COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Every Hall of Fame class has its own character, of course, but there really has never been a class quite like the one that will get inducted in Cooperstown today. It's a class that celebrates just about everything we love about baseball, a class of speed (Tim
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Every Hall of Fame class has its own character, of course, but there really has never been a class quite like the one that will get inducted in Cooperstown today. It's a class that celebrates just about everything we love about baseball, a class of speed (Tim Raines), power (Jeff Bagwell) and defense (Ivan Rodriguez), a class that honors consistency (John Schuerholz) and history (Bud Selig).
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Cooperstown is a unique place. It was believed, for a time, to be the birthplace of baseball, and while, no, the game was not invented here, the village is, as this year's J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Claire Smith says, "memory encrusted." Baseball is everywhere you turn. "Jack the Banjo Man" wears a straw hat plays "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," in the town square. Children wearing baseball caps walk up and down Main Street eating ice cream cones.
Baseball conversations come to life.
"Steve Garvey was an All-Star for eight straight years," Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau is saying as he discusses Garvey's Hall of Fame candidacy.
"Um," someone says, "he's at the table right next to us."
"Earl Weaver was talking about Cal Ripken …" Steve says a few minutes later.
"Um," someone says, "Cal's two tables over."
No, baseball was not invented in Cooperstown, but it should have been, and every year it is as if baseball gets to start again. On Saturday, a parade of Hall of Famers rolled along Main Street while fantastic-but-not-quite-Hall-of-Fame players such as Dale Murphy and Ruben Sierra are on the sidewalk meeting with fans. At the glorious little baseball stadium called Doubleday Field, Smith gave a touching speech about her pioneering career as a writer. The magnificent Oakland A's broadcaster Bill King was posthumously awarded the Ford C. Frick Award. Jackie Robinson's 95-year-old widow Rachel Robinson, everybody's hero, said a few words after winning the Buck O'Neil Award for her lifelong contribution to the game.
"I've felt so wonderful since I've been here," Rachel Robinson said.
Now comes the Sunday induction, and five remarkable journeys that cover every corner of the game. You want to talk defense: "Pudge" Rodriguez grew up in Puerto Rico on the stories of the great Roberto Clemente. Pudge never wanted to be anything but a ballplayer. He developed into an indestructible defensive whirlwind, who picked off and threw out base runners with jaw-dropping throws.
Speed? Raines had that all his life; he grew up in Sanford, Fla., and he was a high school football star. He averaged 10.5 yards per carry his senior year. Baseball was his love, though, and he stole bases with scientific precision. Nobody, not even his great contemporary Rickey Henderson, could match Raines' 85 percent success rate. Even after Raines lost a step or two, in those years after he turned 34, he successfully stole 57 of 69 bases.
"I loved the game of cat and mouse," he said. "I really didn't think I should ever get thrown out."
Power? The big question about Bagwell as he came up in the Boston Red Sox organization was whether or not he would develop power. The Red Sox rather famously bet that he would not, trading him in 1990 for reliever Larry Andersen in an all-in effort to try and win the World Series that year. Bagwell is not an especially big man, but he developed a swing that was like a boxer's right-cross, compact, direct, devastating. He smashed 969 extra-base hits. Many pitchers of his time still say Bagwell was the scariest hitter to face.
Consistency? General managers tend not to spark admiration or passion, but Schuerholz always seemed to have things under control. He was a school teacher once, and he never lost that ability. And, in the end, isn't this exactly what you want from a GM? Schuerholz would come out wearing his famous suspenders (he says he will not wear suspenders during the Hall of Fame speech because "they don't make shirts for them anymore"). He would talk about the faith he had in his players and management. He would never seem to panic, never seem to let the ups and downs of the game move him up or down. Maybe that's how you win 16 division titles, six pennants and two World Series.
And history: Selig was involved in just about every single thing that happened in baseball for the last half century or so. People will argue about his legacy, but no one argues that he changed baseball, no one argues that the baseball played today is a game shaped by Selig. And his role in bringing baseball back to Milwaukee still stands out.
It will also be Selig's birthday Sunday -- his 83rd birthday -- and that meant is was exactly 68 years ago that his mother took him to Yankee Stadium for the first time. It was a birthday present, and just before the game they rolled a birthday cake on the field.
"Wow," Bud said to his mother, "this is too much. I didn't need a giant birthday cake."
The cake, naturally, was for Yankees manager Casey Stengel, born exactly 44 years before Selig was born.
All of it should happen during what is predicted to be the best weather for a Hall of Fame celebration in memory. The sun should be out, the temperature should be cool, and a nice wind might be blowing.
"Can't you just feel the spirit of Jackie Robinson in the gentle breezes?" Claire Smith asked. And the answer is: Yes. You can.
Joe Posnanski is an executive columnist for MLB.com.