Finally Inducted: Jeter, Walker, Simmons & Miller Immortalized in Cooperstown

Andy Esposito/NYSD

What a long, strange trip to it took to get here, as a certain rock and roll band used to sing, but it was worth the wait.

After over a year and a half of delays due to Covid, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown finally held one of its most unusual Induction Ceremonies on Wednesday, formally welcoming Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons, and Marvin Miller to the fold.

Baseball’s version of Woodstock, where thousands of fans gather for free on a hillside adjacent to the Clark Sports Center on the edge of town to cheer their all-time favorites enjoyed what started out as a sunny day of celebration.  Thunder late in the afternoon and a handful of raindrops threatened to curtail the ceremonies, but a full-blown rainstorm was averted.

Masks were prevalent but not universally worn – even most, but not all, of the Hall of Famers on the stage wore masks – and there is always the risk these days it might have become a super-spreader event, and that remains to become evident, but the likelihood, hopefully, is slim.

Much like the recent Summer Olympics in Japan, which they officially logged as the 2020 Games, this year’s HOF Inductees will forever be linked as the Class of 2020, albeit with a twice-postponed ceremony last year and earlier this summer.

Had there been 2021 Inductees they could have been added to the ceremony, but no one received enough endorsements necessary in the BBWAA ballot or Veteran’s Committee voting.  The closest anyone came was Curt Schilling, who was named on 71.1% percent of ballots cast, when 75% is required.

In July, the first “half” of this year’s Induction events was held without an audience due to Covid concerns.

In this instance, they combined two years of presentations into one televised ceremony.  Al Michaels received the 2021 Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence.  Ken “Hawk” Harrelson also was honored with the Frick Award from 2020.  Legendary beat writers Dick Kaegel and Nick Cafardo (posthumously) were feted with the newly dubbed BBWAA Career Excellence Award.  And longtime Phillies exec David Montgomery was posthumously celebrated with the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.

Longtime Jeter teammate Bernie Williams gave a virtuoso guitar rendition of the National Anthem, accompanied by famed saxophonist Richie Cannata, the former Billy Joel sideman known for his soulful riffs on “New York State of Mind.”

The former outfielder and Grammy winner also performed the Anthem for Mariano Rivera’s Induction in 2019.

“It is extra special to return to Cooperstown to finally induct the Class of 2020 – Ted Simmons, Larry Walker, Marvin Miller, and of course, my dear friend and teammate, Derek Jeter,” Williams invoked in a statement.  “I am sure baseball fans everywhere will agree that this important day will be made all the more special by the loyal fans as we celebrate our beautiful game and its greatest legends.”

Later in the ceremony, “Bern, Baby, Bern” served as a sort of “presenter” introducing Derek Sanderson Jeter before his acceptance speech, narrating a brief video highlight reel.

And by the way, anyone who hasn’t yet enjoyed the beautifully melodic tones of Bernie Williams on guitar on record or in concert, please avail yourselves of the opportunity.  As sweet as a postseason walk-off double in the gap.

The odd scheduling of a midweek ceremony, held in September, with schools already in session, and conflicting with a major Jewish holiday, held crowds down to a minimum, estimated at just 20,000.

More than 40,000 fans (police estimates) have attended the past five Inductions Ceremonies.  The record was set in 2007, when an estimated 82,000 swarmed the festivities to see Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. receive their plaques.  In recent years, knowing what was inevitable, Hall officials were concerned, and prepared, for a record number to attend Jeter’s moment in the sun, but Covid put a crimp in that possible scenario.

There were, however, some very familiar special guests who did make the journey to Cooperstown to congratulate Jeter.  Former teammates included:  Tino Martinez, CC Sabathia, Jorge Posada, Gerald Williams, Andruw Jones, Alfonso Soriano, Luis Sojo, and coaches Willie Randolph, Gary Denbo, and Doug Bird.

And then there were these two tall guys sitting right behind Jeter’s parents, Derek’s wife, Hannah, and their two daughters, Bella and Story.  One of them is a legend on the hardwood in New York, Patrick Ewing, and the other one was a former Birmingham Baron minor league player.  Oh yeah, he used to play basketball, too, Michael Jordan.

It’s nice to have friends, isn’t it, Derek?

“I have a very good group of close friends,” Jeter admitted in a Zoom session following the ceremony.  “And for them to come out and show that support is special.”

Many baseball fans of just about any age are aware how Jeter was most deserving.  His marks and moments would take days to checklist.  And his five rings could even make Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr, slightly jealous.

Of course, Jeter was his usual humble yet focused self in the days leading up to the ceremony.  In a Zoom session with the media less than a week before the ceremony, Jeter admitted he was still working on his acceptance speech.

“It’s something I’ve tried to take my time with, write down notes,” said Jeter.  “I didn’t want help from anyone.  I didn’t want anyone to see it before I delivered it.  You’re talking about a speech that’s 10, 15 minutes.  It’s kind of hard to cover your entire career in that short period of time.”

But of course, Jeter nailed it.

His speech wasn’t lengthy, but he hit all the high notes and thanked everyone he could think of, slipping in a proviso in case he missed someone of importance.

“There’s a lot of people I’ve got to reach out to personally and let them know what they meant to me in my career.”

Jeter thanked his father for teaching him about baseball.  He thanked his mother for not allowing him to use the word, “can’t.”  He threw verbal bouquets to his sister and her family and gave shout-outs to a whole bunch of ex-teammates, coaches, and execs by name.

And No. 2 recalled moments catching up with No. 44.

“We were talking about this just this morning (at the Otesaga Hotel).  Every time Reggie would come by to spend time with the team, I’d call him over to my locker and ask, ‘What do you got for me today?’ And his response would always end with, “You’re not a Hall of Famer yet!”  Well, Reggie, how about now?”

Naturally, Jeter paid homage to the guy in the big office.

“The Boss!  Mr. Steinbrenner.  And the entire Steinbrenner family.  Thank you always making me feel a part of your family.  Throughout my career, and beyond, there hasn’t been a day you guys haven’t made me and my family feel a part of your family.”

And of course, he thanked his fans, especially after hearing the familiar Yankee Stadium chant of his name and one fan in the back holding up a life-size Jeter stand-up.

“It felt good.  It’s been a while.

“Yankee fans watch every day.  They’ve seen me grow up.  Yankee fans appreciate their history.  That’s what makes the Yankees so special.”

The former Yankees Captain and now Marlins co-owner (who barely mentioned anything related to the Marlins in his speech, hmm?) had a litany of accomplishments and memorable moments to draw from as he worked the crowd – The Flip, The Dive, clutch hits, a hand full of rings and a well-earned unique nickname, Mr. November.

The Jeter way to play might lean on cliches, as was his custom, but it was a philosophy that should be emulated by every one every day.

“I tried to play the game the right way.  I tried to play hard every single day and I felt that was my responsibility.  Any time someone mentions your name playing the right way, it makes you feel good.  It’s humbling because a lot of organizations…I’ve tried to beat them throughout the years and for them to have respect for how you play the game, that makes you feel really good.”

His adoration of his two daughters also revealed some touching philosophies.

“Girls, I want you to dream big, and I want you to believe.  I’m here to support you and protect you, but most important I’m here to love you.  I want you to find someone who inspires you and when the time is right, I want you to inspire others.”

Jeter concluded with a generic message for today’s players.

“There’s no individual bigger than the game.  The game goes on.  Take care of it.  Respect it.  Never take the time you play for granted.  It’s more than just a game.”

The Hall of Fame now claims 333 members.  Breaking it down finds 263 players, 38 Executives or Pioneers, 22 managers, and ten umpires.

With over 20,000 ballplayers on the all-time major league roster, that underscores how difficult it is to be so honored, but if it was just up to the BBWAA, membership would be even more restrictive.  The writers have voted in merely 134 players.  Various Veteran’s Committees have elected 173, but that does include executives, pioneers, umpires and Negro Leaguers.

There have been 57 ballplayers elected in their first year of eligibility, which Jeter now adds to his monumental list of accomplishments.  Teammate Mariano Rivera was the last such first-timer in 2019.

And there have been 55 Hall of Famers who played their entire career with one team, and how ‘bout that, of course, Jeter belongs in that group as well.

Jeter became the 26th shortstop inducted, a position as well-stocked as any with plaques in the Hall other than pitchers (83), and tied with the same amount of rightfielders (26).

Next year’s election will certainly be quite fascinating and will generate months of bylines and headlines.  It will be the last roundup for Schilling, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds, their last year of eligibility before some distant Veteran’s Committee re-considers their merits.  And Jennifer Lopez’s former flame will find himself on the ballot for the first time, a fellow by the name of Alex Rodriguez.  Other first-timers joining A-Rod on the ballot include:  David Ortiz, Prince Fielder, and Mark Texeira.

Sadly, the Hall lost a great many members in the last year and a half, not the least of which include such greats as:  Hank Aaron, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Whitey Ford, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and Tommy Lasorda.

The ceremony included a fitting tribute with comments by Joe Torre, and a video narrated by Johnny Bench – who couldn’t attend due to testing positive for Covid.

There are now 72 living members of the Hall of Fame.  The oldest living member is now none other than the great Willie Mays, who turned 90 earlier this year in May.

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