What may have been the most anticipated induction ceremony in the history of the National Baseball Hall of Fame finally became reality Sept. 8 — and remarkably, it went off without a hitch.
The coronation of Derek Jeter, anticipated it seems from his debut with the Yankees on May 29, 1995, and in the planning stages since his retirement on the last day of the 2014 season, came off with the kind of simplicity and excellence that marked his career.
The Class of 2020 had its ceremony canceled once and postponed another time, but there was no way this was going to be a routine celebration. Make no mistake, this was Derek Jeter’s day.
Larry Walker, Marvin Miller and Ted Simmons, an addition from the 2021 class, were no doubt thrilled to be along for the ride, but it was “The Captain” who carried the event, just as he had carried so many games during a career that most often seemed picture perfect. That an estimated 20,000 fans packed the village of Cooperstown, N.Y., on a midweek day of the Labor Day holiday week, with a pandemic still posing an ominous threat, was testimony enough to the staying power of perhaps the most dominating player of his era.
When COVID-19 forced the cancellation of last year’s ceremony, scheduled for its routine July weekend celebration, it was the dark cloud that threatened to tarnish Jeter’s legacy. That cloud was made even darker when it was originally announced this year’s induction would not include fans because of restrictions still in place because of the pandemic.
As conditions improved, and before the virus began to spike again, the Hall of Fame boldly made the move to reschedule the ceremony with fans, even though it meant getting away from its accustomed weekend comfort zone. There was nothing that could compensate for the loss of the expected impact of this celebration — it had been anticipated the induction would rival the estimated 75,000 who attended the one in 2007, when Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn were honored.
But there was little doubt that, though it might not reach expected levels, this would be a special occasion. And it was.
We had been told by those who knew him best that Ted Simmons would be eloquent. He was. We were also told he would deliver a heartfelt tribute to Miller, the somewhat controversial but effective former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He did just that, while also acknowledging Baltimorean Al Kaline as his hero while growing up a Tigers fan in the Detroit area.
We were told that Walker, the second native Canadian to be elected to the Hall of Fame, would be witty and humble. He was — taking his own cell phone video “so I can capture this” and thanking those who had supported his candidacy via social media. He also reflected on his inadequacies as a goalie leading him from hockey to baseball — and one hilarious incident early in his career, when he attempted to return to first base by cutting across the diamond, neglecting to retouch second base.
We certainly didn’t have to be told that Jeter would touch all the bases with style and grace. He did, as expected, without missing a step, even warning that it would be impossible to wrap up a career in a 15-minute speech. He went over by two minutes but nobody seemed to mind.
Which is more than could be said to the reaction to Don Fehr, who picked the wrong time to give the longest speech of the day. Speaking on behalf of Miller, whom he succeeded as head of the MLBPA, Fehr avoided being booed off the stage only by cutting short his 22-minute tribute that was almost twice as long as Simmons and Walker combined. Proving once again that timing is everything, Simmons accomplished more using 45 seconds of his 10-and-a-half minute speech praising the work Miller had done for the players.
Fortunately, that was just a small blip on the screen. For the Hall of Fame, this long delayed celebration was a much-needed recovery. We can only hope the same will be true for Cooperstown, which has suffered from the economic impact of the two-year pandemic.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonine.com
Photo Credit: Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum