Induction Weekend a thrill for returnees
For Hall newcomers, it's a hectic time that flies by quickly
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Late Friday morning, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. took a break and grabbed some breakfast with family members in the dining room of the Otesaga Hotel. Both had had enough of sitting in their rooms and going over the speeches they will deliver Sunday when they are inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and other responsibilities tied to Induction Weekend.
They are amid a once-in-a-lifetime experience neither will ever forget and yet one that in some ways they long to be over. It is not a feeling unshared. Many Hall of Famers recall Induction Weekend as one long blur. It is the return to this picturesque village in central New York that Hall of Famers enjoy most because they can observe goings-on that they were too busy to witness when they were inducted.
"For me, there's no pressure," Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith said Friday at Doubleday Field before conducting the PLAY Ball with Ozzie Smith and Special Guests program to raise funds for the Hall's education programs. "When you're getting inducted, it's the pressure that you feel of being able to stand before people and hopefully tell your story, talking about how you made it here.
"That always weighs on your mind, and if you're a perfectionist like most of the guys who are in this institution, then you want to do it to the best of your ability," added Smith, who was inducted in 2002. "It's a nerve-racking time because you don't want to leave anybody out [of the speech], you don't want to forget anybody.
"That becomes a real challenge. That weight is off when you come back again. You just worry about doing things like this, finding ways to give back. This is certainly a way to do that. Just go out and have fun. I get to go out and play golf after we get done here."
"They're in their only little world right now," Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson said about Ripken and Gwynn. "Cal is thinking about his speech. Tony is thinking about his speech. Various groups have parties for them. It's a lot of fun. You've just got to ride with it, and somebody will grab you by the hand and say, 'Let's go, you've got to go here,' but that's kind of the way the weekend goes for the inductees."
Robinson, who was inducted in 1983, has been a fixture here every Induction Weekend since and feels a strong responsibility to honor those entering sports' most elite fraternity.
"We look forward to it every year," Robinson said. "We have a wonderful time together, especially Sunday night, when the Commissioner [Bud Selig] is here and we're all together in the dining room. The Commissioner is right there to answer any questions we have. He is pretty up-front with all the Hall of Fame members about what's going on in the game today."
The Sunday night dinner at the Otesaga is reserved for Hall of Famers only. Commissioner Selig is the only other invited guest. Most Hall of Famers recognize that evening as the one that overwhelms them with the notion that they are now officially part of baseball's immortal class.
"The highlight of my year is having that private dinner Sunday night," George Brett said. "That is the most fun that any human being can have, to sit there with 50 some-odd Hall of Fame guys is just so special."
This year's turnout of former Hall of Famers totals 53, the most in history, which is an indication of the esteem in which Gwynn and Ripken are held.
"This is what is good about baseball," Smith said. "A lot of negative things are going on now about baseball, but these two going in are good ones. It is out of respect Hall of Famers have for the people being inducted and what they feel they have given to the game. When you have a turnout like we're having, I think it speaks volumes."
But for Brett and Ryne Sandberg, which players are being inducted doesn't matter as much as just being part of the proceedings annually.
"I've come back every year since I was inducted," said Brett, who entered the Hall in 1999 with Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount and Orlando Cepeda. "Mike Schmidt came back the first time [since his induction in 1995] when I went in. He asked me if I was coming back. I said, 'Yeah,' so we make a pact that we're going to come back every year, so it doesn't matter who goes on in. Every once in a while, the Hall asks you to go someplace with the tour or represent the Hall in some way, and it's a privilege to do these things because it is such a great fraternity."
Sandberg, who delivered one of the most rousing speeches at his 2005 induction, said, "It is one of the first things on my calendar, to come back and be a part of this. It's almost like the members pick up from where we were last year. It's very comfortable and very cool."
Not even managing the Cubs' Class A Peoria affiliate could keep Sandberg away from here this weekend.
"My team, the Peoria Chiefs, won [Thursday] night, so I can relax and enjoy the weekend a little bit more," he said. "It's different because I know what to expect. I feel more at ease with the whole scenario about being here. I feel like, not old hat, but a little bit more like a veteran instead of that first year going in. It was like being a rookie. How am I going to do? How am I going to fit in?"
"I think one thing we miss after retiring is the camaraderie," Smith said. "Here at the Hall of Fame, it's wonderful to have the opportunity to be considered a Hall of Famer and be with the guys who you played with and against."
For Robinson, who played all 23 of his Major League seasons with the Orioles, and Earl Weaver, Baltimore's most successful manager, it's a chance to take pride in the black and orange. Along with Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray and Jim Palmer, Robinson and Weaver are ready to welcome Ripken into the Hall.
"I'm hoping we can all get a picture together because it might be a long dry spell before any other Oriole gets into the Hall of Fame," Brooks Robinson said. "I've said before that you don't start playing to end up here. I played for 10 years before I ever thought about the Hall of Fame. We got to the World Series in 1969, '70 and '71, and I heard people say, 'Hey, Brooks, you're going to the Hall of Fame.' I'm sure after Cal played so many games and did so many things he started thinking the same thing."
"It's wonderful to come back to the Hall of Fame and make sure your plaque is still there," Weaver said. "An occasion like this, which raises money for the Hall's educational fund, we're all happy to do it. We're all happy to be here to start with, and we take pride in doing these things. We all enjoy the new people because we know what we had to do when we made our speech on induction day."
"You know the greatest thing about going into the Hall of Fame?" Brett said. "It's not about you but the people that made you the person you are. And you get to thank them. To thank the managers, the coaches, the dads, the brothers, that's the emotional part of it."
"It's one time in your life that you want to get things done right because it's your only shot," Robinson said. "I don't think anyone knows the key to a good speech. I know one thing. If Cal goes over 15 minutes, we're walking off the stage. So we told him, '15 minutes, big boy, and we're gone.' He better make it short and sweet."
Robinson was given that message once. Now he delivers it to newcomers and deals with the weekend away from the intensity felt by the inductees.
"I don't have a game plan, but I have a schedule," Robinson said. "I have a luncheon [Friday], and I'm on the Board of Directors here, so we have a big meeting [Saturday] that will last three or four hours. It will be an interesting week, and we'll all take a deep breath when it's over."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.