COOPERSTOWN – They brought their hand-drums. They brought their shakers. They brought their cowbells. They brought their flags. And they brought their joyful pride as thousands of Pedro Martinez fans, many of them who had traveled the distance from Martinez’ homeland, the Dominican Republic, danced and reveled as their native son became the second Dominican ballplayer to be inducted yesterday into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
In the largest class to be elected by the baseball writers since 1955, the Hall’s wall of plaques now counts 310 members, as Martinez was joined by fellow pitchers Randy Johnson and John Smoltz, plus Long Island native Craig Biggio in a well-attended ceremony in the historically quaint upstate village. Official estimates placed the crowd at about 45,000 in what becomes baseball’s annual Woodstock-like celebration.
You could almost say that Martinez was the featured attraction, but Biggio owned arguably as many fans in attendance, as the town was buffeted by many Houston Astros fans, as well as hundreds who made the trek from the shorter distance from Long Island, where Biggio credited as the root of his success.
“My journey started in a little town called Kings Park,” Biggio noted proudly during his acceptance speech. “I had three responsibilities – school, sports, and a job.”
Biggio’s job relates well to all Long Islanders. “I had a newspaper route, an afternoon paper, Newsday. I didn’t get home until 7:00 or 7:30 (due to playing sports). That’s when people on my route got the paper. Sorry about that.”
Biggio’s 20-season career (1988-2007) was played exclusively in Houston, where he became a seven-time All-Star, won four Gold Gloves, won Silver Slugger awards at both catcher and second base, is fifth all-time in doubles with 668, and is the only player in baseball history with 250 home runs (he hit 291), 3,000 hits (3,060), 600 doubles (668), and 400 stolen bases (414). He also had a painful habit of getting hit by a pitch (shades of Ron Hunt!) and made it to first a record-setting 285 bruise-busting times.
Biggio credited one-time Mets coach Matt Galante as the impetus for his career. “I wouldn’t be here without that man,” Biggio proclaimed.
Galante spent countless hours converting Biggio as a young player from behind the plate into an infielder. Biggio eventually presented Galante with his first Gold Glove in gratitude.
Smoltz had his share of fans in support as well. Braves fans always travel well, and after two of Smoltzie’s mound mates, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, made it last year, plus their manager, Bobby Cox, the newest Brave with a plaque recalled being called out by his prank-happy buddies with a stunt of his own during his speech.
Glav and Mad-Dog noted Smoltz being follically-challenged of late, so in the middle of his acceptance, the versatile righthander pulled a very hairy wig from the podium and wore that for a few moments in his defense.
Smoltz was extremely versatile, and is now the only pitcher in baseball history with at least 200 wins (213), and 150 saves (154). The eight-time All-Star won the 1996 Cy Young Award and was the MVP of the 1992 NLCS. He also owns a 15-4 postseason record, with three saves.
Now a broadcaster for the MLB network, Smoltz becomes the first pitcher to be inducted into the Hall of Fame after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He credited a memorable phone call from Tommy John when he was undergoing the procedure as a career-changing moment.
The encouragement from the original recipient of the procedure gave Smoltz the mental strength to endure the lengthy rehab, and if it weren’t for that motivation, he wouldn’t be in Cooperstown.
He also issued a warning of sorts to parents of young players dreaming of playing in the majors. Apparently the proliferation of pitchers enduring Tommy John surgeries is giving some parents the thought they should give their future hurlers the surgery at a young age, whether they need it or not, thinking that’s a faster route to the majors.
“It’s an epidemic, something affecting our game” Smoltz warned. “Take care of those great future arms. I want to encourage the families to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 or 15. Baseball is not a year-round sport. They’re competing too hard, too early. That’s why they’re having these problems. ”
Smoltz’s speech focused on four phone calls, the one from Tommy John, the one that told him he was being drafted by his favorite team, the Detroit Tigers (he grew up in Lansing, Michigan), the call that said he was being traded to the Atlanta Braves, and the one this past January that made it official that he was being elected to the Hall. His first thought was that it was an elaborate prank by Maddux.
Smoltzie’s parents had a different career in mind for their son. They were accordion teachers, and wanted young John to “be the next Lawrence Welk,” according to Smoltz. But he put down the accordion at age 7 and announced he was going to be a major league ballplayer. His dad didn’t knock the dream goal, but he did recommend he find a “backup dream.” His parents were on hand to congratulate their failed accordion player with his new status as an immortal pitcher.
Randy Johnson was always an intimidating figure on the mound, and is now obviously the tallest pitcher to be inducted into Cooperstown. After a career where he was almost as intimidating to the media, and occasionally, the fans, as he was with nervous hitters in the batter’s box, the 6’10” lefthander was visibly humbled by his induction.
“I no longer have a fastball. I no longer have a bad mullet. And I no longer have a scowl.”
He even broached a smile now and again.
“I never thought I’d be on this stage,” Johnson said. “It’s humbling to see these men behind me. (But) it would have been fun to face you, Reggie.”
The ten-time All-Star won five Cy Youngs, was the co-MVP of the 2001 World Series, and his 4,875 strikeouts are second to only Nolan Ryan, the most by a southpaw. His career stat sheet bears a lot of bold numbers.
When it came time for Martinez to take the stage in the cleanup spot, the party got kicked up a notch. His fans danced and waved their flags. Pedro danced. He was a nine-mile smile all the way and enjoyed every moment of the occasion.
Pedro (he’s basically earned one-name status at this point, a la Lebron or Reggie, etc.) made a fashion statement during his induction. You’ve heard of wearing his heart on his sleeve, but Pedro made a point by wearing large patches at the top of each sleeve on his powder blue suit. His right shoulder patch honored his native land, the Dominican Republic. His left shoulder patch honored his adopted country, the United States.
Now a citizen of the US, Pedro didn’t explain his expressions of pride during his speech, but afterward, he told the media, “I wanted to give props to the Dominican Republic and the United States,” Pedro said proudly. “I wanted to make sure I recognized both. I respect America. If it wasn’t for America, I wouldn’t be here in Cooperstown today.”
Pedro did, however, made a very public gesture that was well-received in his homeland. The event was being broadcast live to DR, and as it turns out, it was Father’s Day in DR, so Pedro’s “greeting card” to back home was to call up Juan Marichal, the first ballplayer from DR to be inducted, and they waved the flag of the Dominican Republic and acknowledged the crowd’s ardent response.
“They’ve waited 32 years for another of their sons to be here,” Pedro exclaimed.
Martinez played for five teams, the Dodgers, Expos, Red Sox, Mets and Phillies. He thanked each organization, and gave special kudos to his years in New York.
“If you see me going wild,” Martinez said during his speech, “that’s (for) Mets fans. That’s how we are. Queens, I love you.”
Pedro finished his 18-season career as an eight time All-Star. He won three Cy Youngs, and his winning percentage of .687 (219-100) is the most by any pitcher who began their major league career after 1950.
The new plaques are now on the wall. You can already start making plans for the Induction Ceremony in 2016. The date will be Sunday, July 24. Newcomers on the ballot include: Ken Griffey, Jr., Trevor Hoffman, and ex-Met Billy Wagner.
Who knows? Maybe next year’s inductees will even include Mike Piazza.