Hall call will change lives for newest Cooperstown inductees
The details of Jan. 5, 1999, have been stamped into George Brett's mind forever: He ate breakfast, took his three sons to school, had a workout and sat around home with friends in Kansas City, waiting for a call saying he'd been elected to the Hall of Fame.
It was Brett's first time on the ballot, and even though he'd often been called a "future Hall of Famer'' during his 21-year career that included 3,154 career hits, he didn't think it was a lock. He only knew that if there were good news, his phone would ring between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
A few minutes before 11, the phone rang and Brett's heart raced, but the caller was just a friend checking in. There was another call at 11:30 and another at noon, but each was a false alarm.
Brett started to worry.
Finally at 12:40 p.m., Jack O'Connell, the secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, called to tell Brett that he had been elected with 98 percent of the vote. The worry turned to jubilation.
"I start bawling, crying like a baby,'' Brett says. "Baseball was so hard for me, and to get that high of [a] vote total, it got to me. It was fantastic. But now my friends are hearing me cry, and they're thinking, 'Maybe he didn't make it.'''
Wednesday is another of those chances for players to have a nerve-wracking morning awaiting a possibly life-altering call that ensures their place them among history's best players. Of the 33 players on the BBWAA ballot, the most likely candidates to get a call are Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar.
Blyleven, a pitcher with 3,701 strikeouts, received 74.2 percent of the vote last year, five votes short of the 75 percent needed for election. Alomar, a second baseman who helped the Toronto Blue Jays win two World Series, was eight votes shy at 73.7 percent, his first year on the ballot.
Each will low-key it on Wednesday.
Alomar, who turned down a request for an interview, will be waiting along with Blue Jays officials at the Rogers Centre. Blyleven, on his next-to-last ballot, will keep his day as normal as possible, meaning no reporters or friends at his home in Fort Myers, Fla.
"You don't want to jinx anything,'' Blyleven says. "It's no fun to have people over and have nothing happen. My wife, Gail, and I are going to eat breakfast, drink coffee and read the papers. We'll be watching TV and hoping for the call.''
This is Blyleven's 14th time on the ballot. He's gone from frustration and anger to acceptance of a vote he can't control. His peers, such as Johnny Bench, Jim Kaat and Jim Palmer, have called to lend support.
"As soon as you're elected, you forget about the previous years when you didn't make it,'' says Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, elected in 2003 on his sixth try. "Bert's going to feel that jubilation. There's nothing like it, and it's he'll get to enjoy it the rest of his life.''
Going from ballot box to press release is a stealth operation by the BBWAA and Hall of Fame, and for about 14 hours starting Tuesday night, only a handful of people will know the results.
O'Connell and Mike DiLeece, an auditor with Ernst & Young, will count the 500-plus ballots Tuesday in a 30th-floor conference room overlooking Time Square in Manhattan. The results will be certified and delivered to Hall chairman Jane Forbes Clark and president Jeff Idelson.
Then, on Wednesday, a few minutes before Idelson announces the news on MLB Network and a release is emailed to media at 2 p.m. ET, O'Connell and Clark call the new inductees.
O'Connell says the vote is the best-kept secret in sports, and he trusts DiLeece to stay mum. It is exciting for DiLeece, a New York Mets fan, who says fellow workers try to pry it out of him.
"The best part is knowing the news in advance, but not telling anybody,'' DiLeece says.
After O'Connell and Clark make their phone calls, a Hall staffer gives the inductees a set of instructions and plans logistics for the blur of the next 36 hours. The inductee will do a press conference on the phone and then he and his spouse will pack for an evening flight to New York.
"It's more than a congratulations call,'' says Hall spokesman Brad Horn. "It's a call to let them know their life is going to change, and for that to happen, you need to do X, Y and Z. There's a lot of information, but we keep it succinct. We don't want to overwhelm. It needs to be simple so that all they need to do is live in the moment.''
Hall of Famers say the new class needs to embrace instant celebrity while being inundated with requests for appearances, autographs, pictures and questions about their career.
"When I went into the Hall (in 1977), I talked to Lou Boudreau about it, and he told me that my life was going to change, and he was right,'' says the Chicago Cubs' Ernie Banks, who hit 512 home runs. "I made appearances everywhere, in every county and every city around. I was the grand marshal in a small town's parade. I went to banquets. I dedicated youth fields. I spoke in schools. I went to bar mitzvahs. I had kids that wanted to do a (school) paper on me.
"I would say I'm not worthy of this, but people would tell me I was and that they appreciated watching me play. It's amazing the variety of people -- young and old -- that remembers you playing. They know about you, where you were born, your batting average in a certain year, stuff like that. I had no idea how many people I touched.''
Players have had different routines waiting for the call. Pitcher Gaylord Perry worked on his cattle ranch to make the time go faster in 1991. Carter got his call sitting on a golf cart, after his foursome completed the 18th hole on a course in Florida.
Last year, outfielder Andre Dawson visited the graves of his mother, Mattie Brown, and grandmother, Eunice Taylor, before the call. Closer Goose Gossage would spend announcement day in a duck blind or hunting rabbits before he was elected in 2008.
Carter, a catcher with the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets, might be the only Hall of Famer who had concerns about being elected in 2002. That's because his daughter, Kimmy, was getting married on the same day as the induction ceremony. He ended up with 72.7 percent of the vote, and in some ways, that was good news.
"I didn't want to interfere with her big day,'' Carter says.
Gossage, who had 310 saves and pitched in three World Series, says the most unusual event he's gotten to take part in is riding with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, a fleet of aircraft that performs jaw-dropping maneuvers in the air.
"It was an unbelievable ride,'' Gossage says. "They spun around and made about every move they could make. But I don't think I would have had the thrill had I not been in the Hall of Fame.''
Perry was a baseball coach at Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C., when he turned into a Hall of Famer. A little later, friends and family converged for a potluck of fried and barbecued chicken, ham, fish and desserts.
Perry says the dream continued throughout that year, including his speech at the induction ceremony: "Especially when I turned around and saw Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Stan Musial sitting in the row behind me. I kept saying to myself, 'Am I really here?'''
Brett doesn't do many appearances, but like Perry, he gets "pinch-me'' feelings when he hangs out with other elite players. He never misses the Hall of Fame weekend.
For Brett, some of the Hall of Famers, such as Robin Yount, were friends from his playing days. Others, such as Brooks Robinson, were heroes. Brett and Robinson call each other by their uniform numbers, No. 5.
"I call him No. 5, and he calls me the real No. 5,'' says Brett, who wore No. 5 because of Robinson.
Brett's induction also softened decades-old rivalries. He had not been particularly close with guys like Gossage or Reggie Jackson, who were among the great players on the New York Yankees of the late 1970s, the team that beat the Brett and the Royals in the American League Championship Series three straight years from 1976-78.
But by getting to know them in Cooperstown, Brett and his former enemies became friends. One year, Brett even wore a Gossage Hall cap -- he never thought he'd see the day that that would happen.
"I hated them all because those were the players that kept us from going to World Series for three seasons,'' Brett says. "Reggie was always getting big hits against us. I never talked to him when we played, but we have a tremendous relationship, and he's a good friend. We laugh, giggle and talk baseball. It's the best part of being in the Hall of Fame.''