COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The fans poured into the Clark Sports Center on Sunday afternoon from just about everywhere, this year’s National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony reminding everyone that baseball is both the national pastime and a very international one.
Mariano Rivera fans waived Panamanian flags and Edgar Martinez expressed impassioned gratitude to his native Puerto Rico, while former Orioles Mike Mussina, Harold Baines and Lee Smith paid tribute to small-town America.
There was every reason to believe that the New York Yankees multitudes would drown out the rest of the estimated crowd of 55,000, especially with Rivera arriving in the Hall as the first-ever unanimous selection and starting pitcher Mike Mussina throwing out the ceremonial first speech.
The Yankees fans were loud, but they were not alone. There was a surprisingly large contingent that traveled coast-to-coast to cheer Martinez and team up with the friends, fans and family of the beloved Seattle Mariners designated hitter to deliver some of the loudest and most enthusiastic ovations. Apparently, Southwest Airlines had a very good weekend.
Mussina led off and deftly handled the difficult task of balancing his allegiance to both the Orioles and Yankees organizations, thanking his fans from both cities — as well as his hometown of Montoursville, Pa. — for making the trek to upstate New York to help welcome him into the Hall.
“I’m standing up here with the best who ever played the game,’’ Mussina said. “Some are my former teammates. Some are former opponents and some I grew up watching on television, so the obvious question is, what am I doing up here and how in the world did this happen?”
Not surprisingly, he struck the same chord that would resonate throughout the ceremony, as each player talked about his roots and the unique chain of events that led him to the greatest honor that can be bestowed on a baseball player.
Rivera played the closer one last time, coming in at the end and — ironically for the greatest short reliever of all time — making the longest speech. He spoke for about 25 minutes, during which he thanked everyone who had an impact on his amazing career and revealed that he never intended to pursue a career in baseball.
“I wanted to be the next Pelé,’’ he said, “but my ability was not good enough to be a soccer player. The Lord was pushing me toward baseball.”
He came up with the Yankees as a starting pitcher, but didn’t thrive in that role and was sent back to the minor leagues. When he made the switch to the bullpen and mastered his famous cut fastball, he emerged as a dominant closer and played a huge role in the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I tried to carry the pinstripes the best way that I could,’’ Rivera said. “I think I did all right with that.”
Mussina, who chose not to designate whether he was going into the Hall as an Oriole or a Yankee, was highly complimentary of both organizations, thanking the Orioles for giving him his start in professional baseball and the Yankees for giving him the opportunity to pitch in two World Series.
“I want to thank the Orioles for giving me the opportunity to pitch and prove that I could succeed at the major league level," Mussina said. “To the Orioles executives who brought baseball back to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, it remains one of the best ballpark environments in the game. To the Orioles fans who came out every game 48,000 strong to support us and support me, thank you. I have some great memories from those years and I loved pitching in orange and black.”
Of course, the Yankees lured him away after the 2000 season and his decision to leave may have paved his way to Cooperstown.
“For the longest time while I was in Baltimore, I told myself I would never play in New York,’’ he said. “I’m a small-town guy and that place is too much for me. Well, obviously, I changed my mind, mostly because Joe Torre called me two or three days after they won the 2000 World Series over the Mets, and Joe simply said, ‘I just want you to know that were interested in you coming to New York to pitch for us.' Well, his first impression was a big one, so after 10 years in Baltimore I was off to New York City.”
Baines promised on Saturday that he would speak a lot about the importance of family and community and not much about himself, but opened his remarks by poking fun at his reputation as a man of very few words.
“To all my friends and teammates, you can start your start your stopwatches now,’’ Baines quipped.
Turned out, Baines did make the shortest speech of the five new Hall of Famers on stage, but only by a minute or so. He talked eloquently about the subject he came to address, the impact of his family and the Eastern Shore community of St. Michaels on his life and career.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to that entire close-knit community for raising me as a child and as a teenager,’’ he said. “St. Michaels formed me and I would not be where I am today in baseball and life without so many people in St. Michaels, who cared enough to do more than their expected part to help a youngster like me.”
The afternoon also featured an emotional appearance by the widow of new Hall of Famer Roy Halladay, who died in plane crash off the coast of Florida in 2017, and an upbeat speech by Smith in which he managed to say something nice about each of the eight teams he played for — including the Orioles — during his 18-year career.
Smith also mirrored Baines’ small-town theme with stories about growing up in tiny Castor, La., and the positive impact that community had on his life.
“If you think Cooperstown is a small town, you haven’t been to Castor," Smith said, “[but] it was a that community that gave me the chance to play baseball.”
Baines eventually came back to the subject of his soft-spoken nature, acknowledging that it might have been embellished by the time he hit a dramatic walk-off home run, then answered the only question of his postgame interview with a single word. But he said it might be better explained by a quote from his father that he took to heart early in life:
“Words are easy, deeds are hard. Deeds can be silent, but sometimes they echo forever.”