New class arrives in Cooperstown
Alomar, Blyleven and Gillick say thanks to all who lined their roads to the Hall of Fame
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Bert Blyleven gripped a baseball in his hand when he delivered his Hall of Fame induction speech Sunday afternoon. Which makes sense. When you're receiving the game's ultimate honor and speaking in front of an announced crowd of 17,500 and a live television audience -- plus your family -- and you're sweating more from that daunting task than from the summer heat and humidity, it helps to clutch something familiar for comfort.
"It was a little prop," Blyleven said, "but I was also showing Sandy Koufax how he held his curveball and what he meant to me."
Well, that's the perk of being a Hall of Famer. You get to talk baseball with Sandy Koufax and Frank Robinson and George Brett. And you get to call them your peers. Blyleven and Roberto Alomar joined baseball's most select fraternity, Phi Halla Fama, when they and former general manager Pat Gillick were inducted into Cooperstown on Sunday.
Induction day is often a player's most eagerly awaited and dreaded moment. On one hand it is the greatest moment of their career, the culmination of a life's work and dreams. On the other hand, you have to give a speech.
"I was supposed to stand here and give you a speech, but suddenly I feel speechless," Alomar said. "I played the game of baseball in front of thousands of people all my life. But I must say I would rather be playing the game than doing a speech here today. So bear with me, please. And remember, English is my second language."
Of course, not everyone feels that way. Blyleven, who is a broadcaster with the Minnesota Twins, seemed to relish the opportunity. "I would like to thank the Hall of Fame for allowing me 45 minutes for my speech," he joked at the start.
All three inductees thanked as many people as possible, both in their families and in baseball. And pretty much everywhere else as well. "I would like to say to my family, to my fans, to all the Puerto Rican people and Canadians and the game of baseball, you are and will always be my life and my love," Alomar said. "Thank you very much."
Gillick, the first to speak, thanked and drew attention to all the scouts and front-office people "who work in the trenches" without recognition. He also said of his early days as a scout in Latin America, "I didn't find the next Rico Carty or Roberto Clemente, but I did find something even better. I actually found my wife, Doris."
Alomar began his speech in his native Spanish, declaring his pride in representing Puerto Rico and Latin baseball. He paid special tribute to his father, the former major leaguer Sandy Alomar Sr., and his brother, fellow All-Star Sandy Jr. "Everything I know about baseball I learned from my dad," he said. "Somebody asked me who my favorite second baseman was, and I know there are a lot of great ones -- Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg -- but to me, my dad was the greatest."
Perhaps, but many people will regard Robbie as the greatest second baseman they ever saw, particularly if they root for the Blue Jays. "Set the standard for a generation of second baseman," his new Hall of Fame plaque read, "with a quick, powerful bat, a smooth, steady glove and seemingly endless range."
Blyleven's plaque describes him as a "Determined, durable and fun-loving Dutchman who baffled big league batters with a cruel and knee-bending breaking ball." The first Dutch Hall of Famer, Blyleven was born in the Netherlands before his father moved the family to North America when Blyleven was 2 years old. He and his father, Joe, became baseball fans while listening to Vin Scully broadcast Dodgers games on the radio. It was during one of those broadcasts that his father heard Koufax tell Scully that if he had a son he wouldn't let him throw a curveball until he was 13 or 14. "I don't know if you remember that interview, Sandy," Blyleven said. "But my father did."
Thus, Blyleven didn't start throwing his famous curveball until he was a teenager. It didn't set him back much because he reached the major leagues when he still was a teenager, making his major league debut at age 19 with the Twins. Much of Blyleven's speech was devoted to a humorous description of that call-up, including how the telegram read, "Report to [manager Bill] Rigney immediately." Blyleven said he arrived at the Twins' hotel at about 2 a.m., but knocked on Rigney's door anyway because "the telegram said report immediately."
Blyleven said a sleepy Rigney answered the door, listened to his explanation, told him to knock on the door of every teammate and inform them he was in town, then report back. Being a 19-year-old rookie, Blyleven said he did so and reported back to Rigney around 3 a.m., well after team curfew.
"He asked me if I had talked to everybody and I said, 'I tried, but nobody was in.'"
Blyleven pitched for five teams -- including two stints with the Twins -- and at one point was a teammate of Sandy Alomar Sr. Blyleven recalled how Robbie and Sandy Jr. played baseball against a wall at the Rangers' stadium with his son, Todd.
"We never had to worry about any of ours because we always knew they were playing baseball," he said. "They played all the time. I played with his dad. I faced Sandy when he was with the Angels, then I had the great honor of facing his son. It's pretty cool."
It is pretty cool. A baseball may just be a little white sphere but a virtual world is within its seams.
Blyleven played with Alomar's father and saw Robbie play as a child. Gillick saw Alomar when the second baseman was a youngster and tried to sign him as a young teen. Alomar had already committed to San Diego, though, and he began his career with the Padres, where Tony Gwynn gave him his first pair of baseball shoes ("I still have them," Alomar said). Gillick eventually traded for Alomar in Toronto and the second baseman hit a famous home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 ALCS that the former general manager says propelled the Blue Jays to their two consecutive World Series.
And on Sunday, baseball brought them all together in Cooperstown. Blyleven, Alomar and Gillick on the same stage with Sandy, Gwynn and Eck, and the surrounding field and hillside covered by fans from Minnesota, Canada, Puerto Rico and at least a couple from Holland.
How can you adequately sum all that up in a speech? Well, Blyleven has a catchphrase as a Twins broadcaster with which he singles out fans by circling them on the teleprompter, prompting fans to hold up signs and banners that read "Circle me, Bert." Considering that, and all the connections on the baseball stage Sunday, Blyleven ended his speech in the most fitting way possible, by saying "You are all hereby circled."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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