Among those in Cooperstown, missing loom large
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The last man introduced before the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies began in earnest Sunday was, appropriately, Mr. Berra. People dressed in every color, not only Reds red and Cubs blue, stood for him, a widely beloved figure. Yogi's not moving well these days. His next appearance here probably requires the qualifier "tentatively scheduled." Damn.
Ralph Kiner missed the ceremonies, too, for the first time in memory. He wanted to be here Saturday in particular, for his partner, the man he once identified on air as Tim McArthur. Kiner's movement is restricted, too. He and his wife always sat at the corner table during breakfast at the beautiful Otesaga hotel. It's not Kiner's Korner this year.
Their generation is losing representation here. Stan Musial doesn't travel great distance anymore. Bob Feller was a fixture here for decades. His final HOF Weekend was 2010. His absence still is conspicuous. Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett and Gary Carter, too. And for a myriad of reasons, other regulars were absent this year -- Tom Seaver and Don Sutton, Goose Gossage and Rod Carew. Reggie Jackson as well -- for whatever reason. No Mike Schmidt.
Carl Yastrzemski and Nolan Ryan seldom make it. Hank Aaron's attendance is intermittent. And no Cal Ripken this year either. At least Tommy Lasorda's absence made breakfast more peaceful.
With half the Class of 2012, the late Ron Santo, unable to attend, Who's missing? could have been the theme for this weekend in the rolling hills of Central New York. But, thank God or Doug Harvey, those in town -- those seated on the daises the last two afternoons -- they were the focus of the folks who jammed this lovely village to take a dip in Otsego Lake and/or the past.
Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays made it. And with them, Yogi, Whitey Ford, Kaline, Frank and Brooks Robinson, Juan Marichal and Jim Bunning, the 1950s and '60s had ample representation. Koufax looks three years younger every four months. (And Dennis Eckersley now looks to be 26, at the most). Willie needed assistance, provided by Gaylord Perry, getting to his seat. But he was there to hear emcee Gary Thorne put his game a notch above those of all the other inductees gathered and to see the masses rise in recognition.
The Reds HOFers were quite conspicuous, as were large areas of red in a crowd of 18,000. Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan were here for the Cincinnati Kid, Barry Larkin, and because they belong. Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Williams had come for Santo and because they belong. The Cubs contingent was loud and proud; it saluted Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson, too. And Bench masterfully added a touch of Wrigley with his Harry Caray routine -- "All right, lemme hear ya," now a rite of summer in this village. He led the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
So, yes, the weekend was as rich as ever. It provided. The voids, gaps and absences became less noticeable as Santo's widow, Vicki, delivered a powerful speech about her husband's physical challenges and perseverance.
"He embraced his gifts and hardships equally" she said. "His life never was about the lows."
And though the Cubs' captain died merely 12 months before his election, Vicki Santo proclaimed Sunday "A happy day, not a sad day."
Her poignant words struck another more recently widowed HOF spouse. Sandy Carter, five months removed from her husband's burial, she and two of her adult children traveled from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She said she felt drawn to the event. Once she passed over the threshold of the Otesaga and "had a really good cry," she felt uplifted by the experience. She viewed the proceeding through the prism of what Santo's wife was doing.
"It made me even more grateful that [Gary] was alive when he went in," Sandy Carter said. "He got to enjoy it for seven years. And he loved it. He was desperate to be here last year. We looked into renting a private plane, but he didn't have the strength for travel."
She promised to return next year.
Most inductees and their family members return regularly. Ozzie Smith, Carlton Fisk and Phil Niekro can't get enough of this place. Bert Blyleven may want to buy some real estate here. Even playfully cantankerous Bob Gibson can't stay away.
And now it's Larkin who will learn of the gravitational pull of Cooperstown. A career Red and a former Reds captain, he already is familiar with a C on his cap and on his shirt. A self-proclaimed "complementary player," he vowed to return next year. No promise was necessary though; he enjoyed himself too much not to. He will want to revisit the site of his daughter singing the anthem, of his mother tearing up, of his 20-minute speech that extended beyond a half hour, of Eric Davis and Dave Parker sharing his moment, of joining the most exclusive fraternity in professional sports in this country.
It was more his weekend than anyone else's.
So Larkin recalled how Buddy Bell, one of his managers, had urged him to "take the time to smell the grass" and to recognize that his place in the game is relatively small. "Don't ever, ever lose that perspective," Bell told him.
Unlikely he will even now. Larkin is as grounded as anyone in the game. He was/is the ideal inductee for 2012. His election in January provided the Hall a living inductee, a special, polished and unflawed figure to embrace, market and enjoy for six months. Larkin spared us all. Talk of the blight of the potential Class of 2013 will begin soon enough. And next summer, there may be a different kind of absence to lament. Damn.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.