COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Under a tent pulled taut amid the leaves and bristles, they say they package immortality here. It is pinned to lapels, hoisted to the walls of the museum down the block, emceed by Gary Thorne, witnessed by the tens of thousands who believe.
This immortality has commercial breaks. It has temporary bathrooms. It is manned by troopers and storm fencing. If you’re just visiting, it costs $40 to park on the locals’ lawns, easy walking distance to immortality.
This immortality is bused from town with the previously immortalized, and Tom Seaver reminds those who will be speaking to above all remember the names of their wives and everyone laughs and then quietly repeats the names of their wives. Those who are nearly immortal, or once stood on the ball fields with it, they sell their signatures or raffle their company over drinks from card tables in town.
This immortality comes with a plaque and a ring and a dinner, an invitation to sit in the back of the tent next year, and a place in the hall with the rest of the guys, forever.
It’s all wonderful, what this kind of immortality must feel like, and how it inspires men to such greatness and then draws the rest of us along with it. These are the rewards to a career, in some cases a life, spent well, or at least spent earnestly. So they’d rise on rickety knees and smile from behind sunglasses and wave, and perhaps they’d recall the Sunday afternoon one summer a long time ago – Sandy Koufax, Class of 1972; Ernie Banks, Class of ’77; Hank Aaron, Class of ’82 – they stood behind that podium and accepted Cooperstown’s immortality.
And that was fine.
What I perceived under unpredictable skies back in section three, where a few raindrops fell before the clouds withdrew and the sun seemed to move six feet closer, was something different than the baseball, however. Every one of the men up there, half a football field away, had awakened to thunderstorms this Sunday morning and had a chance to fall asleep to serenity this Sunday night. What struck me was the immortality that sat in the folding chairs before them – the wives and the sons and daughters who sat patiently, the fathers who beamed and the mothers who shielded themselves from the sun, the teammates and coaches and buddies and fans who couldn’t, just couldn’t, not be here.
Maybe that’s mortality and not immortality, and maybe that’s why Frank Thomas mopped his eyes with a napkin for most of his speech, mourning the loss of his father and celebrating what his father had left him before going.
“I took that to heart, Pops,” he shouted. “Look at us today.”
And why Joe Torre, who was the last to deliver his speech, had cried himself dry before it was his turn to clear his throat. And why Tom Glavine’s wife, the lady in the purple dress and quivering bottom lip, mouthed to Tom, “I love you,” and why Tony La Russa’s throat closed precisely as he looked to his wife and started, “So, Elaine,” and she melted too, before he finished, “thank you.”
In those moments, the gathering – nearly 50,000 – became small. Sweetly, gloriously, intimately small. Then Greg Maddux made a fart joke, which was only perfect.
Bobby Cox gestured to clouds, to his father, and said he surely was watching the ceremony, unless there was a ball game on television, and then, “I will guarantee you my father is switching the channels back and forth and second-guessing both managers.”
Torre gazed upon his wife, Ali, and promised her, “My mom would have loved you.”
He thought of Don Zimmer, his pal and bench coach, and hoped, “I know he’s watching this from a race track in the sky somewhere. And I know his spirit is in my heart.”
Two older men sitting in section three, both in old New York Mets jerseys, one wearing the immortal KRANEPOOL across his back and the other the immortal THRONEBERRY, nodded and smiled.
“This is a special one,” Thomas said before starting into his relationship with Walt Hriniak, the old hitting coach who’d been something of an eccentric.
“Anyone can be good, Frank,” Hriniak would tell him.
And, “Keep your effin’ head down and finish, Frank!” Hriniak would say to him.
And Frank wouldn’t accept good, and Frank would keep his head down and finish, and two decades later he’d be sitting up there thanking Walt, who probably was out there watching on television, maybe with his baseball glove stuffed in his back pocket.
So the six of them – Maddux, Cox, Glavine, La Russa, Thomas and Torre – they’d hold up their plaques and smile. Those plaques would have their pictures on them, and their statistics, what they were as ball players or managers or both in about 100 words. Immortality here is made of bronze, weighs less than 15 pounds and runs the Hall about $2,000.
But that’s not what immortality looked like from section three.
“You can’t go through life alone,” said Torre, who came to Cooperstown accompanied by some 300 folks.
It looked like grown men counting back on the years, losing a step and a few memories, remembering the important stuff. And writing it down. It looked like a time to recount, to reveal the stuff that wouldn’t be on the plaque. Thomas’ mother hadn’t been out of Columbus, Ga., in 15 years. Charlie Mae sat on the aisle. She gazed up at the stage as her son stood to accept his mortality.
“The first person I looked to was my mom,” Frank said, “and it hit me right in the heart.”
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