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There are some fine players who aren't enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame; but really, how important is Cooperstown?

Another Cooperstown

About 100 kids clawed a chain-link fence, fingers curled around the wire. Some pulled themselves higher for a better view as their black sneakers dangled off the ground. The fence encased a concrete runway that sloped into the belly of the stadium. Some of the baseball players from the home team walked up this incline toward their cars after the game.

The local, big-city boys knew the ropes. He didn't. This was his first Major League Baseball game and he decided there was no chance a small-town kid from Minnesota's Red River Valley could wrangle an autograph in that crowd.

He was Cuban: dabbed with dark ink, something the boy didn't see in his small Midwestern town.

It was cold for June in Minnesota and it had rained earlier. The wind whistled from a gray sky past concrete and steel that hadn't seen the sun for days. But the home team had won -- and he had a free bat in his hands.

Baseball's biggest promotion at the height of the Vietnam era was Bat Day, when teams handed out real wood bats to youngsters as they entered the stadium with their parents. Most kids would use the shiny ash with the deep-grained yellow barrel the minute they hit the front yard.

He was unsure what he'd do with that 30-inch Hillerich & Bradsby Louisville Slugger.

Dad snapped a couple of photos with the Kodak -- black and white film -- of him swinging the bat in front of the stadium, and then as he walked with his family to the Pontiac he glanced up and saw the big man walking, walking in the parking lot where the largest mall in America now stands.

The man wore a sport coat, light blue knit golf shirt and black slacks, and he was Cuban: dabbed with dark ink, something the boy didn't see in his small Midwestern town. This was a big-league baseball player walking alone to his car; unheard of outside any ballpark today.

The kid told his parents this was the reigning American League Rookie of the Year, reigning league batting champion, and maybe on his way to another batting title.

Fountain pen autograph

"Ask him for his autograph," his father said.

Wow. He could. He felt a little timid, but he knew it was a rare bolt of luck. So he carried the ash toward the man.

He made sure not to hit the ball near the end of the barrel where the autograph stained the wood.

"Will you sign my bat?"

The man's smile revealed a gold tooth in front and a few English words escaped his mouth. He seemed to suggest his pen might not be the best tool for the job, but the boy was too excited to understand. The man signed his name. In blue ink. With a fountain pen. The Cuban was a nice man.

The bat was never used. The boy showed it to his friends, and once he threw a baseball into the air and hit the ball just to christen the bat, but he made sure not to hit the ball near the end of the barrel where the autograph stained the wood.

That bat leaned against the bedroom wall in his parents' home until college days came. It seemed the bat belonged to his childhood, so it stayed in his bedroom. After college he took the bat with him to lean uncovered in corners where years of daylight faded the ink. He thought autographs were silly, but sometimes he wanted to make that signature readable again.

Eventually, he became a journalist, which provided entrée to the former batting champion's world. Time had turned the Rookie of the Year into a coach and sometimes the journalist found himself with the Cuban, leaning against a batting cage before a game. But he wasn't about to haul a bat through the press box to the field and have the former batting champion sign it.

The years slipped by. Journalism and Minnesota were left behind.

One winter he returned to the city where they tore down that cold clot of a ballpark to build a mall. The newspaper reported the player who signed that bat 30 years ago would appear at an off-season baseball event.

They signed autographs for money now, but at least this was for charity, so he took the bat and drove to the appearance. After an hour's wait in a line thick with electric kids, he gave the Cuban the bat.

"Will you sign right under the spot here, where you signed my bat in '65?"

The strong, long, slender fingers cradled the bat, and the ex-ballplayer verified where the man wanted it signed. Then he scripted his name. Very deliberately, and added, #6. The Cuban was still a nice man.

The bat went into a clear plastic case. No more leaning in a corner unprotected.

Too good for the Hall?

The car skimmed through melting snow as he drove away, and he wondered if he should add more names to the wood. There would be other players at the public appearance tomorrow, men who were more famous than the Cuban. Should he return the next day for the autograph of the Hall of Famer? The future Hall of Famer?

The thoughts swirled him home, where he removed the bat from its case, stood in the middle of the living room and took a few swings. He held the barrel before his eyes and looked at the signature.

He didn't believe Cooperstown validated a player's career or christened him a hero.

If the Cuban had been born just a few years later he would have played when sophisticated surgery replaced a complete knee filet and the accompanying insult. Maybe that would have bought the Cuban more time. Before thumb surgery, shoulder surgery and seven -- seven -- knee surgeries, the Cuban was a gazelle in right field, a baseball player who could hit and run and field and throw.

He was a bad-ball hitter, and some seemed to think it was just raw talent, not knowledge, that allowed him to hit so well. Perhaps they thought that because he was born in another land.

Didn't baseball just come naturally to kids on "the island?"

In reality, in any language, the Cuban was a thinking man in the batter's box, maybe one of the 10 best curveball hitters to wear a big-league uniform.

The Cuban wasn't in the Hall of Fame, and he didn't stay healthy long enough that anyone could irrefutably argue his case. Healthy, the Cuban was a better all-around player than many in the Hall of Fame, probably the best all-around player in the history of his team, but that is not a point when it comes to the Hall of Fame.

You put up numbers for Cooperstown.

But the man with the bat didn't believe Cooperstown validated a player's career or christened him a hero.

As a boy he accepted that all members of the Hall of Fame were great men and great baseball players and they all deserved to be there, but when he grew up he learned some were enshrined because they played long and well, or maybe because they owned a baseball club. But some had lived questionably. Others just knew how to play the politics of induction. Cooperstown was not a flawless shrine.

At the ballpark, at funerals, at celebrations, the man encountered the Cuban, who was always natural and polite, just a regular person. It must have been painful to live and play ball during a time when politics kept him from his parents, brothers and sisters back home, but the Cuban endured.

The man thought: Maybe the Hall of Fame isn't good enough for a great ballplayer who thrilled thousands with his stylish play, who smiled and signed an autograph for some kid in a parking lot.

What was a Hall of Famer? He didn't know -- maybe even care -- why adulterers, drunks, liars and bigots are immortalized in Cooperstown. But he knew the Cuban deserved an honor, a small monument to a decent man who baseball played well.

He swung the bat a couple more times, then put it back into the clear plastic cylinder. There would be no more signatures on this bat. Men in Cooperstown don't share a plaque with anyone. He leaned the bat against a wall where the sun would not fade it.

He was uncertain what a Hall of Famer should be, but he knew the Cuban was quite enough.

Essays index

"You could throw Tony (Oliva) ninety-nine fastballs and then bring in one change-up and he’d lose it."

- Harmon Killebrew, inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984.

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