By Dan Schlossberg
The stage was square.
Other than that solitary geometric issue, there was nothing wrong with the annual Roundtable that concluded Induction Weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In fact, the five newest Hall of Famers traded one-liners, hugs, and laughter before a few thousand onlookers who packed ancient Doubleday Field on a brilliant Monday morning.
Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez revealed he’s the youngest member of the Cooperstown gallery. But he also said he was awed by the elite company.
“I was happy to see Nolan Ryan,” he said of his former Texas teammate, “and also Johnny Bench, my hero growing up. Seeing all the Hall of Famers lined up was an incredible moment. I went to dinner, sat next to Jeff Bagwell, and said, ‘What a room we’re in!’”
One of the reasons Rodriguez received the required 75 percent of the vote was his role in helping the Florida (now Miami) Marlins win the a world title, its second, in 2003.
“I told the young Marlins pitchers that if they throw 99 and it’s down the middle, it’s gonna go 500 feet,” Rodriguez said. “I told them to throw down and away and use both sides of the plate. As long as the pitchers felt comfortable with me, I did my job. Catching Game 6 of the World Series (a Josh Beckett complete game) was a very big moment in my career.”
Tim Raines, the third player in the Class of 2017, said he enjoyed seeing Randy Johnson, a former teammate in Montreal.
“He was drafted by the Expos, was in the big leagues a short period of time, then got traded and I didn’t see him for 20-something years,” Raines said. “When we got together here, we hung out just like we did so many years ago.”
Raines had been in Cooperstown before for the inductions of Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, also Expos teammates.
“Just being up there with Andre was special,” said Raines, who named one of his sons Andre after the former slugger. “It’s always a laugh for us. It’s never serious. In those days (when they played), if I hit him, I could run and he’d never catch me.”
Bagwell said the quintet of newcomers didn’t know each other that well before Induction Weekend.
“I knew Bud (Selig) and John (Schuerholz),” he said, “but found out this weekend what they’re really, really like as people.”
Unlike Raines and Rodriguez, Bagwell spent his entire career with one club.
“My relationship with the people and the city of Houston was wonderful,” he said. “Craig Biggio and I talked about staying there for our whole careers. We looked around the stands and saw kids wearing No. 5 (Bagwell’s number) or No. 7 (Biggio’s) on their backs. That inspired us.”
Even Selig, often criticized for his dour disposition, was inspired.
“I didn’t think anything could ever overwhelm me but this definitely did,” he said, referring to the whirlwind of activity and attention focused on the five new members. “There’s something so engaging about this sport.
“It’s very meaningful to me to be in the Hall of Fame with Henry Aaron and Robin Yount. I’ve known Henry for 58 years.”
Like Selig, who spent 22 years as commissioner before retiring to teach college courses on baseball history, Schuerholz still has strong attachments to the game.
“I’m 76 years old,” he said, “and I’ve been in the game more than 50 years. But my heart still beats with baseball. The first thing I do every morning is catch up on the games played the night before.”
In the not-too-distant future, some of those games might be played in Montreal.
When asked if the game could thrive in the former National League city, Raines didn’t hesitate.
“Definitely, without a doubt,” he said. “When Charles Bronfman brought baseball to Montreal, it was new there. By the time I got there in 1979, it had taken off; we were averaging 35,000 to 40,000 people a night.
“Montreal fans cheered differently than any other fans. They inspired me to go out and wow them.”
Rodriguez, who delivered his acceptance speech in two languages Sunday, said he’s proud to be the fourth Puerto Rican in the Hall of Fame gallery (and the first to get in on the first ballot).
“If you go there,” he said, “you’ll see kids playing baseball everywhere. It’s the No. 1 sport there. And there are more kids like (Carlos) Correa coming up.”
Bagwell, a New Englander who rooted for the Red Sox before Houston traded for him, noted that his wide-open batting stance was the result of tinkering.
“I’m not sure how it came about,” he said, “but I do remember that it didn’t look so good toward the end of my career. But Tony Gwynn once signed a bat to me that said, ‘To Jeff. Keep the same stance.’ That’s why I idolized Carl Yastrzemski so much: he was always tinkering with his stance too.”
Changing bats didn’t help Bagwell, he admitted. “I always came back to the same bat and same stance,” he said.
Even the executives, lulled by the relaxed atmosphere of the roundtable, shared their memories.
According to Schuerholz, “Two things stand out for me. First, the work Bobby Cox did as general manager and second, the profound lack of organizational and personal pride I found when I got to Atlanta. I made it my personal mission to change that.”
The first general manager to win world championships in both leagues, Schuerholz admitted his best trade was the acquisition of Fred McGriff in the middle of the 1993 campaign.
“We had guys up and down our lineup trying to be cleanup hitters but nobody could do it until we got Freddie,” said Schuerholz, whose Atlanta teams finished first in every complete season a record 14 times in a row. “He hit two home runs in his first game and we were off and running.”
With that, the five baseball immortals got up from their folding chairs and headed for waiting limousines with memories they will never forget.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 38 baseball books, including The New Baseball Bible: Notes, Nuggets, Lists & Legends from Our National Pastime. His e.mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.