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For the love of the game



Special to ESPN.com

Aug. 3

Driving through the hills and farms of New York on Route 20, I thought a lot about the people who took me to this road to Cooperstown -- starting with the people who hired, supported and taught me at the Globe, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. I thought about the players, for it's always been about the game and the players, and the thousands of relationships cultivated over the years. In my speech, I would mention John Curtis, Jerry Remy, Bill Campbell, Dave Schmidt, Bruce Hurst, Ellis Burks and George Lombard -- but there are many, many more, including many that never made it to The Show. But most of all, I started thinking about who got me here, and it is the people who have been most important: the readers, those who listened, who allowed me to be their eyes and ears, which is the one job I wanted all my life. If there were no passionate readers, no one who cared enough to listen or scroll through 3,000 words on Sundays, I wouldn't be here. Thanks, for this is the time of my life.

Wade Boggs was in the lobby of the Otesaga Hotel when we arrived. "I watched that SportsCenter piece on the 33 inning game," he said, "and I thought of something I said to you that afternoon."

I was doing a story for the Globe about players who don't give up on their dreams while trolling through the minor leagues, focusing on Boggs and how he was in his seventh minor league season, was in the process of hitting .300 for the sixth straight year, had made it through the Rule V draft thrice and never gave up. "I told you that some day my success would be judged on my ability to overcome adversity," Boggs reminded me.

Peter Gammons
Peter officially joins the Hall of Fame family.

He was right. In the last half-century, he is the Hall of Fame positional player who reached the major leagues at the oldest age, and still went on to amass more than 3,000 hits. All that is now remembered is Boggs' success. The adversity is put away somewhere, probably in a dark attic.

The experience of being in the Otesaga for four days and nights with 50-some Hall of Famers was beyond my wildest experience. Understand, these men understand and appreciate their minute society. One morning, a couple of players explained that Robin Roberts' wife had died recently, and that they had been in touch; as it turned out, nearly 50 called to offer any help he needed in getting through the rough period.

George Brett let most everyone know that Robin Yount couldn't be there because his mother recently passed away, and his father is ill. Player after player asked George how to reach Robin, or what he could do.

Tom Seaver asked about another Hall of Famer who wasn't present. Told that he has been going through a difficult personal time, Seaver said, "Help us get in touch with him. He should be here. This is his family."

The players know that their Hall of Fame fraternity, or family, is unique. One cannot buy one's way in, like the New York Yacht Club. One cannot be born into it. One cannot politic in, like the Council of Foreign Affairs. One can only gain acceptance by performance, and then it is far more exclusive -- as well as traditional -- than the Hall of Fames in other sports.

"Players are awed by this, and they respect everything about it," says Dennis Eckersley. Reggie Jackson, who has been known to be Reggie, is as humble as Jack Cressend. "I'm in a club with Willie Mays. I'm just fortunate, period," says Jackson. "There is a pervasive spirit here that the game is greater than any of us, and when you're around Willie and Sandy Koufax and Stan Musial, we are always around men who are far greater than I am."

Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, who exude dignity, act as if they are rookies. Jim Bunning, one of the most fascinating men who ever played, the man (along with Robin Roberts) who found Marvin Miller and created the modern union and has long served his country as a senator from Kentucky, finished the transportation and energy bills Friday morning, and was at the Hall reception Friday night. To see Don Sutton beam for an entire weekend, to see the look on Bill Mazeroski's face and the nervous excitement of Ryne Sandberg and Boggs as they were embraced by every Hall of Famer in attendance was awe-inspiring.

I wish that some current players who believe they are greater than the game (irreplaceable) could spend Hall of Fame weekend in the hotel -- to watch Koufax and Mays, Musial, Yogi Berra and Juan Marichal, and see that the greatest players are humbled by the greatness of the game, and respect one another.

No one needs to hear from my speech about my love of the game, but after four days with the greatest players who ever played, my feelings and respect are greater than they were driving down Route 20 toward Cooperstown.

*******

The cell worked, the BlackBerry worked, and, yes, the Manny Ramirez updates were available, as well as most everything else right down to three emails on my BlackBerry while I was on the podium assuring me that nothing was going to happen.

Yes, the Phillies offered Billy Wagner for Juan Pierre and Barry Zito, but he wasn't going to get moved. Kevin Millwood was a dead issue by Saturday morning, and when the Mariners couldn't do Eddie Guardado to the Indians by Friday noon, Bob Wickman was off the market as well.

The one mess was the six player deal between Boston and Colorado that the Rockies thought was done Friday night. Theo Epstein has long liked Larry Bigbie, and the Rockies did the Bigbie deal with Baltimore to move him to Boston with first baseman Ryan Shealy for Adam Stern, Abe Alvarez, Kelly Shoppach and a minor leaguer.

The offer that was faxed from Boston to Colorado was not signed, or a final document. It was negotiated by assistant GM Josh Byrnes because Epstein was consumed by the Ramirez trade and trying to get Ramirez calmed down and repair his damaged feelings. It never occurred to Epstein that a simple baseball deal that did not involve money was something ownership would consider objectionable. But, indeed, ownership and its assistant, Larry Lucchino, did object, because they were focused on the Ramirez deal.

So Lucchino nixed the deal, which -- rightly -- incensed Dan O'Dowd and the Rockies. But when Lucchino called Colorado owner Charlie Monfort, he threw Byrnes under the bus and did not accept the responsibility of killing it.

By then, there was very little chance of a deal happening for Ramirez, and, fortunately by then, Epstein had repaired much of the damage, with the help of Kevin Millar and David Ortiz. The only way there would be a deal is if Boston could reach its endgame of Mike Cameron, which involved a fourth team, the Reds, and Adam Dunn; in that, Manny would have gone to the Mets; Hanley Ramirez and Mets players would have gone to Tampa Bay; Lastings Milledge and Anibel Sanchez would have gone to Cincinnati; and Boston would have received Cameron, Dunn, Aubrey Huff and Trever Miller. Tampa Bay had killed it by Saturday morning by reminding people why they are the worst franchise in modern baseball history and upping requests, and Reds GM Dan O'Brien had serious restraints because of the impending ownership change; he could not even respond to Yankee inquiries about and Junior Griffey.

In the end, Boston management is happy with the team it has, especially since Jon Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen contributed and they know that with Jon Lester, Sanchez (0.98 in Double-A) and Craig Hansen, they have some of the best high-end pitchers in the game.

And Manny is again happy, for now. There had been simmering discontent brewing for weeks. He didn't run some balls out hard. He had Pedro Martinez, still bitter about being out of Boston, in his ear. And some of the claustrophobia is justified, for the area is so Red Sox crazy he cannot go out to dinner. Epstein sympathized with him. He can't, either.

He had asked to be traded, then came the blowup in St. Petersburg. His teammates say Ramirez felt Terry Francona did him wrong because after the Tuesday game when Trot Nixon was injured, Francona didn't ask Manny to play, but sent coach Brad Mills. Francona was in a tough position, for while he usually protects his players, he had to face other veterans who were upset with Ramirez.

On Wednesday, Red Sox management agreed to keep quiet. At 8 a.m. Thursday, Lucchino did just the opposite, and Ramirez felt that he'd been lied to. When Ortiz and Millar talked to Manny, they knew Francona had already talked to him, and they told him not to worry about Lucchino. "He knows Larry wants him out of there," says one Red Sox player. "But he was told, 'Look, Larry hates all the players. Ask Jason Varitek. Ask anyone. You're not alone.' "

For now, it's all good, and Millar says, "Manny will be the best hitter in baseball the rest of the way."

*******

There are three moments I will never forget from Sunday. The first was on the porch of the hotel as we waited to bus, with Koufax and Gibson.

The second was backstage before the ceremony. Willie Mays asked me to sign a ball. I looked at it, saw that it was signed by Hall of Fame players, and handed it back to him. "I'm not a Hall of Fame player," I said. He touched my shoulder and said, "you're one of us. Sign it." To be included by the best players alive for one weekend is beyond anyone's wildest, most childish dreams.

The third came after the ceremony, when Eddie Murray stopped me. He hadn't talked to me for many years, for something I said that wronged him, which I didn't remember, but regret. He will never know what that moment meant to someone who never stopped respecting him, not for a moment.

*******

When the busses got back to the hotel, Bud Selig was on his cell phone, angrily ordering something to be held for a day. That something was Rafael Palmeiro's news.

Palmeiro never should have been allowed to play for a month with steroids and affect the integrity of the pennant race, and he did in a four-game series against Boston right before the All-Star break. But Selig deserves credit for allowing a great day to pass unstained, and for a policy that proves the stars can get caught -- even if their appeal process is a double standard.

We heard about it early Monday morning, and watching the real Hall of Famers mingle and go to their cars. There is so much we do not know about the steroids era, how many players used them, the juxtaposition between players and pitchers who juiced. We do know that they were not illegal in the workplace, and that there will likely never be any resolution to the conflicts between what we may think and what is proven. There was no baseball law, as there was about gambling.

But for the first time, there is a law in baseball concerning steroids. Rafael Palmeiro -- out of stupidity, for greed, avarice, whatever -- has broken that law. He can have his numbers, he can have his glory, he can have his money, but he has broken a law that now is an important part of the texture of the game, and he has chosen avarice over the Hall of Fame.

And he should never know what it's like to spend the Hall of Fame weekend in the Otesaga Hotel.







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