'Now we're in the same room': Newest Hall of Famers soak it all in

January 25th, 2024

As a rookie catcher for the Twins 20 years ago, Joe Mauer visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He was awestruck by the rich history of the game presented there, as well as the plaques of the all-time greats hanging in the gallery, including that of his favorite player while growing up, Kirby Puckett.

On Thursday, Mauer was back in the building.

“This is the first time I’ve been back in this room since my rookie year in ’04,” Mauer said to reporters assembled at a press conference to welcome the Hall’s three newest members.

“It was a different feeling.”

This time, it was the feeling of knowing that Mauer would himself have a plaque in Cooperstown alongside the greatest individuals to ever play the game. That feeling was shared by the two other men elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to the Hall of Fame Class of 2024 -- Adrián Beltré and Todd Helton.

Beltré and Mauer both achieved baseball immortality on their first ballot, with the former receiving 95.1% of votes cast and the latter garnering 76.1% to narrowly cross the requisite 75% threshold for election. Helton was voted in on his sixth ballot with 79.7% to become the second Rockies player to reach Cooperstown.

It’s been a whirlwind couple of days for the trio. The three flew to upstate New York after receiving one of the most consequential phone calls of their lives on Tuesday.

“When we saw the caller-ID say ‘Cooperstown,’ I said, ‘This is it. This is real. It’s happening,’’’ said Beltré, who had 3,166 hits, 477 home runs and five Gold Glove Awards at third base over a 21-year career. “It was a surreal moment. It’s been so crazy the last 40 hours that it hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Helton echoed that sentiment.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in to me, either,” said the Rockies great, who posted a .953 OPS (133 OPS+) with 369 home runs and three Gold Glove Awards at first base. “It’s such a huge honor. I think I’ll totally feel it when I see some of the older guys that I really looked up to and dreamt someday that I would be like them.”

For Mauer, a three-time batting champion who won three Gold Glove Awards behind the plate and was voted the 2009 American League MVP, a fuller realization of what was transpiring was taking place in real time in front of the microphone.

“I’d say right now, it’s starting to sink in, in this room,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ll fully grasp that until time goes on.”

Mauer and Helton played their entire careers with one franchise, a rare occurrence in baseball these days, but especially for two players going into the Hall of Fame together.

The Rockies selected Helton with the eighth overall pick in the 1995 Draft out of the University of Tennessee, where he excelled in baseball and football -- he was, for a time, the starting quarterback for the Volunteers with future pro football Hall of Famer Peyton Manning as his backup.

After joining the Rockies, Helton wore No. 17 for Colorado during his 17 seasons with the club.

“I think a lot of things have to go right [in order to play for the same franchise for an entire career],” he said. “ … You go out and play hard every day. You try to make the team better and you lead. … I’m so happy that I played my whole career in Colorado -- I love the town, I love the people, and I was very lucky to get drafted by them.”

Mauer was a hometown choice for the Twins, who drafted him out of a St. Paul high school with the No. 1 overall pick in 2001. He is the fourth No. 1 overall Draft pick to be elected to the Hall of Fame, joining Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones and Harold Baines.

“For me, I grew up a Twins fan, watching the team and wanting them to win,” Mauer said. “ … It’s a special place, a special community, and I’m happy to be a part of it. I’m excited for ‘Twins territory’ and everybody back home as well.”

Beltré, who played for the Dodgers, Mariners, Red Sox and Rangers, also joined an exclusive club within the Hall of Fame, becoming the fifth player born in the Dominican Republic to be elected to Cooperstown. He joins Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero and David Ortiz.

Beltré made it a priority to go see one plaque in particular before meeting with the press.

“I think every corner here is impressive,” he said. “But the one that I was glad to see and excited to see was Juan Marichal’s. Being a little kid from the Dominican, that was the first big name I heard in baseball. … Everything you heard was about Juan Marichal when I was growing up.”

On July 21, the three new electees to the Hall of Fame from the BBWAA ballot will join legendary manager Jim Leyland -- elected by the Hall’s Contemporary Era Committee in December -- on stage at Cooperstown’s Clark Sports Center.

It will be then that they receive their plaques and see them hung in the prestigious gallery of baseball luminaries who have received the game’s highest individual honor.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” Beltré said. “I don’t even know if I belong here. There’s so much history, so many players that you idolized when you were a kid, and even guys that you played against that you couldn’t even imagine how good they were.

“And now we’re in the same room.”