Esposito: Mo Closes Perfect Hall of Fame Ceremony

The all-time closer closed out an all-time perfect Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony with his usual perfect performance, delivering a heartfelt acceptance speech guaranteed to be remembered by the estimated crowd of 55,000-plus for many, many years.

The big day in Cooperstown finally came for Mariano Rivera, former teammates Mike Mussina and Lee Smith, plus Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines, with Roy Halladay also inducted posthumously. Other than the heat, the event was a perfect celebration of careers and talents, with love, gratitude and humility served generously throughout the three-hour-plus ceremony.

“Why do I always have to be last?” Mo joked as he began his speech, an obvious reference to his appearances as the last pitcher in the game. When Mo came in, the opposing batters got out.

Most Hall of Famers begin their speeches like an autobiography, going through their childhood and careers while thanking those who aided them along the way, finishing up with the family bouquets. Rivera reversed that format, first expressing his love and thank yous for his religion, his family, his mentors and teammates.

“First, thank you to my Lord, Jesus Christ,” said Rivera, “for opening doors. It’s amazing. Thank you for everything in my life.”

Mo threw verbal kisses to his family, and apologized to his kids for missing birthdays that occurred during spring training or the postseason. But he knew he had a job to do.

“I tried to carry the pinstripes the best I could,” Rivera stated. “I did it with dignity, honor, and pride. I think I did allright with that.”

He thanked Joe Torre, also on stage as a previously inducted Hall of Famer in 2014.

“Mr. T. That man is something, for me, an older brother, a father figure, and friend.”

Rivera recalled that when he first met Torre, he spoke to him in Spanish. (Maybe he thought his name was Torrez, not Torre?) “He looked at me like I was crazy.”

He admitted that as a young Panamanian prospect with no grasp of English, the “greatest decision” he made first pitching in the minors in Greensboro, NC, he asked his teammates to teach him English.

“Whatever I say, you can laugh all you want, but please teach me the right way.”

The young pitcher was first called up by the Yankees in 1995, but not too long after, he was sent back to the minors with another young player you may have heard of, Derek Jeter. They commiserated with each other at a Bennigans in New Jersey, “literally crying.”

There may be some tears of joy one year from now as that young teammate will also be joining Rivera on the stage in Cooperstown giving his own acceptance speech, but for now, that beloved infielder will hear nothing of it.

Jeter hired a private jet to bring him and Jorge Posada to the ceremony, and the Core Four was again reunited as they sat in the second row along with Andy Pettitte and Tino Martinez. Posada admitted there was one conversation that was verboten during the journey, Jeter’s “possible” induction next year.

“Derek doesn’t want to talk about it,” Posada revealed. “He doesn’t want to say anything. I know it is going to happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Rivera requested that his mates be part of the celebration.

“Mo wanted me here,” said Jeter. “I had to be here for Mo.”

“I love you guys,” Rivera called out to his teammates. “You mean so much to me.”

The Core Four became the Fab Five when they were joined by Bernie Williams, who was the featured entertainment. Bern-Baby-Bern played a stirring rendition of the National Anthem on his guitar (an homage to the 50th Anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s similar covering all those years ago at nearby Woodstock, perhaps?). Later, between speeches, Williams came back and played a delightful version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” a seventh inning stretch where he also slipped in a couple of riffs from Metallica’s “Enter, Sandman,” Rivera’s theme as he entered a game.

The owner of such all-time leading stats as 652 saves, 2.21 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 42 postseason saves (how appropriate), and 952 games finished (how about that!) remembered the day when a simple side session catch with fellow hurler Ramiro Mendoza turned into a career-making moment.

Suddenly, the ball was moving in an uncontrollable fashion. His cut fastball was magically born.

“The Lord gave me the best pitch in baseball.”

At first, believe it or not, they tried to get it to stop moving so crazily. He asked pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre (“I wish he was here today.”) to help him control it, but they finally just gave it a let it be attitude. And that led to a plaque in Cooperstown.

Mussina, a starter his whole career, except for one legendary relief appearance in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS where he helped the Yankees go to the Word Series that year, appropriately led off the speeches.

He was equally humble and thankful, and admitted he really never thought he’d pitch for a big city team like the Yankees, coming from a small town in Pennsylvania. But a conversation with Torre after the 2000 World Series made a positive impression.

Mussina chose, or rather, “suggested” to Hall of Fame officials that the cap on his bronze plaque be blank (it’s their choice, not the player’s decision), and they agreed. Moose was trying to be grateful to both the Orioles and Yankees, his two clubs over an 18-year career which generated a 270-153 record, 3.68 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 2,813 strikeouts in 3,562 innings, 57 complete games (a dying breed, for sure), and 23 shutouts.

But Mussina likes to smilingly lament that he “almost” achieved greater numbers.

“Since I received the incredible news of my election,” Moose noted, “I spent a lot of time reflecting on my journey to Cooperstown. I was never fortunate enough to win a Cy Young Award or be a World Series Champion. I didn’t win 300 games, or strike out 3,000 batters. While my opportunities for those achievements are in the past, today I get to be part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Maybe I was saving up from all those almost achievements for one last push, and this time, I made it.”

Brandy Halladay, Roy’s widow, was faced with the unenviable assignment to speak on her husband’s behalf, who passed away piloting a small aircraft in 2017. The tears began before she was even called up to the podium, but she managed to give a very inspiring emotional speech.

“This is not my speech to give,” Brandy began. “I’m going to do the best I can to say the things I believe Roy would have wanted to say if he was here today.”

She later stated how the Hall of Famers welcomed her with open arms and treated her as if she was the Hall of Famer, making her be a part of everything they did.

“I can’t look at these men behind me,” she said at the podium, “cause I’ll cry again.’

Recently, it was revealed in Sports Illustrated that “Doc” Halladay struggled with addiction to an anti-anxiety drug. Not important now, but Brandy addressed it.

“I think Roy (who threw a perfect game in 2010) would want everyone to know that people are not perfect. We are all imperfect and flawed in one way or another. We all struggle. But with hard work, humility, and dedication, imperfect people can have perfect moments.”

Baines followed with an unusual speech. Unusual in that the brief execution of his prepared material laid out in a binder before him (“You can start your stopwatch now,” he began) was filled with the typical thank yous and career moments, but he buried his face in the binder throughout his speech, even when he acknowledged his family.

Looking down virtually the entire time, there was a moment when he lifted his head ever so briefly to stem a near-emotional tear in one eye, but the rest of the speech was spent looking down at the book. Nerves? Fear of becoming more emotional? (Some players will break down when they make eye contact with their family.)

Not sure, but after observing and hearing Baines in several media sessions throughout the weekend, it appears to be just his personality.

Smith was an ebullient personality, full of smiles and gratitude. And he lives by the golden rule.

“My family has given me the support to be here,” Smith said, “taught me to treat people the way you want to be treated, always be respectful.”

From a small town in Louisiana, “If you think Cooperstown is small…” Smith was aiming for a basketball career when a high school baseball coach fronted him with cleats, glove and a uniform so he could try out for the team. That led to an 18-year career with eight clubs that concluded with the highest save total to that time (478 by 1997), 3.03 ERA, 1250 Ks in 1289.1 innings. And he ranks third all-time among pitchers with at least 1,000 appearances averaging 8.73 strikeouts per nine innings.

Legendary scout Buck O’Neil found him. Hall of Famer Billy Williams encouraged him. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins mentored him. “I even started wearing cowboy boots.”

Former teammate Rick Sutcliffe always recognized what Smith meant to his Chicago Cubs teams, where Smith spent eight seasons.

“When he came in, the game was over.”

Smith relished any occasion to pitch. “It didn’t matter when they gave me the ball, 7th, 8th, 9th inning…If you work hard, you will find success.

“The people in baseball became my second family forever. They kept pointing me toward home plate and I’m forever grateful.”

The police-estimated attendance of 55,000 for the ceremony became the second highest total to swarm Cooperstown for the event. The record remains the estimated 82,000 on hand to see Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn, Jr., enshrined in 2007. The next best figure had been the 53,000 last year to see the likes of Chipper Jones, Trevor Hoffman, Vlad Guerrero, Jr., Jack Morris, Jim Thome, and Alan Trammell become inducted.

(How they figured an extra 2,000 people showed up on a large grassy hill about the size of triple-wide three/four football fields stretched out, and where no one counts heads or takes tickets is perhaps puzzling, but that’s what they determined.)

They drew an estimated 50,000-plus two other times, in 1999, and 2016.

Next year’s ceremonies is already being planned for Sunday, July 26. And yes, you can bet that there will be at least one new inductee. Hint, hint: He wore No. 2.

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