Baseball's Hall of Fame induction weekend is a reunion of the sport's greatest fraternity. Many of the living legends return to baseball's spiritual home to welcome the newest members of the club – this year, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza – and to catch up with their pals. For fans, it's an amazing opportunity to see the game's greats all in one place. For reporters with additional access, it's even better. For a fan-reporter with still further access, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that created memories and brought back some fond ones.
COOPERSTOWN, New York – In middle school, I spent my summers in hotel lobbies. Friends and I hung out in some of Houston's finest establishments because that's where big-league ballclubs resided while in town to play the Astros.
We were there for autographs. At least, that was the premise. Looking back, what I enjoyed most were the interactions, seeing the guys on the cardboard as real people.
Memories of those days came rushing back Friday afternoon. Because once again I was in a posh hotel surrounded by many of the guys I stalked from probably 1983-85. Only this time, the setting was the Otesaga Resort and Hotel, the private haven for Hall of Famers during induction weekend.
Otesaga security guards are friendly but firm. Autograph seekers have no chance of getting in. You need a pass, and I was wearing my Willy Wonka Golden Ticket: a "Member Guest" badge. It even had my name spelled correctly.
Let me back up a bit and explain how this came to be.
(This section is background. Feel free to skip or read quickly; the good stuff is coming up)
Last September, Hall of Famer Rod Carew nearly died. He suffered a heart attack while playing golf, then went into cardiac arrest. His life was saved 17 days later when doctors implanted a machine called an LVAD into his chest. During his recovery, he decided to use his story to help others learn from it. He hooked up with the American Heart Association, which is where I work. The first step, of course, was telling his story. Seeing as I'm a former sportswriter, and still a Hall of Fame voter, it only made sense that I write it. That was just before Thanksgiving.
In late January, I was getting ready for a weekend in Vegas with several pals when my boss asked me to go to Minneapolis for the launch event of Carew's campaign, dubbed Heart of 29 in honor of his career-long jersey number. Again, my options were to gamble, see shows and eat/drink in Vegas with friends or spend that same weekend in snowy Minneapolis. Not knowing if I'd ever have another chance to hang out with one of baseball's greatest hitters, I flew north instead of west.
I got along great with Rod and his wife Rhonda, and they enjoyed my work. So, a month later, I spent a week with Rod at spring training in Fort Myers, Florida. More trips followed, including my first-ever games at Target Field, Dodgers Stadium and Angel Stadium. I savored every minute.
The last two weeks, however, were off-the-charts amazing.
First came the All-Star Game in San Diego. I was on the field when Rod got the AL batting title named in his honor. While he watched the game from the Commissioner's Suite, I went to my seat down the right-field line then wandered around Petco Park, enjoying the game from various vantage points.
Last Thursday, I joined Rod for a game at Fenway Park. The Red Sox were tremendous hosts, especially considering Rod never played for them. Better still was how the Red Sox players responded to him; it was like a favorite uncle showed up.
As Rod's night was wrapping up, a Red Sox employee whispered to me, "Make sure Rod doesn't leave yet. Fred Lynn is coming in to surprise him." Surprise Rod? Heck, this was a wonderful surprise for me. See, Lynn was my favorite player growing up. And while I've met him before, it's been a long time.
When they finished catching up, I asked to take a picture with both of them. With apologies to my wife and kids, this photo of my baseball past and present is now my Facebook profile pic.
From stalking hotels at 13, I graduated to stalking clubhouses at 18.
(Just a little more stage-setting. Trust me, the cool stuff is coming.)
I covered my first Astros game in 1989, the summer after my freshman year of college. I became such a regular in clubhouses that I joined the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1994. Ten years later, I began voting for the Hall of Fame.
I mention that to emphasize how comfortable I am around ballplayers. Anyone I've encountered professionally is no big deal. Seeing Mike Trout in Anaheim or Big Papi in Boston was just part of the job. However, the 13-year-old stuck inside me still gets a thrill when meeting the old-timers, the guys whose cards I collected and who I read about in my formative years. In fact, while writing this, I realized that guys from, say, the mid-1980s and before loom so large to me because they were the focus of the books and stories that led me to become a sportswriter. (Note to millennials: In the early '80s, every game wasn't on TV, highlights were a treat and there was no internet. The printed word – books, magazines and newspapers – fueled my fandom.)
When I arrived at the Otesaga around 5:30 p.m. Friday, I had no idea what to expect. I was a half-hour early to meet the Carews and figured I would just soak up the scene. I wasn't going to be there long anyway; the Carews were getting on the 6:45 p.m. bus to a private party.
My inner 13-year-old came alive right away.
I saw Goose Gossage chatting with Bruce Sutter. I heard Ozzie Smith say, "Hello, Mr. Shortstop" when he greeted Luis Aparacio. I saw Eddie Murray go from his usual scowl to a smile. Jim Bunning strolled by, then Tommy Lasorda. Randy Johnson was impossible to miss, towering over everyone.
Looking at the elevator, wondering who might be coming off next, my mind drifted back to my days at the Shamrock, Stouffers and Holiday Inn hotels in Houston. The inner 13-year-old screamed, "Can you believe this?" I'm happy to say the 45-year-old played it cool.
When the Carews came down, they were surrounded by friends. Rod and Gossage could hardly stop laughing. I later asked what was so funny.
"We were talking about the time I hit a line drive off his cup," Rod said. "He picked up the ball, threw me out at first, then passed out."
I returned to the Otesaga before 8 a.m. Saturday for the start of a health screening hosted by the AHA and a local hospital. At 8:15, we had our first customer: Brooks Robinson.
Robinson went to the lobby and convinced Gaylord Perry to get screened. Johnny Bench came in a few minutes later.
When business slowed, I went upstairs and hung out in the lobby, ostensibly to wait for Rod and to try encouraging guys to get screened, but also to gawk.
Bobby Cox was talking to a group of reporters, which was hilarious because everyone's body language matched the typical manager's pregame availability. Out on the veranda, Tony LaRussa was eating breakfast at one table, Cal Ripken Jr. at another and Frank Thomas at the next one. Andre Dawson hustled through the lobby to a waiting car.
I left the hotel with Rod for a news conference at the site of the induction ceremony. A highlight was him sharing the story of a conversation he had in Boston with Dustin Pedroia.
Rod told Pedroia to listen for a particular song; if he heard it, he should expect to get two or three hits that day.
"What song?" Pedroia said.
"The national anthem," Carew told him.
Next came a trip to the Tunnicliff Inn, a hotel that becomes an autograph hound's paradise during induction weekend. (For a price, of course.) The collection of talent per square foot was astounding. In just the room where Rod waited for his table to be ready, he was visited by Robin Yount, Wade Boggs, Orlando Cepeda, Barry Larkin, Dennis Eckersley and Craig Biggio. We then walked past Dwight Gooden (not a Hall of Famer, but still here signing autographs), Dave Winfield, Pedro Martinez, Frank Thomas, Rickey Henderson, Gaylord Perry and Johnny Bench. Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton, Whitey Ford, Ryne Sandberg and Ozzie Smith arrived later.
When it was time to go, a car was summoned to drive Rod, his son Devon, a videographer and me back to the Otesaga. However, another passenger already was in the car. I had to ask him to get out so the video guy and I could climb into the back seat. Sandberg was so accommodating that I stifled the urge to mention that I once had a poster of him on my wall.
I left Rod at the hotel so he could rest and change clothes, and so I could get lunch and buy souvenirs for my kids. While in line for pizza, Devon texted me to meet the family at the staging area for the parade.
This turned out to be the right field of Doubleday Field. An MLB security guy politely asked the videographer and me to wait outside the gate until the Carew truck rolled out. It didn't seem worth a fight – I mean, they're just getting ready for a parade, right? – so I sent Devon a text telling him our plan.
Note to self: Be sure to thank Devon for refusing to accept that plan.
Devon came out and told us to follow him. As I would soon learn, he was leading us into baseball heaven.
Under a double tent roughly the size of a basketball court, about 100 people were enjoying cold beverages and light snacks. The group included the 40-something Hall of Famers who'd be getting into trucks for the parade, their families … and me.
The realization of what exclusive company I was keeping hit quickly.
I figured that I'd be around all these guys at once at some point this weekend, but it never clicked that it might happen now. Nor did I expect to be in such close confines with everyone. That surprise made it even better.
Barry Larkin walked by me to ask Ken Griffey Jr. what he wanted to drink. Larkin headed to the bar and Cal Ripken Jr. took his place alongside Griffey. I surreptitiously snapped a picture, then looked around at table after table of baseball's greatest players.
In the six months I've spent shadowing the Carews, I've confessed to Rhonda before about my inner 13-year-old doing backflips, such as when we visited with Vin Scully and Don Newcombe at Dodgers Stadium. I'd already texted my wife that I was in baseball heaven, and I used that phrase again in describing to Rhonda my take on this scene.
"You know what the best part is?" she said. "In here, there are no egos. Everyone is the same. They're all Hall of Famers."
The next guy I saw was Reggie Jackson, which was perfect considering what Rhonda just said.
Months before, Rod told me that Reggie likes to say the "real" Hall of Famers are the guys who get it on the first ballot. Seeing him near Jim Rice, who got in on his 15th and final try, I knew it didn't really matter. As Rhonda said, you're either in the club or you're not.
Rod actually was in a golf cart just outside the tent, so I went out to chat with him. Then my cellphone buzzed. My 18-year-old, baseball-loving son Zac was calling from camp.
I'd texted Zac earlier to call if he could because I wanted to ask him which T-shirt he wanted from a terrific store called Baseballism. The fact he was calling back at this moment was too good to be true. Completely by coincidence, I got to share this scene with him.
"You're not going to believe where I am," I told him.
He wanted me to name names, so I started strolling around. Pedro Martinez was a few feet away. At the back of the tent, I spotted Griffey, Ripken, Larkin, Brooks Robinson, Randy Johnson, Johnny Bench, John Smoltz, Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine, Joe Torre, Bert Blyleven, Juan Marichal, Al Kaline and Fergie Jenkins. I went around front and saw Ozzie Smith, Randy Johnson, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Dave Winfield.
Just outside the tent, George Brett was talking to Wade Boggs, and Ryne Sandberg was alongside Jim Palmer. After I hung up with Zac, I heard Carlton Fisk giving Devon instructions about waving to the crowd during the parade. My inner 13-year-old wanted to joke about waving both arms, as Fisk famously did with his home run that won Game 6 of the 1975 World Series; the 45-year-old me again won out.
Rod was in the 12th truck, and the video guy and I walked alongside as they drove onto the route. Another miscalculation was expecting this to be pretty lame. It became the emotional high point, and the lede of my story.
The parade ended in front of the Hall of Fame. Rod and his family went inside, and the video guy and I were stuck in an awkward spot – still on the street, fenced off from fans and right in front of Hall president Jeff Idelson and chairman of the board Jane Forbes Clark, who were greeting each Hall of Famer as they arrived. Jeff motioned for us to go to the photographers' area on the left or scoot inside the museum.
Tough choice, eh?
The video guy got shooed away at the door, but I was allowed to stay. After all, I wore a Golden Ticket.
In the entryway, I caught up to Rod as he was greeting Whitey Ford. When Rod walked away, Whitey tapped my arm and said, "Who was that?" I explained it several times before the name clicked for him. Whitey laughed and said, "Oh yeah! He tried telling me that but I couldn't hear him. I should've known that!"
I caught up to the Carews again as they entered the Plaque Gallery. In case the name didn't make it obvious, this is the room featuring the plaques of every Hall of Famers. In essence, it is the Hall of Fame. And I was about to spend the evening here with the guys on the wall.
I first visited this room when I was 13, with my parents. I returned at 23 with a buddy. I came again last summer with my wife and our three sons. Each trip was special in its own way. But, this? Wow.
Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt snagged the table in the covey where their plaques hung, so the Carews settled in one section over. (Rod sat under Willie Stargell's plaque.) Devon's girlfriend Mary mentioned wanting to take a picture with Rod under his plaque; come to think of it, I'd like one of those, too.
This gathering was far less exclusive than the tent. Still, being part of this crowd in this room was as magical as the smaller environment at Doubleday Field.
Phil Niekro greeted Rod, kissing his hand as he departed. One of the coolest things I've seen the last six months is how much retired ballpayers tell each other, "I love you."
Tony Perez came by looking for Rhonda. She'd made a dazzling speech at a wives' club luncheon and he wanted to congratulate her. She was in the gift shop at the time, and he promised to return.
Soon after, Rod and I were alone at the table. I told him how incredible this was for me and I thanked him for allowing me to be part of this. He said he used to consider Hall of Fame weekend a real hassle. He skipped many parts, especially the parade. But ever since he started coming with Rhonda (they married in 2001), he's enjoyed them more and more.
Rod later noticed George Brett talking to actor Jim Caviezel, star of "Person of Interest," one of Rod's favorite shows. He wanted to meet Caviezel, so I offered to bring him over. I went to the fringe of the conversation between Caviezel and Brett, getting within earshot just as Brett was breaking down his thought process at the plate.
"When I got ahead in the count, I felt like I'd won the at-bat," Brett said. "1-0, 3-1 – didn't matter. I could relax and focus on getting a good swing on the ball. A lot of guys make the mistake of swinging harder when they get ahead. They get excited and end up popping it up. It's like in golf when you really want a long drive and you overswing."
I wanted to keep listening, but Perez was approaching. I stopped him and said that Rhonda was back at the table. Not knowing me, he was confused for a moment; then I pointed to her and it made sense. He thanked me and went her way. I went back to Brett and Caviezel. It became clear they were going to be talking for a while, so I returned to the Carews' table.
"I'll take care of this," Rhonda said, adding that George's wife is one of her close friends so she felt comfortable breaking up their conversation.
George came over first, and he and Rod shared some laughs. Then Caviezel sat down. He talked about playing hoops with Griffey on the campus of the University of Washington and being at Shea Stadium with Piazza. I must admit, it wasn't until later, when I looked up Caviezel on Wikipedia, that I learned he starred in "Passion of the Christ." So I didn't make the connection in the moment that while I was in baseball heaven, I spent time with a guy who played Jesus.
When Rod was ready to leave, I reminded him that Mary wanted a picture under the plaque. And, uh, while you're there ...
Rollie Fingers was the first legend I saw leaving the screening on Sunday. Afterward, he told me about his first time meeting Rod.
"1965, Cocoa Beach. Florida State League," said Fingers, his mustache still perfectly curled. "I didn't know who he was until he hit a line drive right at me. I caught it an inch in front of my face and fell on my ass."
Dave Winfield also came by, then Tom Glavine. We finished around 11:30, leaving me about an hour until I went to the induction ceremony. So I went back to the lobby to hang out.
Sitting by himself was Hall of Famer Bruce Froemming. If you're not familiar with his work, he was an umpire for a record 37 seasons. Well, my son Zac umpires, so I asked Froemming for advice I could pass along.
"This is going to sound strange. You might thinking I've been drinking," he said. "Tell him to work as many basketball games as he can. Slow-pitch softball, too. Ya see, you can work the bases in baseball and make only one or two decisions all game. But in basketball, you're constantly making decisions. And they're always hitting the ball in slow pitch, so there's a lot of action. The more you can build that decision muscle, the better."
Being polite, I asked how old he was when he broke into the game. I couldn't believe his answer: 18 … the same age as Zac! He'd never umped before, but he went to umpire school (yes, there is such thing) and went pro right away. It took him 13 years to reach the majors, yet he still put together a Hall of Fame career noted for its longevity at the big-league level. Impressive.
I had a nice, brief conversation with Johnny Bench, then chatted with a guy named Steve Cobb. He runs the Arizona Fall League and was there because Mike Piazza was the first guy to play in that league to make the Hall. Cool nugget. Alas, our conversation ended before I asked whether Steve was related to the other Cobb in Cooperstown.
I figured Rod would be down any minute, so I kept an eye on the elevators.
By now, even my inner 13-year-old was no longer impressed by the folks walking past. But then the sliding doors opened and out stepped someone new … someone I'd once invited to my bar mitzvah, as did all baseball-loving Jews. Yep, Sandy Koufax.
I fired off another clandestine picture and kept an eye on him, looking for the opportunity to say hello and shake his hand. I even thought about the right way to ask to take a picture together, something I hadn't done with anyone but Rod.
Koufax finished a conversation and was walking back toward me. This was going to be my chance. Then the elevator opened and out stepped Whitey Ford.
"Who's this guy?" Ford bellowed. Remembering that Ford didn't recognize Rod the night before, I wondered whether that was happening again.
It wasn't. Whitey was just pretending not to recognize perhaps the most famous guy in the building. As I imagined slipping in between them for an even better picture, the Carews came off the elevator. Sorry, 13-year-old Jaime; time for the 45-year-old to get to work.
VIP access to the induction ceremony was as great as it sounds. While there were 50,000 people there, I was in the eighth row.
Afterward, I hooked up with the Carews for one last visit at the Otesaga.
We chatted for close to an hour, both about the weekend that was and about what's next for him. He could get on the heart transplant list in the next few weeks; he could get a heart soon after. Or maybe not. It's pretty powerful stuff.
We also talked about his final event of the weekend, a dinner a few hours away that's probably his favorite event of the year. I say this because it comes up every time we're together.
The dinner is strictly for the Hall of Famers – just the returning members and the newcomers. They spend the night swapping stories, telling tall tales and all the other things guys do at such a gathering.
Can you imagine the seating chart for such an event?
There isn't a formal one. Instead, it plays out like a middle school lunchroom.
According to Rod, they break into cliques. There are tables for sluggers and tables for pitchers. Rod is the leader of the table for line-drive hitters, a group that usually includes Wade Boggs, Ozzie Smith, Orlando Cepeda and more. There are exceptions, though. Pitcher Juan Marichal likes being with them, while line-drive hitter George Brett likes sitting with the pitchers
"They have better wine than we do," Rod said, laughing.
We were talking about Tom Seaver one time when I asked Rod if he's ever tasted Seaver's wine. Rod said he had a little once. Willie Mays snagged a bottle from the pitchers' table and brought it over to the line drive guys.
"We'll see where everyone sits tonight," Rod said.
Then we said our goodbyes.
I headed for the door feeling wistful, a la Dorothy leaving Oz. The videographer walked ahead of me and already was out the front door when I looked to my right and saw a man in conversation with a woman. I thought twice about interrupting, then figured, what the heck.
"Excuse me," I said. "I just want to congratulate you."
Ken Griffey Jr. flashed that famous smile and shook my hand.
What a great finish to a great weekend.
The spell was broken in the parking lot. As the videographer threw his gear into the trunk, I realized how much work was ahead of me – transcribing interviews, writing the story, uploading and editing pictures, laying it all out, etc. And it had to be done by about 11 a.m. Monday morning so I could drive back to the airport in Boston.
I was pleased with how it all came out and I made it to the airport on time. Alas, my flight was delayed twice, then cancelled. Hotels nearby were sold out, so I ended up at a place 25 miles away. Overnight, I discovered that the air conditioner in my room didn't work. When I got back to the airport in the morning, my flight was delayed. And I learned my new flight had a layover in Charlotte. We were supposed to stay on that plane, but an equipment issue caused us to switch planes and gates. A series of miscommunications resulted in me missing that flight.
So the trip to baseball heaven turned into a return trip from hell. I arrived home exactly 24 hours later than expected.
But you know what? It wasn't all bad. It gave me time to write this.