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In welcome change, a star-studded, modern group enters Hall of Fame

It has been awhile since baseball’s Hall of Fame has had much to celebrate. Last summer, the Hall, its formerly steady stream of new immortals having been dammed by often inconsistent moralizing on the part of the Baseball Writers Association of America voters related to the PED era, inducted only Hank O’Day, Jacob Ruppert and Deacon White, an umpire, owner and catcher who had in each case died at least a half century before. 

On Sunday, though, Cooperstown’s cup ran over with inductees, and both they and their speeches were livelier than 2013’s. This year’s class included six new members who were not only legendary but also breathing: Pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine; slugger Frank Thomas; and managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. As broadcaster Gary Thorne pointed out in his introduction, they added up to the largest number of living inductees for any year since 1971. 

As a result, the ceremony was very long; it lasted nearly three hours. Of the directions he had received from the organizers, Glavine said, "If there’s one thing I’ve heard from these guys all weekend, it’s been, hurry up." Very few of the inductees followed that instruction — none of them, perhaps, except for Maddux, who worked with his trademark efficiency, clocking in at almost exactly the recommended 10 minutes — but that was probably fine with everyone in attendance and following along on the MLB Network.

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At least the speeches were delivered by people of whom most fans had heard.

It was an afternoon of trios, including three first-ballot player inductees (the first time since 1999 the Hall had welcomed so many) and three men connected with the Atlanta Braves’ quasi-dynasty of the 1990s. Maddux, a member of both groups, spoke first. He will always be remembered as the winner of four straight NL Cy Young awards and also for becoming the first pitcher to record 15 or more victories in 17 straight seasons, but his induction speech will likely be recalled for two things: that it was relatively brief, and that it might have been the first in the august institution’s history to make reference to a certain bodily function. 

"He even taught me a little bit about science," he said as part of his expression of gratitude to his brother, Mike, also a successful pitcher. "It has to do with methane and a lighter, and I still get a huge kick out of it today." The audience guffawed.

"That’s funny, huh?"

Second up was Cox, Maddux’s manager for all of his 11 seasons in Atlanta, and whose c.v. includes 2,504 victories (fourth-most all time), 15 first place finishes (including 14 in a 15 year span) and a 1995 World Series championship.  Cox’s plaque reminded us that he possesses a rather unusual name — Robert Joe (not Bobby Joe, not Robert Joseph) — and he did not shy away from addressing his rather unusual all-time record, for managerial ejections, a topic he generally avoided when he was in uniform. 

"I have all the respect in the world for them," he said of umpires, his former antagonists. Cox gave most of the credit for his career to his players. "To Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and the other member of the big three, John Smoltz: I wouldn’t be here if not for you guys," he said.

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Glavine came next, rounding out the Atlanta triumvirate, and his plaque showed him wearing a Braves’ cap, which Maddux eschewed on his (whereas 17 of Glavine’s 23 seasons came in Atlanta, Maddux’s career was more or less split between the Braves and the Cubs). Glavine’s credentials include 300 victories, two Cy Young awards and the '95 World Series MVP award, and a durability that allowed him to make at least 25 starts for 20 consecutive seasons, and yet he pointed out that he nearly didn’t play professional baseball at all. Thirty summers ago, he was drafted by the Braves and the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, the latter of whom selected him ahead of future hockey Hall of Famers Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull. 

"Obviously I would have been a Hall of Famer in hockey, too," Glavine joked. "I’m positive I made the right choice."

Following Glavine was La Russa, the owner of 2,728 managerial wins (the third most ever) and World Series titles in 1989 (with the Athletics) and 2006 and '11 (with the Cardinals). La Russa approached his task the same way he sometimes seemed to the pitching changes for which he was famous: He never once ad-libbed in remarks that lasted some 17 minutes, glancing down at his notes. 

"If you’ve heard that the worst players make the best managers, then this boy’s got a chance to be an outstanding manager," he recalled someone saying about him, a .199 hitter in parts of six big league seasons, when he was a neophyte skipper. At one point, La Russa suggested that someone might text him the score of the ongoing Diamondbacks game, as he has recently become Arizona’s chief baseball operator.

"I am not comfortable on this stage," he said. It didn’t seem like it.

The fifth man up was Frank Thomas, and the Big Hurt’s speech was the day’s most emotional, and likely the one that will be most fondly remembered. The back-to-back AL MVP for the White Sox in 1993 and '94 towered over commissioner Bud Selig in a three-button suit.  As he leaned over the podium his voice often cracked and he kept having to wipe at his eyes with a handkerchief, particularly when he was thanking his deceased father, Frank Sr., for instilling in him his work ethic.

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"I took that to heart, Pops," Thomas said. "Look as us today. We’re a long way from Columbus, Georgia." Thomas, somehow, played in only five All-Star Games, but on Sunday he might have become the record holder for individuals thanked in an induction speech. No coach or clubhouse manager, and almost no teammate, went without an expression of gratitude, as near the end he started listing what seemed like all of them, rapid-fire.

Finally, it was Torre’s turn. 

"Our careers mirrored each other’s, and it would have been an injustice if we couldn’t enjoy this together," Torre said of Cox and La Russa, the two men he directly trails on the career managerial wins list (Torre is fifth, at 2,326). Torre spoke of how he was on the cusp of deeming his career a failure, of being "remembered as someone who never reached his goal," before the Yankees hired him before the 1996 season. It ended up as anything but, as he guided them to four championships. 

"I’m here because of the New York Yankees," Torre said.

At the end of his remarks, Torre took a moment to read a passage he had written that outlined his baseball philosophy.

"Baseball is a game of life," he said. "It’s not perfect, but it feels like it is. That’s the magic of it. We are responsible for giving it the respect it deserves. Our sport is part of the American soul, and it’s ours to borrow, just for awhile, to take care of it for a time and pass it on to the next generation."

This was one of the only moments during the ceremony in which an ongoing issue that looms bigger than even Thomas was alluded to, however obliquely. During his remarks, for example, La Russa made no mention of Jose Canseco, nor of Mark McGwire, the admitted performance enhancing drugs user who was on the field for 43 percent of La Russa’s wins, as Bryant Gumbel recently pointed out.

No one, of course, referred to Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa either, or any of the other players who haven’t joined the Hall largely because of a tenuous link to PEDs (while the name of Tommy Lasorda was invoked, that of Mike Piazza, of whose brother Lasorda is the godfather, wasn’t). 

Next July will likely bring the enshrinements of the seemingly clean Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, and 2016 figures to be Ken Griffey Jr.'s year. All that is to say that after a few fallow summers, Cooperstown seems to have founds its rhythm again. It is a rhythm in which it doesn’t even have to address certain former giants who by most measures ought to have already joined the 50 living members who sat on the dais behind the six new inductees on Sunday, nor even wrestle with the problem they present in any real way. There are again enough seemingly untainted candidates who can movingly thank the game and their families for contributing to their success from which the Hall can draw.

In fact, it can simply pretend those other players never existed, and still put on a feel-good, three-hour show.

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