-- Rarely does anything unseemly or unsavory creep into the proceedings at the induction ceremony for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There is no such thing as labor strife here, no such thing as steroids, no such thing as Pete Rose -- only the amassed glory of the assembled immortals and plenty of tearful, grateful praise of Dad, Mom, Coach, America and Baseball.
Who knew that Ryne Sandberg, the brilliant but reticent second baseman of the Chicago Cubs and a Class of 2005 inductee, would buck that tradition and deliver a sometimes blistering speech that decried the lack of respect for the game among today's players, took a thinly veiled shot at steroid users and seemed to single out former teammate Sammy Sosa as an example of both?
"A lot of people say this honor validates my career," said Sandberg, a 10-time all-star who retired after the 1997 season, "but I didn't work hard for validation. I didn't play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that's what you're supposed to do. If this validates anything, it's that learning how to bunt and hit and run, and turning two are more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera."
It had been a gorgeous, tranquil, happy weekend until Sandberg moved to the lectern at the end of Sunday afternoon's ceremony -- following third baseman Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who gave a moving induction speech that included tearful tributes to his wife, Debbie; his father, Win; and his late mother, Sue.
"There were many stops along the way," said Boggs, a career .328 hitter who won five batting titles. "But today that train has pulled into Cooperstown, and I've found this family here at the Hall of Fame. My wife and I believe this is the beginning of another baseball journey."
On the stage behind the lectern sat what was billed as the largest collection of Hall of Famers ever assembled "in one place at one time" -- 50 of them, from Bob Feller (Class of '62) to Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor ('04). Per tradition, Stan Musial ('69) sauntered up in a red sport coat about three-quarters of the way through the ceremony to lead the crowd through "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on his harmonica.
Earlier in the afternoon, Peter Gammons of ESPN -- the man who, as the longtime baseball writer at the Boston Globe, is credited with inventing the Sunday notes column -- was honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing, while longtime San Diego Padres voice Jerry Coleman was presented with the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters.
Gammons, baseball's clearinghouse for all trade rumors and insider gossip, was bombarded with a question from the crowd before he could even begin his speech: "What about Manny?" The question referred to whether the Red Sox were going to trade disgruntled left fielder Manny Ramirez before Sunday's 4 p.m. trade deadline.
"He's staying," Gammons replied firmly, then began his speech.
And all weekend, controversy stayed away. Rose, baseball's "Hit King," exiled for his gambling transgressions, had planned on coming to town to sell autographs, but cancelled abruptly without explanation.
And unlike the baseball world that lies beyond the village of Cooperstown, for most of the weekend there was nary a peep about steroids. That, of course, might change in two years, when Mark McGwire's name appears on the ballot for the first time -- alongside Cal Ripken's and Tony Gwynn's, among others -- making him the first major test case of the Steroids Era.
Sandberg's surprisingly biting speech mentioned neither steroids nor Sosa explicitly, but it was obvious of what and of whom he was speaking. Sandberg was teammates with Sosa, now the Baltimore Orioles' right fielder, for six seasons in Chicago, and apparently did not like Sosa's camera-mugging, torso-ballooning act.
"In my day, if a guy came to spring training 20 pounds heavier than when he left, he was considered out of shape and was probably in trouble," Sandberg said. "When did it become okay for someone to hit home runs and forget how to play the rest of the game?"
Later, speaking of beloved teammate Andre Dawson, Sandberg said, "He did it the right way, the natural way."
The thousands of Cubs fans who had made the pilgrimage to see one of their own enshrined burst into applause, and the many officials from the Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball in attendance -- including Commissioner Bud Selig -- surely felt a little uncomfortable, as someone dared sully such a glorious moment in such a pristine palace with such an unsavory thought.