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Baseball Hall of Fame Notebook

Early days in the minors a key part of Mariano Rivera's memories

COOPERSTOWN — Enter Sandman into the Hall of Fame.

Mariano Rivera closed Sunday's induction ceremony Sunday just like he did so many times in his career, with a flourish and complete attention to detail.

Parts of Rivera's 25-minute address were made in Spanish in support of those on hand waving flags from his native Panama. It included two vignettes not widely known among the litany of stories of Rivera's career that began as a failed starter and morphed into his ascension as the greatest closer in history.

One was that Rivera recalled that as a boy in Panama, he actually wanted to be a soccer star and he idolized Brazilian star Pele because he had not yet learned who Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were.

Soon enough, of course, Rivera took up baseball and signed with the Yankees for $2,000, a glove and some shoes. As Rivera reported to the Gulf Coast League as a 20-year-old in 1990, struggling through the Miami airport unable to speak English, he found help to get him on the right flight to Tampa.

His struggles in that area continued the next year at Class A Greensboro (N.C.). Rivera admitted he cried himself to sleep because he felt he had no relationship with his teammates or coaches due to his language barrier. Nowadays, teams have translators freely through their minor-league systems. Back then, it was not the case.

"I couldn't communicate with my teammates and I was frustrated," he said. "I made one of the greatest decisions I made. I talked to a few of my teammates and I asked them, 'Guys, please. I need to learn English. And whatever I do, whatever things I say that aren't right. You can laugh all you want, but please teach me. Teach me the right way. And they did. They never laughed."

Rivera also recounted the day in 1995 he was sent back to Triple-A with Derek Jeter.

"They sent us both down the same day. We were almost literally crying in Bennigans in New Jersey,” Rivera said. “We couldn't believe it but that only made us stronger.”

Once Rivera was up as a setup man in 1996, his days in the minor leagues were over. Five World Series titles and a record 652 saves later, he became the first player unanimously elected to the Hall.

Rivera made sure to apologize to his family for missing so many big events. He made particular mention of his son, 25-year-old Mariano Jr., because he was born on Oct. 4 and the Yankees were just starting the playoffs every year on that day.

"I'm sorry," said a smiling Rivera. "I was on a mission. We'll celebrate now."

Having Rivera closing the day is the only setup the Hall of Fame could use

• • •

Lee Smith, a closer for eight teams best known for his days with the Chicago Cubs, broke up the crowd when he spotted Hall member and former teammate Greg Maddux on the stage and cracked, "Man, I sent that kid to McDonald's so many times for me."

The reference was to an iconic McDonald's across the street from Wrigley Field for decades until it was razed as part as the Cubs' development around the ballpark the last five years. Maddux was a 20-year-old rookie with the Cubs in 1987 when Smith, 28, was at the height of his Chicago career.

Chicago fans were also on hand for White Sox designated hitter Harold Baines and Yankees fans on hand to see Rivera also cheered wildly and chanted "Moooose" in honor of Mike Mussina.

Seattle designated hitter Edgar Martinez probably had the most rabid support behind Rivera, getting a large turnout from fans in the Pacific Northwest and support from fellow Puerto Ricans in New York City.

• • •

In other awards this weekend, the Hall honored longtime Philadelphia Inquirer and writer Jayson Stark with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for service to baseball journalism. Stark, who now writes for the Athletic, was chosen in a vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Stark's offbeat columns, fascination with numbers and mining of some of the game's great stat nuggets have been a fixture on the big-league scene since 1979.

Al Helfer was recognized as the posthumous winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting. He called games for eight teams and is best known as the voice of the Mutual Radio Game of the Week for five seasons during the 1950s.

• • •

A record 58 of the 79 living Hall of Famers, including the Class of 2019, was on hand for the ceremony. Former Yankees outfielder and jazz guitarist Bernie Williams performed the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" — even throwing in a few chords of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" at the start to honor Rivera.

It was the first induction ceremony for new Hall president Tim Mead, a longtime public relations official with the Los Angeles Angels who accepted the post last month. Outgoing president Jeff Idelson, who was at the helm since 1994, was on hand as an honored guest.

Halladay and Mussina both entered the Hall with no logo on their cap plaque, in deference to the split of their careers (Toronto/Philadelphia and Baltimore/New York, respectively). Smith chose the Cubs while Baines chose the White Sox. Rivera (Yankees) and Martinez (Mariners) only played for one team, making 54 such players in the Hall.

For the record, longtime former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda is the oldest living Hall member at age 91. Vladimir Guerrero Sr., 44, is the youngest. He was elected last year.

There was a moment of silence in memory of Willie McCovey and Frank Robinson, the two members of the Hall who died in the last year.

• • •

You can mark your calendars for July 26, 2020. Next year's ceremony will be highlighted by the certain induction of Jeter and it will be interesting to see if he is the first position player to be unanimously elected. There are no other first-timers expected to get close to 75 percent and the potential is there for it to be a small class, with Jeter the only modern-era inductee.

Pitchers Curt Schilling (60.9 percent) and Roger Clemens (59.5 percent), and outfielder Barry Bonds (59.1 percent) were the highest vote-getters not to be elected this year. Outfielder Larry Walker, who got 54.6 percent, will be entering his last year on the ballot and that figures to bump up his total, although it's hard to believe he would gain the nearly 21 percent of the vote needed.

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