and tear-jerking tribute to the prominent pitcher, who left this world far too soon.
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Life, love, mourning, pride, humor, reflection, passion. Even the most recognizable riff of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was sprinkled within a “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” performance by former Rivera teammate Bernie Williams and his electric guitar.
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Those were the hallmarks of the commemoration of the Class of ’19 one mile south of the hallowed Hall. The threat of rain passed and gave way to a picture-perfect setting.
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Here were the highlights:
As was the case in 536 regular-season games and 21 times in the postseason, the man named "Moose" got things started.
“What am I doing here?” Mussina said. “And how in the world did I get here?”
Mussina went on to tell the story of how a kid from Montoursville, Pa., very near the Little League World Series site in Williamsport and 200 miles along the Susquehanna River from Cooperstown, went from “pizza and snowcones and the packs of baseball cards with that stale piece of gum inside” to the big leagues and then to baseball immortality.
As previously announced, Mussina’s plaque was logo-less, as Mussina could not bring himself to choose between his two baseball homes -- Baltimore and the Bronx -- where he spent similar stretches of time and enjoyed similar success. He thanked fans from both of those cities, and he gave a special thanks to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America writers who took the time to evaluate his career in the proper context of his times, raising his vote percentages from 20.3 on his first ballot in 2014 to 76.7 this year.
At the time of his 2008 retirement, Mussina’s 3.68 career ERA ranked 319th among modern era pitchers with at least 1,000 innings, but his context-adjusted 131 ERA+ -- or 31 percent above league average -- was a better reflection of his prominence in an era and an American League East Division prone toward high run totals.
“I was never fortunate enough to win a Cy Young Award or to be a World Series champion,” Mussina said. “I didn’t win 300 games or strike out 3,000 batters. And while my opportunities for those achievements are in the past, today I get to become a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Maybe I was saving up from all of those ‘almost’ achievements for one last push, and this time I made it.”
It could not have been easy for Brandy Halladay to step on that stage, amongst all those Hall of Famers and with her heart so heavy just 20 months after “Doc” Halladay’s passing. It had to be bittersweet and wrenching to watch a touching video tribute to her late husband and then deliver a speech in front of her family (including sons Braden and Ryan), in front of the greats of the game and in front of tens of thousands of strangers.
But much like the man who threw just the second postseason no-hitter in history, Brandy’s preparation for the big stage manifested in a magnificent moment. With strength, grace and poise, she plowed through the pain and delivered the day’s most emotional moment.
“This is not my speech to give,” she said. “I’m going to do the best I can to say the things I believe Roy might have said or would have wanted to say if he was here today.”
She explained the decision to go with a blank ballcap for Halladay’s head on his plaque, as the Blue Jays and Phillies organizations meant too much to the family to choose. She explained Halladay’s passion for youth baseball and how the family is dedicated to continuing that good work. And she thanked the teams, the fans and, in one especially touching moment, her new Hall of Fame family.
“I can’t tell you how many hugs I’ve gotten,” she said. “To all your families who have extended so much love and friendship to myself and to my children, I’m so grateful. Thank you.”
Mostly, though, she talked about Roy, who passed away in November 2017 in a private plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We are all imperfect and flawed in one way or another,” she said. “We all struggle. But with hard work, humility and dedication, imperfect people can still have perfect moments. Roy was blessed in his life and in his career to have some perfect moments. But I believe they were only possible because of the man he strived to be, the teammate he was and the people he was so blessed to be on the field with.”
Baines let his bat do the talking in what the Today’s Game Era committee last December determined to be a Hall of Fame-worthy career. But come induction day, it was time for Baines to lend some personal perspective to his 2,866 hits and 1,628 RBIs. And the best perspective came when he thanked his late father, Linwood, a former mason who worked six days a week to support the family.
“When you ask me why I never have been outspoken or said very much, think of my dad and the lesson he passed down to me many years ago, often as we were playing catch in the yard,” Baines said of Linwood, who passed away in 2014. “As he taught me, words are easy. Deeds are hard. Words can be empty. Deeds speak louder, and sometimes they echo forever.”
Baines has his forever place in baseball lore now with the bronze plaque featuring that White Sox cap, and he thanked the Chicago fans who, in his words, “honor and appreciate hard work” for connecting with him and supporting him. He thanked his first manager, Tony La Russa, who was his strongest advocate in the small-committee vote, for teaching him to play for the name on the front of the uniform and not the back.
And of course, he thanked his family, and the tears flowed for Baines when he acknowledged his mother, brothers, sister, wife, children and grandchildren in attendance.
“I’m not an emotional man,” he explained, “except when it comes to family.”
The “Ed-gar! Ed-gar!” chants broke out from an adoring audience and the Puerto Rican flags waved in the air just before Martinez stepped to the podium for his long-awaited official entry into the Hall.
As expected, Rivera had the biggest fan backing on this day. But there was no question who was second in support. The long distance from Seattle was a hurdle so many were willing to clear in order to give the dazzling DH his due.
“I am so fortunate to have two homes, Puerto Rico and Seattle,” Martinez said. “Seattle fans, thank you for always being there for me. Since 1997, you gave me your unconditional support, and it was even more prevalent over the last 10 years. The support you gave me over social media helped me get here today.”
Martinez thanked everybody who helped his Cooperstown case get a complete and ultimately successful appraisal. He thanked his teammates and shared a fun memory about fellow Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. When “The Big Unit” signed a free-agent contract with the D-backs, Martinez apparently made some remarks to a newspaper that didn’t sit particularly well with Johnson. When the two next saw each other, Johnson jokingly threatened a beanball for his buddy.
“Don’t worry,” Johnson said, as relayed by Martinez. “It will hurt, but only for a minute.”
Martinez evoked both laughs and tears, sharing loving words for his wife, son and two daughters. He also made a poignant acknowledgement of his cousin, Carmelo, who encouraged him to sign a $4,000 pro contract despite reservations.
“Carmelo told me, ‘You could make it; give it a chance,’” Martinez said. “We argued, he won.”
Martinez lost that argument, but it led him to his biggest victory of all, and this was a day to bask in it.
Nobody in the Class of ’19 had waited longer for this day than Smith, who earned the last of his 478 career saves in 1997. He didn’t cross the 75-percent threshold in 15 years on the BBWAA ballot but finally got in via the Today’s Game Era committee vote.
So the self-described “61-year-old rookie” was certainly thankful to be on that stage, and he dispensed heartfelt gratitude toward his family and to the small town -- Castor, La. -- that birthed his baseball career.
“If you think Cooperstown is small,” he said, “you’ve never been to Castor.”
Smith went on to explain that he was focused on basketball when, one day, his high school principal called him into the office and asked him to try out for the baseball team after seeing him throw a ball in gym class. Smith responded that his family didn’t have the money for him to play baseball, but, soon thereafter, he was called back into the office to find a brand new uniform and equipment waiting for him.
“It was community that gave me the chance to play baseball,” Smith said.
Smith eventually became a part of the North Side community in Chicago, playing eight seasons in all for the Cubs. He said the difficulty of pitching in Wrigley Field, with “no margin for error,” made him sharper and better, and Wrigleyville, as a whole, welcomed him.
“From the fire department across the street to the grounds crew on the field,” he said, “to me, it really was ‘The Friendly Confines.’”
Smith explained why all of his playing stops -- the Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees (“It would turn out they wouldn’t need a closer, [because] they had someone else waiting for that role,” he said with a smile, referring to Rivera), Orioles, Angels and Expos -- were special. And he explained the two traits that were most pivotal to his success.
“Loyalty to the team and my teammates,” he said. “And dependability as a teammate and as a pitcher.”
A player must appear on 75% of submitted BBWAA ballots to reach the Hall of Fame, but Rivera became the first player in the long history of the process to achieve 100%.
Still, 75% was a notable number on this day, because that’s the percentage of the so-called “Core Four” backbone of the late 1990s/early 2000s Yankees dynasty that sat in the audience to support the man they call Mo, who of course brought the total Core Four attendance to 100 percent from his spot on the stage.
Derek Jeter, whose day on the dais awaits in 2020, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were the three most prominent of the many thousands of people here to show their love for Mr. Unanimous, and Rivera fittingly closed out the ceremony.
“I don’t understand why I always have to be the last,” he joked. “[But] I guess being the last one was special.”
Amid his many loving words for his family, Rivera drew a laugh when he turned to his son, Mariano Jr., and apologized for missing so many of his child’s birthdays. See, he was born on Oct. 4, and Rivera spent his Octobers compiling a 0.70 ERA in 141 innings.
“Man, I’m sorry about that,” Rivera said with a smile. “I’m sorry. I was on a mission. We celebrate later on.”
Rivera, who joined Rod Carew as the only Panama-born players to reach the Hall, captivated the crowd as he detailed his rise from humble roots to his status as baseball royalty. He said he wished the late George Steinbrenner could have been alive to see this day, so that he could thank “The Boss” for his support.
And Rivera voiced a lot of love for his Yankees family, including his fellow members of the Core Four.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to just be a part of one organization,” Rivera said. “I did it with dignity, honor and pride. I tried to carry the pinstripes the best I could. I think I did all right with that.”
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.