Baseball's renaissance today arrived at the steps of the stately National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. A rebirth that began with Cal Ripken four years ago, that was intensified by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa last summer and that was so much in evidence on a glittering all-star evening at Fenway Park two weeks ago now turns its attention to one of the Hall's most impressive induction classes in history.
George Brett, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and Orlando Cepeda head a group that forever will be remembered for its longevity, productivity, grace under pressure and professionalism. This year's other inductees are umpire Nestor Chylak, manager Frank Selee and Negro League great Smokey Joe Williams.
Hall of Fame officials believe Sunday's induction ceremonies may attract a record 40,000 fans. This afternoon, hundreds waited in lines more than a block long to get into the Hall of Fame, while others strolled Main Street hoping for a glimpse of any of the 37 living Hall of Famers who returned for this weekend's activities.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush interrupted his presidential campaign to pay his respects to Ryan. They became friends in 1989 when Ryan signed with the Texas Rangers and Bush headed an investment group that purchased the franchise. Together, they turned one of baseball's biggest losers into a consistent winner with a beautiful new stadium.
"He's the toughest competitor I've ever seen," Bush said at an afternoon news conference with Ryan. "He's the most well-prepared, disciplined athlete I've known. He was a hero on the field and off. He never let a fan down. There are hundreds of sons named Nolan and Ryan all over Texas. That's the respect people in Texas had for him. He elevated the franchise."
Bush recalled the mornings when he and Ryan would work out together, when he would shake his head at the way Ryan pushed himself, sometimes only hours after he had pitched.
"I marveled at how hard he worked," Bush said.
Meanwhile, Brett and Yount laughed their way through a round of golf with other Hall of Famers. Yount smiled when he recalled bumping into Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry this morning.
"He saw me and said, 'Hey, rookie,' " Yount said. "It's so nice the way I've been accepted by the others. I feel like a rookie who has just gotten to the big leagues again."
Brett was close to tears a couple of times this afternoon as he discussed the impact people such as the late legendary hitting coach Charlie Lau had on his career.
"It's going to be very emotional for me because I'm a very emotional guy," Brett said. "Today was a great release to play golf because it got my mind off it. It's going to be tough to get through."
Likewise, Cepeda said he will not be able to finish his speech without crying, especially when he discusses his parents. Cepeda will join the late Roberto Clemente as the only Puerto Ricans in the Hall of Fame, but he knows his father, Perucho Cepeda, might have made it if not for baseball's onetime ban against black players.
"I know when I mention my mother and father I'm going to break down," he said. "I grew up in poverty and my goal was to make money to take care of my mother. In 1958, on my first day in the big leagues, that was the biggest day of my life. It's rare to see a Puerto Rican kid in the big leagues. My father was black and had no chance to play in the big leagues. I just wanted to follow in my dad's footsteps. In my mind, he's still my main man."
Brett, Yount and Ryan are entering the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Not since the original 1936 induction class of Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson has baseball had three players enter the Hall in their first year of eligibility.
"I started working here on Sept. 26, 1994," said Jeff Idelson, the Hall's executive director of communications and education. "On my first day, I answered five calls, and four of them were people asking for the date of this year's induction."
Yount played every game of his 20-year career with the Milwaukee Brewers, winning two American League MVP awards and collecting 3,142 hits. Brett spent all 21 of his big league seasons with the Kansas City Royals and was a 12-time all-star and the only player to win batting championships in three different decades. Ryan--whose 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters are the most in history--split his 27 years among four teams and has had his jersey retired by three of them--the Angels, Astros and Rangers.
Cepeda was a career .297 hitter with 379 home runs and 1,365 RBI in 17 seasons. He retired in 1974 and might have been voted in sooner had it not been for a 1975 arrest for marijuana possession.
"When you play ball, you take everything for granted," he said. "This is when you feel blessed and lucky that you played ball for a living. I'm pleased and proud and lucky. People say I should have made it before now. Things happen for a reason. It was meant to happen for me now."
Brett visited the Hall of Fame last spring to prepare for this weekend's festivities, and as he was walking through the Members Gallery, where his plaque will join those of Ruth, Lou Gehrig and others, he remembers being overwhelmed by the moment.
"I thought, 'This is amazing; I don't belong here,' " he said.
Others think otherwise. "I think when George goes to heaven," Royals broadcaster Fred White said, "there'll be the Babe and Gehrig and a few of the really, really great ones all hanging around together, and one of 'em will say: 'Hey, that's George Brett.' "
A 13-time all-star, Brett was one of baseball's best pressure performers. He homered twice in the 1985 AL Championship Series after telling his teammates to "climb on my back." He homered off Yankees reliever Goose Gossage to lead the Royals to a stunning upset in the 1980 ALCS.
Yount played just 64 games in the minors before breaking into the majors at the age of 18. When he retired, in addition to the 3,142 hits, he had collected 1,632 runs and 1,406 RBI.
This winter, Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker told the Milwaukee Journal of a conversation with a scout who watched Yount for two decades. "He told me that the first time he ever clocked Robin running to first base, he was like 4.1 [seconds]," Uecker said. "And he told me the last time he ever clocked him, 20 years later, he was at 4.2. That just shows you that Robin busted his butt from the first day he played to the last day he played."
Near the end of his career, hundreds of opposing players sent boxes of cards, pictures and equipment to the Rangers' clubhouse seeking Ryan's autograph. Those requests spoke volumes about the magical spell Ryan cast on baseball.
During the prime of his career, his fastball was clocked at 100 mph. In his last start, at age 46, it was clocked at 94 mph. At 43, he led the majors with 232 strikeouts. At 44, he struck out more than 200 batters for the 15th time in his career and had a 2.91 earned run average.
After his sixth no-hitter, reporters found him riding a Lifecycle at 2:30 in the morning. He returned at 9 for a three-hour regimen of weightlifting.
When he was asked about the St. Louis Cardinals of the late 1960s, Tim McCarver once said: "What made our club click can be summed up in one word: Cepeda."
Former Giants manager Bill Rigney watched the young Cepeda hit and called him "the best young right-handed power hitter I've ever seen." Cepeda homered in his first big league game in 1958 and went on to win National League rookie of the year honors by hitting .312 with 25 home runs and 96 RBI for the Giants.