Peter Gammons: Monday morning’s Legends of the Game Roundtable

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.—The morning after is, in many ways, the most enjoyable time of one of baseball’s greatest weekends. The Hall of Fame hosts a roundtable of the inductees, and every one of those honorees are at their most relaxed, having seen their plaques hung in The Hall, having woken up realizing that this is the first morning of their lives when they realize they are Hall of Famers, like Ruth and Cobb, Mays and Aaron.

In many ways, this Monday’s roundtable had a sense of peace that matched the mornings on the porch of the Otesaga Hotel, looking out at Lake Otsego. Pudge Rodriguez thanked Bud Selig for all he did for the game “and our place in it,” reciting that this is the 24th consecutive year of labor peace. John Schuerholz joyfully recounted the day the Braves acquired Fred McGriff. No one brought up PEDs to Jeff Bagwell or Ivan Rodriguez; hundreds of Astros fans cheered every word that Baggie uttered in this the third consecutive morning after that celebrated the induction of that 1998 Houston team (following Craig Biggio and Randy Johnson). No one asked Selig what and when he knew, with the sense that that time has now passed.

Houstonians shouted out the reminder that the only players with higher averages in baseball history who had 400+ homers, 200+ steals were named Aaron, Mays, and Bonds. Rodriguez’s legions, especially those Puerto Ricans for whom he is a national symbol, reminded us that this man caught more games (2427) than anyone in history and did much of that catching in the heat of Arlington, Texas and Miami.

And while Tim Raines reminded those Montreal fans why they have never stopped hoping for baseball’s return to the base of Mount Royal, his remembrances of the ugly ownership collusion of the winter of 1986-87—at the heart of an age when owners kept believing they could break the union and put the Messersmith-McNally Decision behind them—was punctuated by Raines’ patented staccato laugh.

There was no laughter that March when I went to Florida to visit him. He was unsigned, essentially banned from getting his fair market share—remember, from 1981-87 he led the major leagues in hits, and in his career was on base more times than Tony Gwynn or Lou Brock. He would go to a stretch class in the mornings. Then go to the gym. Then spend the afternoons working with his son’s high school team.

He was forced to eventually sign a three year, $5M contract. He was not allowed to play until May, so his debut came on May 2 in Shea Stadium.

“I was terrified, because I hadn’t played a game,” Raines recalled Monday. “I took BP and couldn’t get the ball out of the cage. It was awful. I thought ‘this is going to be ugly.’ To make it worse David Cone was pitching for the Mets.

“So I was up there in the first inning having no idea what was going to happen. I got a fastball, hit it hard to left field—harder than anything I hit in BP—and got a triple. I couldn’t believe it.”

That day he went 4-for-5 with 4 RBIs, 3 runs, a stolen base. And, in storybook fashion, hit a tenth inning grand slam to win the game for the Expos. “Incredibly, I went on to have my best season.” And he was coming off winning the batting title in 1986.

Seven and half years later came the strike that caused the cancellation of the World Series, a strike that probably created the Washington Nationals. The Expos were the best team in baseball that season, young, brazen, drawing 35-40,000 a night, and when they returned in 1995 Larry Walker, John Wetteland, Ken Hill and Marquis Grissom were already gone, beginning a franchise-killing exodus.

Raines went on to overcome Lupus, win a World Series ring and that morning, woke up with “HOF” attached to him for the remainder of his life on the last year his name could be on the ballot. “I got to reunite with Randy Johnson, who I knew when he first came up,” Raines said. “I saw so many friends, so much family. This morning I feel at peace, a happiness that I can’t fully explain. I’ve had a great life in baseball.”

Comments

  1. Bagwell was only an All Star 4 times in 14 years! NOT my kind of Hall of Famer!

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