COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – In the middle of short sentences, Rich "Goose" Gossage's face, still splashed by the mustache only he and a few others can pull off, would betray the old tough guy with the big fastball.
On Saturday afternoon, hours before the day he'd always wanted his mom and dad to see, Goose would stop to sturdy his lip, stop to clear the trembling from his voice, stop to summon one more high hard one.
"It's overwhelming," he said, his words thinning as he went. "I still can't comprehend this and I'm not sure I ever will be able to comprehend it. I'm still trying to make sense of all of this."
His mother has been gone a year-and-a-half, his father for decades. Now he's surrounded by what's left of the game, by the sons he played golf with on a perfect morning not far from Lake Otsego, by the fellas whose plaques have waited on his for nine years.
These are glorious weekends, aging men talking about all their yesterdays in a throw-back town. The rutted streets teem with folks who wear their old jerseys and adore them still. They lean against weathered brick and wait their turns for a signature, or a couple words, or a flash of eye contact. And now Goose is among them, his face sun-brushed red, after all those years on the Hall of Fame ballot appropriately being summoned in the ninth.
He sat in a school auditorium beside fellow inductee Dick Williams, who managed him in San Diego. They fawned over the time they spent together, and they wrestled over the blame for the Kirk Gibson home run in a World Series played 24 years ago. One guy threw more than 1,800 innings in the big leagues. The other managed more than 3,200 games. Brought together, the conversation turned to just one pitch. One lousy pitch.
"I take full responsibility on it," said Williams, who'd ordered Gibson intentionally walked.
"It was my doing," said Goose, who talked Williams out of it.
The fastball followed.
"It broke three seats, actually, one behind the other. We were helping demolish that Detroit stadium," said Williams.
"I'm not that smart. I'd probably do it again," said Goose.
"No you wouldn't," said Williams.
Aw, hell, Williams said, nobody was going to beat those '84 Tigers anyway. And Goose hardly nodded. He wasn't going to budge on that, not even now, not after all those days of fighting for and winning the inner half of the strike zone, all those nights of stealing batters' poise.
In his first real day as a big leaguer, wearing a Chicago White Sox uniform and preparing for the 1972 season, Goose was loosening up with a catcher. Dick Allen wandered over and stood in the box, just to follow the ball flight, just out of curiosity. Allen was an All-Star. He was about to be an MVP. And he announced he'd never seen an arm quite like the one on the kid from Colorado.
They became friends. And Allen slowly let Goose into the hitter's psyche. The closer's role was developing, men such as Williams and Chuck Tanner understanding it better than others. Until then, Goose said, bullpens were little more than "junk piles," where old and failed starters went to drag a few more months out of their careers. Early on, Goose would relieve some and start some. He started 29 games in 1976, lost 17 of them (and, fittingly, finished 15), and was traded to Pittsburgh, back to Tanner's bullpen, where he appeared in 72 games the following season, effectively starting the Hall of Fame portion of his career.
It's when Goose became Goose for good. He carried Allen's words, his direction, to always wear a sleeve on his pitching arm, to always pitch inside, to never care when that pitch tailed a little too far inside. More than three decades later, Tanner and Allen drove together from Pennsylvania to Cooperstown just to see Goose stand in front of all those people. One of them had appointed Goose to the role, the other taught him how to carry it out.
Allen had pointed to his own elbow, the front elbow in his batting stance, and told Goose, "That elbow is your target."
The fastball right there, Allen told him, "God can't get the barrel of the bat to that ball."
"What if I hit him?" Goose asked.
"What's wrong with that?" Allen told him. "See over there, every guy in that dugout? They don't want any part of you, Goose."
Goose saved 310 games, the bulk of them over 13 years beginning in 1977. In that time, he struck out about a batter an inning.
"That's where I went to bury a guy," he said. "To put him away."
Enough came and went, enough edged to the rear of the batters' box, so that Goose would come here on a brilliantly blue day. He awakened Saturday morning drenched. He'd dreamed he'd lost his suit, that he'd been inducted in an old pair of sweats, that it had all gone horribly wrong.
"Oh my God," he'd sighed, "it wasn't real."
But, it is. And at that Goose inhaled hard. Man, is it real.
"A lot of anxiety," he said. "I've pitched in a lot of big ballgames. But this is over the top."