NY Sports Day
Andy Esposito

Five Forever: Class of 2017 Officially Enshrined With Cheers and Tears

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It now happens every year. They prove there is crying in baseball as the newest members of the Hall of Fame often get a little emotional when they get to the part of their speech thanking their family.

In this year’s class, as John Shuerholz, Bud Selig, Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez and Tim Raines were welcomed into baseball’s ultimate fraternity, it was Rock and Pudge who had to take an extra moment or two to control the waterworks.

Raines tried citing the onstart of a cold as an excuse for the sniffles as he reached for a hanky. Rodriguez produly stated he’s an emotional guy and was proud of the moment.

Pudge banked his speech in Spanish and English, in particular so his parents, who were in attendance, could fully appreciate the event.

The longtime catcher and one-time Yankee, who holds the record for the most games caught in major league history (2,427), also proudly addressed his native Puerto Rico and the many great ballplayers who have originated from – in his words – “a little country with only three million people,” with many of his fans surrounding the bucolic setting waving Puerto Rican flags with great expression.

“Never let anyone take your dream from you,” Rodriguez proclaimed. “Growing up in Puerto Rico, there was no greater joy than watching the game of the week. I was a fan of the Cincinnati Reds, and my hero was Johnny Bench. I wanted to be a catcher like Johnny Bench.

“I was a kid hoping to be as tall as the other boys. I was a ‘tall’ five foot nine. But I got a good name out of it – Pudge.”

The “new Pudge” in Cooperstown – with Carlton Fisk as the original – told a story about the first time he caught Nolan Ryan. He was a rookie, and the first time they went over the signs in the pregame meeting, Ryan told him, “Kid, you don’t have to do too much. I have a fastball, a curveball, and a changeup, so just put your fingers down and I’ll throw it to you.”

Still learning English, Rodriguez simply responded, “OK.”

Ryan almost threw his eighth no-hitter, but Dave Winfield broke up the bid with a hit late in the game. In the locker room afterward, a reporter asked Pudge what kind of pitch did Winnie hit. He passed the buck. “Nolan shook me off.”

Pudge then turned to his good friend sitting on the stage at the ceremony, one of over 50 Hall of Famers in attendance, and apologized. “Sorry, Nolie.”

Raines apologized for still fumbling when trying to communicate in French, the dominant language in Montreal, where he spent a dozen years as a member of the Expos. “I’ve been trying for 25 years to learn your language and I still can’t get it right.”

“Rock” recalled he and his brother Levi trying to race his father, also a speedy runner, along the side of their house. “Finally I said to myself, ‘He’s not going to beat me today,’ and I won. That was the last time he raced us.”

With 808 stolen bases, Raines also proved to every pitcher and catcher he ever faced he was pretty fast, too. He’s the only player with six straight years of at least 70 steals, led the National League four times, and had a success rate of an amazing 84.7 percent.

Coincidentally, Raines’ first at-bat was against the aforementioned Ryan. He ran the count to 3-2. “I thought (the next pitch) was a ball. I started heading to first. The umpire rang me up. I said I thought it was in the dirt. The umpire said, ‘Sit down, rook. That’s Nolan Ryan out there.’ I learned my lesson that day.”

Shuerholz received an important lesson when he was just five years old. A bout with the German measles left him deaf in one ear, making it quite important for the rest of his life to pay attention with his good ear. His love of baseball led to a front office starter position with the Baltimore Orioles in the mid 1960s – thanks to then O’s GM Frank Cashen, who later ran the Mets and positioned them to win the 1986 World Series.

A few years later, O’s exec Lou Gorman left to run the fledgling Kansas City Royals, and took Shuerholz with him. By 1981, Shuerholz was named Royals GM, and led them to their first World Championship in 1985.

He joined the Atlanta Braves in 1990, and what a coincidence – they soon began a run of winning their division 14 straight years, thanks to his leadership and talent acquisition skills. And of course, Bobby Cox running the team, and some pitchers named Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, but you’ve got to have a chief pulling it all together and that was Shuerholz.

Hi dad, a former Philadelphia Athletics farmhand, taught him to love the game. “I love baseball. As kids, we used to play until we lost all of the balls or until it got dark.”

For a while, little Johnny Shuerholz thought he, too, could be a player, but after a tryout camp, he was handed a stopwatch and told his future would be best suited as a scout.

Of course, he was humbled by his new status as a Hall of Famer.

“I’m so proud of joining (Bobby Cox), and Smoltz, and Glav, and Maddux…For years, I sat like you out on this lawn and was in awe of the accomplishments of the men who were being honored, but (now) I like my new seat on this stage much much more.”

Former Commissioner Selig will forever be proudest of the “economic reformation” he set in motion for the game. “Many owners told me if I didn’t do what I did, the game wouldn’t have survived.”

After giving thousands of speeches in his position as the ninth Commissioner in the game’s history for 23 years, the second-longest tenured Commish, Selig, admitted he was a bit nervous accepting his plaque, at first labeling his emotion as “tense.”

He told the story of a day when both he and his longtime friend Henry Aaron had addressed Congress in Washington, D.C. in 2005, and afterward, as they walked back to the hotel, Aaron remarked. “Bud, did you ever think when we met in 1958, that I would one day beat Babe Ruth’s record, and you would be the Commissioner of baseball?”

“Who you see here today,” Selig said, “is a little boy’s dream come true.”

He led off his speech by declaring, “The Hall of Fame is the soul of baseball, a baseball treasure. I’m proud to be a part of this year’s class.”

Bagwell gave a very low-key speech, commenting that “If y’all from Houston, you know that I don’t like all this attention.”

The longtime first baseman picked up that light Texas drawl from playing his entire career with the Astros (1991-2005). He’s actually from Connecticut, grew up a Red Sox fan, and was drafted by the Red Sox, who foolishly traded him to Houston when he was still a prospect for righthanded pitcher Larry Andersen.

“I have to thank Larry for being such a great reliever to be able to be traded for,” Bagwell said in his speech. “One time I ran into Larry and he said, ‘Hey, you’ve got step it up. People are not talking about me as much anymore.’ Okay, Larry, here I am in Cooperstown. This good enough for you?”

There are now 317 members of the Hall of Fame – 220 major league players, 35 Negro League greats, 30 execs and front office heads, 22 managers, and ten umpires.

Always a great weekend, always a great place to visit. If you haven’t been to Cooperstown yet, what the heck are you waiting for?

For more info: www.baseballhall.org.


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