SAN DIEGO — They’d barely swept up behind the news of Stephen Strasburg’s $245-million contract here at the winter meetings when Ted Simmons stood on the same stage, hauled a Hall of Fame jersey over his 70-year-old shoulders and told the story about the $4,000-a-year raise that changed his life.
He played his last baseball game 31 years ago. As he noted more than once Monday afternoon, his Hall of Fame chances had been “one and done” in 1994, when 17 votes (of 456) hadn’t been enough for even a second ballot go-round. He said he was OK with that, really he was, that it “was supposed to happen just like this,” and you’d believe him, too.
The way he stalls out in the middle of some sentences, lets some words drift away instead of ending them at their final letter, then picks up the sentences where he left them, like his mouth can’t keep up with all his heart has to say. The way he allowed himself to care about this after all these years.
If the past 25 years had gone any other way, if the voters had loved him early or had one of these committees found him worthy before this, then Ted Simmons wouldn’t have been standing up on that stage alongside the ghost of Marvin Miller, and maybe that wouldn’t have felt quite so right either. There’s no knowing these things, these what-ifs and coulda-beens, only what is, only that he wanted to be a Hall of Famer these past few days almost more than he could understand, and then the phone rang, and wouldn’t you know.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “Not one thing.”
Miller became executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. A year later, the St. Louis Cardinals drafted a catcher named Simmons out of Michigan, 10th overall. Simmons wasn’t just a ballplayer. He was a thinker. He looked around some. Soon, he was the guy who could teach hitters how to hit and pitchers how to pitch and coaches how to coach, who could stroke a man’s sore ego fast as he would grab a handful of his shirt collar.
Like most, he liked a little fight in a guy, just as he liked some brains in him, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise he fell in with Marvin Miller, and Miller with him. There’d even been talk it would be Simmons — and not pitcher Andy Messersmith — who would challenge baseball’s reserve clause. It didn’t go that way.
Simmons played 21 seasons. He caught nearly 1,700 games. He made about $4 million, which, he’d tell you, is not nothing. But, that wasn’t the point of his story, up there on that stage in a Hall of Fame jersey, thinking about Marvin, pausing part way through some of those sentences, giving them room to breathe.
“I can't begin to tell you, anybody in this room, the impact that Marvin Miller has had on me and my family,” he said. “I came from a little place just outside of Detroit. Well, I'll put it to you like this: First contract I played for at the Major League level was for $7,500, OK?
“And Marvin, that summer, raised it to 10. And then the following spring training, the minimum salary went from 10 to 14. I turned to my wife and I said, ‘I think we can buy a car!’ Then you could buy one for $800 brand new.
“But Marvin impacted everybody that played and were members of the association in ways that I'll never forget. My family will never forget. Changed everything. People say, what do you think about today and the salaries and stuff? Stephen Strasburg just signed and those numbers. Good for him. When I signed for the money I played for, bigger than life. I can't complain about anything.
“Marvin had that kind of impact and he's still having that impact, and I couldn't be prouder as a newly-elected member of the Cooperstown Hall of Fame to be going in with him. I couldn't have hand-picked anybody I would rather be going in with.”
The place here is thick with player agents. They’d raised a glass the night before for Marvin, gone seven years, not just a little bitter at the game when he left. There’s some question whether his family will attend a summer induction ceremony, though Hall officials are hopeful. Maybe it’ll help to know that Simmons will be there, probably wishing they were there too, celebrating the memory of $2,500 raises and $800 cars and the birth of a system that pays Stephen Strasburg $245 million.
“Marvin Miller is a very, very special man,” Simmons said. “Just to have been associated with him and look in his window for as long as I got to, life lessons, you know, life knowledge, lucky boy having done that.
“As far as my pursuit of the Cooperstown Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, it's taken this long. It may sound so trite because it's used so often, but it's a hard place to get into. It should be. There is no reason for me to feel in any way, shape, or form that my journey to this place is any more or any less than anybody else's. It is hard. It's an excruciating wait, and until it happens for you, you just can't describe what it's like.”
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