The call of the Hall
The reality of baseball immortality makes Winfield, Puckett and Mazeroski feel like rookies again.
By Ian Browne
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Preparing for a monumental moment on a baseball field -- be it in a World Series game or a crucial at-bat during the pennant race -- is something Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett and Bill Mazeroski know plenty about.
From now on they will be "Hall of Famer" Bill Mazeroski, "Hall of Famer" Kirby Puckett and "Hall of Famer" Dave Winfield.
But they showed up Saturday in this baseball heaven known as Cooperstown as rookies again. The subject at their joint press conference was the next monumental baseball moment.
The one that will be the official and definitive culmination of three terrific and unique careers.
They were here to share their final thoughts on their impending induction to the Hall of Fame, which will take place Sunday afternoon.
How do you really prepare for a stamp into immortality? Starting Sunday, their names will forever be attached with a three-word moniker. It will be "Hall of Famer" Dave Winfield, "Hall of Famer" Kirby Puckett and "Hall of Famer" Bill Mazeroski.
How can anyone who isn't already a member possibly know how overwhelming the actual induction is going to be?
"This is all batting practice," Puckett said. "The game starts (Sunday) afternoon. We're warming up now, getting ready to go. When (Sunday) comes and I'm coming up to the podium, I'll take a couple breaths and hope I don't screw up.
The fun-loving Puckett -- a superb hitter and defensive outfielder -- was a master of the big moment during his 12-year career with the Twins. He was on a team that won Game 7 of the World Series in 1987 and '91. But even he isn't prepared for the seemingly endless line of emotions that will flow his way Sunday.
"I've always been a strong individual, but I don't think you can prepare for something like this, something of this magnitude. Joe Morgan was telling me how great it is, how when they showed him where his plaque was going, it made him cry," Puckett said. "(Don) Sutton told me, 'Don't cry, don't throw up, you'll be fine.' As you can see, these (present Hall of Famers) have been big helps."
In essence, Sutton, Morgan and the others were just trying to keep this year's class loose because they know from their own experiences that there's nothing you can really do to prepare for this.
The dream of playing baseball for a living starts in just about every young ballplayer's backyard. But those dreams generally don't involve the Hall of Fame, because that is something that seems too lofty for even the biggest dreamer.
"Baseball has meant everything to me," said Mazeroski, the defensive wizard who was overlooked in his 15 years on the Baseball Writers' ballot before finally being elected in by the Veterans Committee. "If I hadn't played in the Major Leagues, I would have played in some beer league somewhere. Baseball has always been No. 1. It's the only thing I ever wanted to do.
"I played in baseball games here, but never thought I'd be here for an occasion such as this. Me being inducted is something I never counted on or thought would happen to me. It's going to be interesting (Sunday to see) if I can get my speech out."
There are few surer places to see a grown man cry than on that outdoor stage in Cooperstown once every summer. Carlton Fisk broke down last year. George Brett couldn't stop the tears from flowing two years ago.
The list of crying Hall of Famers is a list as long as it is distinguished. Forget about that "no crying in baseball" line from the movie A League of Their Own.
Puckett was bold enough to guarantee his eyes will stay dry. But he didn't sound particularly convincing.
"I'm not going to cry," Puckett said. "Winnie is going to cry, Maz is going to cry, I'm going to try not to cry. If we cry, we cry. I've never cried. Not even when I retired. Something really bad has to happen for me to cry."
Part of what makes this last step so emotional is that more than any of the other sports, a lot of failure comes with being a baseball player. Even the best hitters only succeed roughly 30 percent of the time.
"It's not all glamour and glory and money and easy," Winfield said. "Baseball is very hard. If you don't learn to overcome adversity and obstacles, don't play this game. (Obstacles) are there every day."
But what takes place Sunday will be all good for three men who made their marks in different ways.
Puckett was shaped like a 5-foot-8 bowling ball, but played the game with graceful athleticism and a flair for the dramatic. His career was cut short because of glaucoma, but in his 12 years, he, in his own words, "crammed a lot in."
The power-hitting, fast-running and strong-throwing Winfield was a devastating 6-foot-6 package of athletic wonder. He was drafted by the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball. He chose one sport -- baseball -- that took him through many different cities and uniforms. Winfield played his first eight years as a Padre, before signing a 10 year, $23 million contract with the Yankees in 1981.
After almost a decade of greatness and chaos in the Bronx, Winfield had a less-than-two-year pit stop with the Angels. Then he spent one memorable year in Toronto, blasting the game-winning, two-run double in Game 6 of the World Series against Atlanta that gave the Blue Jays their first World Championship. He then went to his native land (Minnesota), where he played two years (1993 and '94) as Puckett's teammate. Winfield finally completed his tour of Major League cities in 1995 as a part-time player for the AL champion Cleveland Indians.
So how was it he decided to cap it all by going into the Hall with a Padres cap?
"I'm going in with the team that brought me to the big leagues," reasoned Winfield. "They drafted me, they never put me in the minor leagues, they believed in me. I appreciated those things."
Then there is Mazeroski, the brilliant second baseman who played his entire career for the Pittsburgh Pirates and struck the epic homer that beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.
Three memorable careers are all about to come down to one unforgettable day.
"It's going to be the highlight of our professional career," Winfield said. "It's a wonderful thing going into the Hall of Fame."
So wonderful that there's no way to be fully prepared for it.
Ian Browne is a regional writer for MLB.com based in New York.