New York Yankee great Mariano Rivera was the first player in history to be elected unanimously to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Story and photos by
Felix Manuel Rodriguez
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – While it is true…there are many beautiful stadiums across this great nation, there is only one true baseball heaven and it’s located in the small village in upstate New York called, Cooperstown. It is where the greatest players who ever played the game are enshrined forever. Their faces, stories and stats etched into beautiful plaques displayed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Gallery.
Only 232 former major leaguers have earned a space in the Hall of Fame Gallery, that’s less than one percent of those who have played in the major league. On this sweltering hot summer day, six new members were inducted into the best-known sports shrine in the world. The 2019 inductees include: Harold Baines, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith. Each will have their plaques displayed after the Hall of Fame Weekend ceremonies.
Harold Baines had a long baseball career and as a Yankees fan I always remember worrying that he might hit a home run while at bat against my beloved Yankees. He was a feared hitter. Fellow Hall of Famer and Orioles legend once said about Baines, “The guy can flat-out hit.”
Baines shared beautiful words to his family and to his wife, Marla: “You are the true Hall of Famer.”
He also shared an emotional tribute to his late father, Linwood: “Through his words, and more importantly his deeds, (he) taught me how to approach life,” Baines said of his dad. “You work at it, you put your head down, you keep your mouth shut and you work at your craft day in, day out.”
Roy Halladay was a star pitcher. An ace who delivered on many occasions for both the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies. Halladay won two Cy Young awards and pitched a perfect game and a no-hitter in Game 1 of the National Division Series playoff game in 2010. Only the second no-hitter thrown in post season history. Sadly, Halladay passed away when the private plane he was operating crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. His wife, Brandy represented Roy and gave an emotional speech about her late husband and best friend.
“This is not my speech to give,” she continued. “I’m going to do the best I can to say the things I believe Roy might have said or would have wanted to say if he was here today.”
The words that would follow shortly after was inspiring, uplifting and heartfelt. “I think that Roy would want everyone to know that people are not perfect,” she said. “We are all imperfect and flawed in one way or another. We all struggle, but with hard work, humility and dedication, imperfect people still can have perfect moments.”
Edgar Martinez was a baseball hitting genius. He was without a doubt one of the greatest hitters that many people never heard of. His two-run double in the 11th inning against my beloved Yankees in 1995 still haunts me. I can still see Ken Griffey Jr jumping up and down and the entire Seattle Mariners team jumping on Edgar. That defining hit sent the Mariners to their first ever American League Championship Series in franchise history. Edgar finished his baseball career with a .312 batting average 2,247 hits.
During his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Edgar was humble and gracious. Delivering a portion of his speech in Spanish sending his love and appreciation to the people of Puerto Rico. “The first time I saw Roberto Clemente, all I wanted to do was play the game. What an honor to have my plaque in the Hall alongside his.”
Edgar became the fifth Major League Baseball player of Puerto Rican descent inducted into the Hall of Fame. The other four are Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Alomar, and Ivan Rodriguez.
Mike Mussina was a big time starting pitcher who got the important victories. He was a workhorse on the mound. The Moose as he is nicknamed won over 270 games in his 18 year career. He finished his career with five All-Star game selections and seven Gold Glove Awards.
“I was never fortunate to win a Cy Young Award or be a World Series champion, win 300 games or strike out 3,000 hitters. My opportunities for those achievements are in the past. Today, I get to become a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This time I made it.”
Lee Smith is considered one of the games greatest relievers. He is a mountain of a man at 6’6. Looks more like an NFL defensive linebacker who will plow through the offensive. He was feared on the mound with his intimidating physique. Smith shared how he almost gave up his baseball career after being told the club was looking to utilize him as a relief pitcher and not a starter.
“In those days, you wanted to be a starter or nothing.” – Smith said. He credits fellow Hall of Famer Billy Williams for knocking some sense into him by letting Smith know that relief pitching was becoming a valuable asset for teams. Smith finished his career with 478 saves placing third in the all-time saves leaders list.
In typical Mariano “Mo” Rivera fashion he was chosen to close out the 2019 Hall of Fame Ceremonies. The most anticipated speech of the day. As a former New York Yankees relief pitcher, Mariano had the home field advantage. In addition to the large Panamanian crowd that included Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo, Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran “Manos de Peidra” aka “Hands of Stone” was in the crowd. As well as some of his former Yankees teammates: Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams.
“Why do I always have to go last?” – joked Mariano.
The Sandman delivered a gracious and humbling speech. He gave gratitude to his family, his mom and pops, his fans, his former teammates, and his former boss George Steinbrenner. During his speech Mo also shared a few words in Spanish. He finished his career with a record smashing 652 saves, 13 All-Star game selections and helped the Yankees win five World Series Rings. It’s been said that more people have walked on the moon (12) than men who have scored against Mariano Rivera in the postseason (11). How about that for being out of this world?
Immediately after the speeches, I along with my colleague and good friend Geraldo Reyes Jr. walked back to the media center to secure prime real estate seating for the post induction press conference. Each inductee one by one shared their experience of delivering heartfelt speeches and answering questions by countless of reporters. We unfortunately were not chosen to ask a question, but the experience of the day at Cooperstown was as always hot, long, sweaty, hungry, but beautiful. Just when you think it couldn’t get any better.
After Mariano’s q&a session, I quickly stood by the exit to snag a photo of the legend heading out one last time. And yes, there were six or sixty other photographers near me, but Mariano aka “The Closer”, “Sandman” baseballs greatest closer stopped, proudly waving his miniature Panamanian flag, thumbs up and stared dead at me. I captured the moment. Who needs to be in Orlando for a magical moment when it happens every time at Cooperstown, NY.