Humbled at the Hall

The greatest second baseman of the post-World War II era who isn’t named Joe Morgan pulled up eight votes shy of making the Hall of Fame his first year of eligibility. One of the absolute best pitchers of the same era needed fourteen years and a sabermetric review of his career to make it at last.

Roberto Alomar accepts his induction to Cooperstown . . .

Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven are no-questions-asked Hall of Famers now. The former’s is a triumph of reason over aging hysteria; the latter’s, a triumph of sound analysis over surface skimming.

Yes, it was an outrage that Alomar should have been denied first-ballot Hall election over one out-of-character incident from almost two decades previous. To this day there are those who believe it should have kept him out of Cooperstown at all. And they are wrong.

Let’s keep the unhappy recap to a minimum: Normally the mild-mannered type, Alomar was sundered when home plate umpire John Hirschbeck called a third strike on a pitch wide enough to pass a train through it. He objected, then turned to return to his dugout. Hirschbeck trailed him, and Alomar turned to approach Hirschbeck and utter two naughty words, quoted by a Baltimore Orioles teammate within earshot: “Just play!”

Alomar’s manager, Davey Johnson, could not move him away fast enough to avoid Hirschbeck calling him a four-syllable euphemism for maternal fornicator. That––no sooner, no later––is when Alomar gobbed the ump in the most infamous load since Ted Williams aimed one toward the Fenway Park press box. “I would advise everybody,” Alomar said in due course, “not to say that to the Latin guys.” There are neighbourhoods enough in which “that” has provoked many a Latin guy to replies among which assault with a deadly weapon is deemed merciful.

Excusing Alomar not one degree, there’s something to be said for guys to whom motherf**ker is no less obscene for having graduated from alley vernacular to mainstream moboisie rhetoric. But when Alomar postscript pondered whether Hirschbeck remained deeply affected by a son’s death to a rare brain illness, adrenoleukodystrophy, choosing somewhat less than purely diplomatic expression, Hirschbeck needed a colleague to prevent him from disemboweling Alomar in the Baltimore clubhouse.

While baseball nation debated both Alomar’s out-of-character gob and whether Hirschbeck’s likewise out-of-character conduct signaled an umpiring fraternity gone out of control, Alomar turned his fury upon far more beneficial destruction, leading his Orioles to the postseason and into its second round, and a federal judge was compelled to tell baseball’s judicial tyrants not to even think about striking in protest.

Alomar apologised repeatedly to Hirschbeck when first they met after the infamous gob. Two years later, Alomar was a Cleveland Indian . . . and John Hirschbeck had become his friend. The agent provocateur was Cleveland clubhouse administrator Jack Efta, whom Hirschbeck finally couldn’t resist asking what Alomar was really like. “He’s one of the two nicest people I’ve ever met here,” Efta replied. “And you’re the other one.”

Hirschbeck was staggered enough to approach Alomar himself, and the two men talked everything out. “If that’s the worst thing Robbie ever did in his life,” Hirschbeck says to this day, “he’s led a good, clean life.” Hirschbeck himself led the lament over Alomar’s first-ballot snub. The only reason he wasn’t in Cooperstown Sunday afternoon was because he was working a game.

Let the lingering outraged ask themselves, too, why it’s so disgraceful for Roberto Alomar to gob once in an out-of-character moment of fury over a blown call, but it was no big deal that Babe Ruth, who was a law unto himself so long as he could get away with it, once punched an umpire out. But when Hirschbeck called Alomar to commiserate after the first-ballot snub, Alomar replied, “It’s not your fault. It was mine.”

That should have been that, for everyone who prefers to remember a gazelle of a second baseman whose range must have busted a lot of measuring scales and whose bat busted up a lot of games in its own right. Better to remember, among other things, eleven hits, four runs scored, two bombs, four runs batted in, helping the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Oakland Athletics for a pennant. Or, twelve hits, six runs batted in, helping the Jays overtake the Philthy Phillies for the 1993 World Series rings.

Come Sunday, Alomar was the picture of humility. He thanked his family, his home Puerto Rico, fans in Canada, and the game itself for making him what he became. Blyleven, whose reputation as a solid pitcher may have been eclipsed only by his reputation as a shameless prankster, blended humility with amusement after accepting his plaque.

He waited too long but the wait was worth it. Those who track such things will finally adore that sixty shutouts, longterm consistency, and a man who usually pitched his best baseball when it meant the most, really did prove to be Hall of Fame caliber; his greatness more or less snuck up on you. Those who throve upon comparing Blyleven to Jack Morris, who isn’t in the Hall of Fame and isn’t really likely to be, should have been reminded that Blyleven has a better postseason pitching record (Morris: 7-4 W-L record/3,80 earned run average/1.28 walks and hits per inning pitched; Blyleven: 5-1 W-L/2.47 ERA/1.08 WHIP), was slightly better in the pennant races, pitched his best baseball despite puny run support, and only looks worse because he doesn’t have a Game Seven, Series-winning shutout or gaudy-looking counting statistic (it only begins with his having been a 20-game winner only once) to make him look better than he really was.

Bert Blyleven proudly displays his plaque . . .

But he wasn’t about his record (including more 1-0 games than any pitcher in just about the last hundred years, or those staggering 242 complete games) or his hidden (sneaky?) greatness come Sunday. Sober though he was in acknowledging his family and his gratitude, Blyleven was also about paying tribute, to his baseball mentors, and to the Dutch parents and siblings whose stubbornness rubbed off on their son and brother. (Blyleven is the first Dutch-born Hall of Famer.)

He credited Sandy Koufax, who allowed himself an almost blushing grin sitting on the stage behind him, for his lethal curve ball. Blyleven recalled Koufax telling Dodger announcer Vin Scully that, if he were to have a son, he wouldn’t let the boy even think about throwing a curve ball until he was a teenager. “I don’t know if you remember that interview, Sandy,” Blyleven said evenly, “but I do.”

Blyleven took a moment to salute stricken Gary Carter, who missed a Hall of Fame ceremony for the first time since his own induction due to his battle against brain cancer. My prayers go out to my good friend and Hall of Famer Gary Carter and his family,” Blyleven said. “I know Gary is watching. Gary, keep battling the way that you always have and you’ll fight this thing.”

And, perhaps characteristic of the man after all, he couldn’t resist remembering two of the laughs. One was when he received a telegram in the minors to report to Twins manager Bill Rigney immediately. Blyleven arrived at the team hotel in the wee small hours, well past curfew, and knocked on Rigney’s door. Rigney acknowledged him, then ordered him to do likewise with the entire team. The rook did just that, and reported back to Rigney.

I made my manager a lot of money in fines,” Blyleven grinned. None of the Twins were in their rooms when Blyleven came a-knocking.

Then, Blyleven made his first major league start. His first opposing batter, Lee May, hit one over the fence. In another early game, he dispatched Frank Howard thrice, including a couple of punchouts. When Blyleven’s beloved father got on the horn to ask about the game, Blyleven boasted his success against Howard.

“Dad? . . . Dad? . . .”

Blyleven pere, whose favourite among his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers after moving the family from Holland to Canada to southern California had been Howard, had hung up on his triumphant son.

Remembering which only made Blyleven, for a moment, mourn even more that his father hadn’t lived to see Sunday’s induction. It might have been priceless, and a moment’s chuckle for a proud son and family, to see the old man get up out of his seat and walk away from the Cooperstown crowd.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Jeff — I grew up in Cooperstown, a non-baseball fan surrounded by baseball. I can’t tell you how many induction ceremonies I have attended. The speeches that touched me most were one’s like Blyleven’s which humanized a game of numbers. I’m sorry I missed hearing it in person. You may be interested in reading my “Obligatory Baseball Post”

    Reply

    • Sally—I had the pleasure of reading your post. You’re a blessed lady—you grew up in Cooperstown and saw the greats make their final rite of passage. I’ve sworn to visit the Hall of Fame at least once in my lifetime, and now hearing from someone like you I’m even more determined! — Jeff

      Reply

      • If you ever go, shoot me an email. I have connections. Unless you try to go when Derek Jeter is inducted. Then all the connections in the world will get a cup of coffee at McDonalds and that’s about it.

      • Sally, are you kidding? There may not be a state big enough to hold the crowd when Jeter’s inducted!

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